When she sings Mussorgsky's "The Nursery" this Saturday in the Shriver Hall Concert Series, Dawn Upshaw says she'll "be taking it to the limit.
"I'll be trying to create as much as possible the voice of a child -- the whining, the crying, the mischief-making," the 31-year-old soprano says. Indeed, she is the kind of singer who is imaginative and courageous enough to take such chances.
"In a recitals, anyway," Upshaw says. "When you're singing opera you have to be much more concerned about your other singing colleagues and the conductor."
The young lyric soprano is in the unique position of being equally celebrated both as a chamber music singer or recitalist and as an opera singer. In the astonishingly short period of seven years since her New York debut, she has become a big star on the verge of genuine super stardom. She appeals to the intellectual audiences once captivated by her former teacher and mentor, Jan Degaetani, and to the diva-watchers who helped make Kathy Battle a household name about 10 years ago. When Upshaw won a Grammy as best classical vocalist two years ago, she beat out such singers as Luciano Pavarotti and Jessye Norman.
"I was lucky in that I was helped as a recitalist by winning the Young Concert Artists Auditons and as an opera singer by winning [a place in] the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artist program, all in the same year ," the singer says. "That's what has pushed me along a little faster than some of my colleagues."
The modesty is sincere, but Upshaw's singing is also very special. The voice is a radiant lyric soprano that makes her sound as beautiful as the young Battle in roles such as Mozart's Zerlina or Susanna. Then there is Upshaw's naturalness and dramatic veracity -- she does not so much sing a role or a song as she inhabits it.
Finally, there is her extraordinary intelligence. When she decided to program settings of Goethe by various composers last season, she prepared for it with a months-long study of Goethe's poetry. She sings with the kind of informed intelligence that brings to mind the remark Toscanini made after hearing Elizabeth Schwarzkopf for the first time: "I don't believe it -- a soprano with brains!"
"It's often the case that singers are too concerned with sound and that can lead you away from the text," Upshaw says. "But there must always be a way to use the sound to explore the text rather than revel in the sound."
Dawn Upshaw will perform at 8:30 p.m. in Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall. Call 516-7164 for ticket information.