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The Existential Housewife

November 27, 2008

I saw Dawn Upshaw perform on stage a few nights ago in Berkeley. Now household chores will never be the same again. The mezzo-soprano performed Gyorgy Kurtag's Kafka Fragments at Zellerbach Hall under the auspices of Cal Performances, a series of 40 short, atonal vignettes for solo voice and violin based on snippets from Franz Kafka's diaries. As Upshaw sang against a back drop of moody, black and white video projections, she washed dishes, scrubbed the floor and did the ironing among other thing. I don't think I have ever seen such intensity radiating from a singer.

The power of the performance partly stems from the contrast between Kurtag's austere yet gut-wrenching musical settings and the slack-jawed everyday-ness of director Peter Sellars' mise en scene. Upshaw and violinist Geoff Nuttall appear on stage dressed in drab, homely clothes -- the extra-large plaid shirts and baggy jogging bottoms that most people wouldn't be caught dead in outside of their own homes. They move their own props around -- in this case, an assortment of plastic buckets, sponges, mops and other cheap household cleaning equipment. They move with a mixture of unselfconscious ease, as getting on with their own stuff at home, unobserved. The effect of this makes us feel rather like voyeurs, peering in on someone's most private moments.

But the music operates in another realm entirely. Kurtag demands a great deal from his performers. They use the extremities of their ranges. They jump all over the place and make their instruments purr, shriek, coax and moan. They engage in lyrical duets only to remove themselves entirely from each other and suddenly appear bitter and lonely. Upshaw infuses every single note with emotion. By the end of the Fragments, she looks completely depleted -- fragmented, even. And we feel the same way.

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