Dawn-Marie was 3 years old, living in Kingston, and she didn't know that "batty" means "bottom." "My behind got a little toasting for that," she says, and then laughs with easy delight. Her laughter comes often, and is at once refined and free.
Several years later, Dawn-Marie sang Mozart's "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto," from Don Giovanni, for her parents. They thought she was singing naughty words again. (Actually, she was, though this "batti" wasn't "bottom," but rather "Beat me, beat me, oh beautiful Masetto" -- as sung by Zerlina to her husband as she denies his suspicions of infidelity.) But this time Dawn-Marie had an excuse: She had started her formal training in classical singing. If it was opera, she could get away with singing naughty words.
An Atlanta resident since 1985, Dawn-Marie is now a much-admired soprano on the international circuit and one of the best-known classical performers in Jamaica. She sings an eclectic repertoire including opera, spirituals, art songs and classical arrangements of Jamaican folk songs. (She performs a concert of Christmas songs from around the world this Sunday.) Her new CD, Simply ... Dawn-Marie, includes all these forms (save the holiday fare) and a suite of nursery rhymes, all with simple piano accompaniment. It is -- no way around it -- an unusual mix.
She floats through Claude Debussy's angel-harp delicacies on the track "Nuit d'Etoiles." She bounces down a jaunty arrangement of "Sing a Song of Six Pence." If there's any sense to be made of the collection, it's found not in the music but in not-so-simple Dawn-Marie. Music took her away from Jamaica -- to Windsor, Ontario, Canada for music school, to Atlanta and the world for her career -- and music keeps bringing her back.
In Atlanta, Dawn-Marie is best known as a frequent performer with the Atlanta Opera, where she debuted in 1989 as Annina in La traviata. She has since been entrusted with a long line of second-female roles -- wives, mothers, best friends and maids-in-waiting -- usually with at least one demanding aria to perform. Simply includes the adolescent allegro "Non su piu" from Le nozze di Figaro and the first-feigned-then-felt romance of "La Canzone di Doretta" from La Rondine.
Dawn-Marie has also performed solo engagements for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Atlanta Chamber Orchestra, the Atlanta Bach Choir and other classical groups around Atlanta. Her art songs on Simply are the most impressive (and also the most numerous). Her quietly contained performance of Manuel de Falla's haunting lullaby, "Nana," is particularly masterful.
Such songs have taken her around the world, but each summer she returns to Jamaica to teach and occasionally perform. There, she remembers the folk songs of her childhood and works to keep them alive.
"Our folk music is not written down, and they're not doing it anymore," she says. "I want the world to know our folk music and how beautiful it can be."
Not all the songs from the Jamaican suite on Simply take well to their arrangements -- the same is true of some of the nursery rhymes. "Me Alone," in particular, emerges with too much ornamentation. But the arrangements by Peter Ashbourne on "Liza," Olive Lewin on "Sunday Day Clothes," and Barry Davies on "Evening Time" are interesting and lively.
Somehow, embodied in Dawn-Marie, this crazy collection of music makes some smiling kind of sense -- laughing and lyrical, technically adept and playful. She sings of quiet domestic moments and simple island pleasures, but also the enlarged tragedies and romances of the stage. Jamaica and Atlanta, Windsor and the world -- it's all in there: the diary of a laughing soprano who sings her life complete.