In my last post, I wrote of the strange set of circumstances that led me to my seat in the Ailey Citigroup Theater on the night of October 4th.Now I can write about the event itself.The last time I saw Dawn Upshaw was in L’amour de loin at Santa Fe Opera. At the time, I thought the libretto was magnificent, the music was less than beguiling, and her performance was an extraordinary demonstration of commitment and finesse.

In Saturday night’s interview, her special gifts were quickly apparent. Most opera singers I’ve known are larger than life – they are onstage, performing, 24/7. In contrast, Dawn Upshaw is always exactly the same size as life itself, onstage and off. No hyperbole, no playing to the audience – just being real in the moment.

Perhaps more importantly, she has a great actor’s knack for imagining all the elements of a moment in precise detail. After we watched a video of her angel aria from Saint-François d’Assise, she commented on the sensation of the plywood she was resting her hands on in the beginning of that scene, and how the memory of that physical connection brought her back to all the feelings she’d had about the scene: her fear of failure, concern that the aria wasn’t quite right for her voice, etc.

That same connection of sensation to emotion is what makes her performances special. She experiences the present in a very powerful and genuine way, and translates her experience into visceral communication.

Unlike many singers of her stature, Dawn has made a special commitment to contemporary music. She spoke of a fantasy she has of being a singer-songwriter, in the folk music sense of the term, which may go a long way toward explaining her relationship with the composers of her time.

Ross’s interview style is as relaxed and unrehearsed as his writing is precise and profound. He kept things moving through an evening of reminiscences and sound bytes, including excerpts from Golijov’s Ayre, Saariaho’s L’amour de loin and Debussy’s Mandoline. There was also a tender (and sometimes painfully revealing), behind-the-scenes video of Upshaw’s working relationship with Peter Sellars.

(By the way, it’s not often that you get to hear a soprano repeatedly fumble every attempt to hand her an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Alex tried, but Dawn was not rising to the challenge.)

It’s always curious to compare the expectations set by different locations. If this same event had taken place here in Winston-Salem, there would have been twice as many people in the audience, sitting on the edges of their seats, with enthusiastic ovations at the conclusion. Not the case in the Ailey Theater. The small auditorium was half-full, the audience politely appreciative.

I introduced myself to Alex afterwards. He was cordial. Then I think he said, “I’ll be right back — my parents are on the elevator.” But I’m not sure — he may have said, “My pants are on the elevator.”

And then he was off with a smile and a wave.

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