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Dawn Upshaw's Master Class Brings Together Vocalists and Composers of New Music

Dominic M. Mercier

Having premiered much new music, soprano Dawn Upshaw held a master class for singers and Opera Philadelphia's composers in residence…together! The better they understand each other, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns, the better listeners will understand them. ? ??

DPS: The now-famous Gorecki Symphony No. 3 for voice and orchestra had been kicking around for years before Upshaw made the million-selling recording of the piece, which was only one instance of her talent for making modern music magnetic. And that's not by suggesting rewrites. ??

Dawn Upshaw: I never assumed that I have a better idea of what someone else wants to say and how they say it. There are a few times when I've asked for a change, but I never heard anything today that, oh, I think I could make better. ??

DPS: Composers Missy Mazzoli and David T. Little have potentially explosive operas in the works that are going to need all the clarity they can get. Mazzoli's Breaking the Waves is based on a film brimming with unsettling sexual psychology; Little's opera is titled JFK because that's who it's about - heard here in a previous workshop by Fort Worth Opera and American Lyric Theatre.????

DPS: So much of what Upshaw did was examine what ideas and emotions might lie half buried in the music, and how performer and composer might work together to get them out in the open. 

??DU: I think communication is one of the most important aspects of the process...and it's important that the communication be healthy. ??

DPS: Early on, Upshaw, now 54, learned that just because her voice was perfectly suited to 19th-century opera buffa, didn't mean that she had to sing it. Now, there's a generation of singers who, like her, specialize in new music, and do so with vocal longevity that puts to rest the old idea that it wrecks voices. ??

DU: I think a lot of old music has wrecked a lot of voices, too, actually. It's not the music's fault....so you learn what your own limitations are. ??The impact of the master class was immediate. At the reception afterwards, Mazzoli was already planning modifications. ?

Missy Mazzoli: Little things, like, this should be a third higher, or this vowel lies in a tricky part of the range. And things like timing. When you're sitting at your computer writing, it's hard to get a sense of how it flows dramatically   ??

DPS: But many composers of the past seem to have done okay without workshops. I once brought this up to a composer who wouldn't be without them, Stephen Sondheim. And he said, maybe that's why so many operas are only half good.