With a little bend, a melody goes from Jewish to Arab to Christian. The grief that we are living in the world today has already happened for centuries, but somehow harmony was possible between these civilizations.” So says Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov in the liner notes of his 2005 song cycle, Ayre.
How fortunate for Golijov that his muse in exploring that potential harmony was soprano Dawn Upshaw. Her voice has bent with ease from the Metropolitan Opera, where her career began in 1984, to recordings of Rodgers and Hart to new operas like The Great Gatsby. How fortunate for Seattle that Upshaw sings Ayre at Benaroya Hall this month. She will be surrounded by the Seattle Symphony and the Orquesta Los Pelegrinos, whose instruments include everything from the Andean guitar called a ronroco to a laptop computer.
Last fall, Upshaw received a MacArthur “genius” grant for her direct involvement in the development of contemporary music. Ayre (“air” or “melody” in medieval Spanish) is exactly the kind of music that won her that honor. Golijov’s composition blasts genres by joining Arabic, Sardinian, Argentinean, Hebrew, Christian, and Sephardic Jewish melodies into a kaleidoscope of grief, love, anger, and hope. It alternately—sometimes simultaneously—feels rapturous and upsetting, foreign and familiar.
Golijov has written several pieces for Upshaw; she recorded his debut opera, Ainadamar, which won a 2006 Grammy. But Ayre puts her in completely different territory. “I believe Osvaldo once said that his goal in writing it was to create a forest for me to walk in,” Upshaw says. “It feels much more than a forest to me—more like a journey through different lands, different emotions, different longings, different prayers. It’s as though, as I move from song to song, a transformation occurs.”
Listening to Upshaw perform the piece is akin to watching Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice; it’s hard to believe one person can immerse herself in so many vocal effects. The singer delves into every shade and color of her voice—here soothing, there guttural, now howling like an ancient messenger across an arid land. For each type of song, Upshaw sought out dialect coaches; Golijov gave her recordings that evoked each particular style of singing. “But, ultimately, both he and I were looking toward something that wouldn’t be copying or mimicking someone else,” Upshaw explains. “I can’t change who I am, or where I’ve come from, so my goal was always to find something honest and truthful—to find a way to walk this new road, enter these new rooms, share these moments through my own real and new experience of them.”
Ayre hasn’t been Upshaw’s only recent challenge: In August of 2006, she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, for which she has successfully completed treatment. “In many ways it has been a blessing,” she reflects. “It has taught me much about life, about myself, about those who love me and those whom I love. And I’m sure it will continue to do so for a long time.”
Her continuing collaboration with Golijov—he’s arranging some Schubert songs for her and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra this spring—provides a major source of contentment. “I can’t think of happier times on a stage than the times I’ve sung Ayre,” she says. “It’s an exhilarating experience.