Recently, I’ve been listening a lot to the magnificent soprano voice of of Dawn Upshaw.

Although I live in Italy, opera is one musical genre I usually give a wide berth to but Upshaw is a singer who makes me think I’m missing something.

Actually, she’s not your common or garden opera singer. For one thing she looks more homely than diva-esque. For another, she’s as comfortable performing  popular show tunes  as contemporary classics.

Apparently she didn’t properly encounter classical music until she went to college.  Her parents were active in the civil rights movement and were lovers of folk music so she grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez + Peter,Paul & Mary.  Later she became a fan of Joni Mitchell and musicals.  This background helps explain her openness to all musical styles.

The extraordinary range of Upshaw’s voice can best be heard on  “Ayre”(pronounced I-ree)  a song cycle by the Argentinean-born composer Osvaldo Golijov released in 2005.  Alex Ross, writing in The New Yorker describes this well :  “Dawn Upshaw, the soprano, delivers an electrifying performance in which she assumes a half-dozen vocal guises. Early in the record she makes a hairpin turn from a fragile, softly glowing Sephardic song entitled “Una Madre Comió Asado” to a bloodcurdling Sardinian number entitled “Tancas Serradas a Muru”—I had to double-check the credits to make sure that Upshaw was still the singer. If a modern classical work could ever crack the Top 40, this is it: Golijov has created a new beast, of bastard parentage and glorious plumage.”

Upshaw has since collaborated in the equally mind blowing Golijov opera Ainadama (Fountain of Tears)  about the life and murder of Spanish poet  Federico García Lorca seen from the perspective of  actress Margarita Xirgu (Upshaw’s role).

She has also performed in works by Gerswin and John Adams but it is still her performance on the  1993 recording of Henryk Górecki’s  Symphony No.3 –  Symphony of Sorrowful Songs  (Symfonia pieśni żałosnych) that stands out  – one of the most profoundly moving pieces of music ever recorded.

I first came across this on the soundtrack to Peter Weir’s movie ‘Fearless’.  There it was used in the  scenes of a plane crash. Subsequently it has been used in the funeral scene of  Come Dio Comanda and a death bed scene of HBO drama ‘Wit’ . Wiki tells me that  British industrial  group Test Dept also used it as a backdrop for video collages.

The fact that it is sung in Polish does not diminish its impact.   The first part is based on a 15th century prayer (“My son, my chosen and beloved, share your wounds with your mother”), the second takes its text from a prayer inscribed by an 18 year old woman on the cell of the Gestapo HQ in 1944 (“No mother do not weep, most chaste Queen of Heaven, support me always”) while the final movement uses a Folk song in the dialect of the Opole region – a lament of a mother for her dead son (“Perhaps the poor child lies in a rough ditch and instead he could have been lying in his warm bed”) .

A towering piece of music matched by a magical voice for our times.

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