In the intensely competitive world of classical-music performance, a major career usually takes years if not decades to ripen. Yet here’s Dawn Upshaw, barely 30 and already well on her way to the top.

Only ten years ago the lyric soprano was an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington hoping to become a jingle singer or the next Linda Ronstadt. Fortunately, her voice teacher Don Nott (who’s now her father-in-law) steered her toward opera, a genre that had bored her. Though a latecomer, she was a fast learner. At Nott’s suggestion, she headed straight for New York after graduation to study with the renowned vocal coach Ellen Faull at the Manhattan School of Music. In 1984, shortly after winning the Young Concert Artists International auditions, she was accepted into the Metropolitan Opera’s apprenticeship program. “I was very lucky to be on the Met roster,” she says. “It was a turning point for me.” The next year she received the coveted Naumburg vocal award and has been on a roll ever since.

Onstage, Upshaw’s gamine, girl-next-door demeanor and limpid, radiant voice make her a natural for ingenue roles. At the Met and in Europe’s leading houses she’s sung in various Mozart productions as Pamina and Susanna under the direction of Nickolaus Harnoncourt and her mentor James Levine. Though she refuses to be pigeonholed as a specialist in any composer–her repertoire is unusually broad and varied–she does admit to a fondness for Mozart’s heroines and is looking forward to the Met’s celebration of the Mozart bicentennial.

Unlike many young singers, Upshaw devotes as much time to concerts and recitals as to opera. One of her role models she says was Jan DeGaetani, the late American singer who was an ardent champion of contemporary chamber music. “Jan believed that the familiar and the new benefit from each other. So do I. This is very important to me as an artist.” When Nonesuch approached Upshaw about recording Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, “they told me I could choose the other pieces on the record. So I decided to present only music written in English–American works by Menotti, Stravinsky, and John Harbison.” It was an impressive debut album, with Upshaw demonstrating an intellectual and emotional conviction that draws the audience into the music’s lyricism. And to the surprise of no one she was awarded a Grammy last year as the best classical vocal soloist.

Also rare is Upshaw’s passion for the art song. An elevated salon tradition in Europe since the days of Mozart, the song recital is an acquired taste, a marriage between poetry and music too subtle and cultivated for mass appeal. “The all-lieder recital has always been an endangered species,” says Upshaw. “And it is more so today because most audiences prefer big opera stars doing a medley of arias. I refuse to sing arias in concert.” The art song is regarded by connoisseurs as the purest and most intimate form of musical communication. When done to perfection, a song recital can be a deeply and indelibly emotional experience–the singer, accompanied by the piano, artfully and compellingly conveying life’s joys and pains, love’s ecstasies and sorrows.

Some of the most sublime compositions ever written–by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms–have been lieder set to German poems. Upshaw was introduced to the Goethe lieder by pianist Richard Goode, whom she met at a Berg symposium back in ’84 and who’s now her regular accompanist. “Richard gave me a Dover edition of these songs and said we must do them. I looked them over and was extremely touched by their emotional directness.” Texts by Germany’s greatest dramatist were set to music most famously by Schubert, Schumann, and Hugo Wolf. They are considered by many to be the ultimate test of a singer’s art.

When a concert promoter recently suggested that Upshaw and Goode make an American recital tour, they jumped at the chance to present a sampler of these Goethe songs. The Chicago stop will be a homecoming of sorts for Upshaw, a Park Forest native. “The lieder recital is the most eloquent and natural form of communication,” Upshaw says. “I can totally immerse myself in the text and the music. It’s more than just making beautiful sound. They are about wisdom, about coming to terms with oneself.”

The recital begins at 8 PM tonight in Mandel Hall, 57th Street and University Avenue. Also on the program are Schumann’s Arabesque and Brahms’s Four Piano Pieces, op. 119, to be performed by Goode. Tickets are $15, $7 for students. Call 702-8068 for reservation and other info.