Questions for Tracy Dahl

In the recent Canadian Opera Company Cosi fan tutte from just over 4 years ago, Tracy Dahl’s sparkling portrayal of Despina was the breath of fresh air that we desperately needed in Atom Egoyan’s dark intense interpretation.

Here’s what I wrote in my review:

I hadn’t laughed once before Tracy Dahl arrived as Despina, but whenever she appeared, the mood lightened.  Not only did she manage the usual comic bits, but she brought extra, especially in her scenes with the two young women.  (full review)

Every time she came on stage she made us smile.   I expect she’ll have the same impact when she returns for the COC revival of the production next season.

And so it was as Zerbinetta in Lotfi Mansouri’s 1988 COC production of Ariadne auf Naxos alongside Judith Forst as the Composer.


Left to right: Guillermo Silva-Marin, Theodore Baerg, Tracy Dahl, Christopher Cameron & Dennis Giesbrecht in the Canadian Opera Company’s 1988 Ariadne auf Naxos (photo: Robert C Ragsdale, FRPS)

Next week Forst and Dahl reunite for Bernstein’s Candide with the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall.  But I’m remembering Dahl in 1988.  Here’s what George Heymont wrote.

The major hit of the evening was soprano Tracy Dahl’s first Zerbinetta — a phenomenal artistic triumph for this tiny young singer who, last season, stole the San Francisco Opera’s production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann right out from under Placido Domingo’s feet. Dahl’s Zerbinetta was a naughty baby doll whose spicy cascades of coloratura never got in the way of a brilliant theatrical characterization; one of those landmark performances that will not only be treasured for years to come but could easily make a major talent like Kathleen Battle look like a tired old has-been.
(full post here)

I can direct you to a biography either for Tracy Dahl the singer (with Dispeker Artists) or the teacher (at the Desautels Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba), but neither captures the magic that you encounter in person.  I am not going to lie to you. Our interview is no substitute for the live experience of Tracy Dahl.  I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing her next week with the TSO, and next season with the COC.

In the meantime I had the privilege to ask her some questions.

Are you more like your father or your mother?

That is probably a question for my siblings to answer for me.  My sister Jane is definitely like my father.  I cannot boast as many likenesses as she can.  My husband says I remind him of my father. My father and mother were both amazing human beings and to be like either of them would be, to say the very least, an honour.  My father wanted to be very fair. He gave money to each political party so everyone would have an opportunity equally to let us know what they could do for the community. He always wanted to give to each child “equally” and if ever there was an imbalance he would try and explain why. He was a peace-maker.  I wish I had more of that quality.  He was an excellent listener and I think I can do that well when I am one on one.  My father loved a good joke: Ice cubes down the back, hiding desserts when you stepped away from the dinner table — so much of it revolved around the dining room table.  And of course who made that possible, but my mom.  She would be the last one at the table and often so am I at our house.  I taught our budgie how to talk while I sat and waiting for our youngest to finish his meal. My father was a good conversationalist and enjoyed being with people and I am a people person, too.  If I am tired often I seek a good conversation with someone to get re-energized, rather than taking a nap.  I guess that’s the extrovert in me.  My father and mother were both very supportive of my singing before it was ever a career choice.  I know they worried a great deal about financial security and stability heading into it all, but they were always there.  My dad would sit down and send me a note after a performance or competition and tell me what he really loved about it.  He was a multi-tasker.  I am definitely that, and probably, like him, get over-stressed about the number of hats I am wearing at any given time. My dad acknowledged how much others did around him, and he valued everyone’s contributions, whether it was at work or church or the curling club.  I think both my Mum and Dad gave me the sense of every person is to be valued.

Tracy Dahl 02 - credit Dispeker Artists

Soprano Tracy Dahl (Dispeker Artists)

What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

The worst thing about my work is leaving my family.  It has never gotten easier.  In fact I think it got harder as our children got older, because although we have so many more ways to connect to one another technologically, it came at an age when my children were beginning to establish their own lives. Depending on where the job is when you are doing opera, it can be a very lonely time. In cities where all the artists are staying in the same place, they often are closer than when we are working in the big opera houses where everyone heads their own way at the end of the day.Trying to remain in good health is another un-fun part of my job.  We all try, but a singer’s job — and pay cheque! — is in jeopardy if they become ill. It can be tiresome trying to avoid getting sick – though worse still is having to cancel an engagement when you are sick.My other professional ‘hat’, teaching voice, is most difficult when the “marriage” of teacher and student doesn’t mesh.  It can happen for many reasons.  I think I feel like I let my student singers down when I can’t help problem-solve, but at the same time I know it is a two-way street and they have to commit as well to the creative process and the work of internalizing their craft.  It is hard work. The student has to do the work.  When they don’t invest in the work it is frustrating. I love the work. I fell in love with the journey — the techniques, the learning — when I began studying with Mary Morrison (a national treasure, and not just by my reckoning!). I love the creative process almost as much as I love being in front of people and performing.

Flipsides;  I have been to some amazing places — in Europe, in Australia, and around this continent—  with my family that I, or they, would never have seen together or maybe even traveled to, had it not been for the chance to perform.I have made friends in this business that I will have for life.  There is a connection in the process of theatre that makes fast friends. We may not see each other often, but I have found that it is like no time has passed when we get together.There isn’t really a flip side to good health – one just needs it.  I have been through a serious health crisis — I am a Stage 3 breast cancer survivor — and know that a cold is just not a big deal, even if it means a missed fee.  It will pass. But I think having cancer and surviving that year was enough to give me some valuable perspective on health.With regard to my teaching career, I would say that I love having to “improvise”. I like looking for new ways to describe a technical journey. I use a lot of metaphors and my students and I often laugh in our lessons – at the metaphor or at ourselves.  When the student is willing to explore their creative ideas, the possibilities are endless.  I love that, every hour, I can learn something new about how to sing or express a phrase, because every hour a new person comes in the door. The art of music brings to mind a line in Richard Strauss’ opera Ariadne that I love: “eine Heilige Kunst” — the ‘holy art’.  It is uplifting.  This came to mind last month, when I was on the stage in the middle of a symphony orchestra playing Mahler …can it get any more transformative?  I am very blessed to do what I do.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?  

I listen to folk music.  My chosen go-to discs often have a Celtic feel to them.  I love acoustic guitar.  My son Jaden has learned this year to play guitar and it is so relaxing.  If I am not listening to our shared ITunes account, which has mostly my teenage children’s music on it – then I might have on violin music.  I leave the radio on one of the two classical stations we have in Winnipeg, and I have recently taken to listening to good talk radio (long live the CBC!) or podcasts (This American Life, Because News)  that are recommended to me.  As for TV, our family watches a lot of comedy at our home on Netflix. I don’t watch network TV often, except when I am on the road and I have too much time on my hands.  I think people would be surprised to know I watch curling and figure skating whenever it is on. I have always loved figure skating.  The best figure skaters – Kurt Browning is the best, in my opinion! – move on ice the way I envision my sound would be, if it were movement.  With figure skating, I can see what my sound feels like.  And an opera singer who loves curling? Don’t ask!  Maybe it has to be because I am like my father!  I like the thoughtfulness and strategy of the game.  I can’t really explain it, but I know it was a comfort to me during my chemotherapy. I was always at my worst after treatments on the weekend – it was during the winter — so there was lots of curling to be seen during that time, and now I am hooked.

What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I wish I could ice-skate.  I was once in a production of The Tales of Hoffmann where I had to perform my aria as Olympia on roller-skates!  But I have had two nasty falls on ice-skates in recent years that have got me spooked, even though I adore the beauty of figure skating, and would love to be able to do a spread eagle. It is such an open and generous action. It looks like it opens the soul.

When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?

I love walking our dog; I don’t consider that work.  I enjoy working in our yard — also not work.  I don’t feel the same way about cleaning the house — that is still work!  BUT I love decorating the house for Valentine’s Day and Easter and, obviously for Christmas.I love being outside with my family, cycling, hiking, swimming or canoeing.I love being in the car with my family on a road trip.  We get some really good talks in the car.  I hear their music and listen to them sing.  It’s great.


More questions about Candide and Despina in Cosi fan tutte

Please talk about Cunegonde, your role in Candide 

Cunegonde is a role I have sung since I began my career.  Now to be truthful I wasn’t in a staged version of it until, well, recently – avoiding putting an age to it 🙂
It is often done as a semi-staged concert since the sets and costumes for such a crazy opera are hugely expensive.  I have done concert versions all over the world and Cunegonde’s big aria (“Glitter and be Gay”) is almost a party piece.  In fact it was an unexpected ‘command performance’ at my 50th birthday party where without any prep at all I had to sight-read new lyrics and sing the aria in front of our family and friends — the opening line re-written to say “FIFTY is okay… so my sisters say …” , etc.  There were some classic lines in that version, thanks to my nephew Graham and his clever lyrics. In fact it is the best I probably ever sang the aria, as it was so spontaneous.

When I learned the aria in Banff in the Musical Theatre Program, I had just discovered from voice instructor Dodi Protero that I had those notes above the staff.  I learned it singing with her.  She sang all of it with me. All I had to do was listen and follow her and because both our voices were meant to do that coloratura, it seemed easy. I think that was a real blessing. I didn’t have to imagine what it ought to sound like or listen to 20 Youtube videos – the sound was present and in front of me.  I just had to feel the sound she was making and “imitate it”.   I have since learned that Cunegonde’s role is difficult. I didn’t learn it the way I would necessarily teach it. BUT I practise it now the way I teach it; in slower sections of detail work in arpeggios and scales, legato and staccato.  Honestly it was such a good thing that I didn’t understand how hard it was when I learned it!

If your voice is meant to sing it, then there are parts that are a breeze but I will say the first time I sang the famous syncopated section with an orchestra I had no clue where I was.  I don’t know that there is any way to prepare for that moment when you move from piano to orchestra except to give you a heads up – it is a different ball game with the orchestra a beat ahead of your part. If anyone wonders why women who sing Cunegonde dance a bit during that aria – that may be the reason; dancing to the beat of our own drum. In some ways, because I sang it in my early musical theatre days, it was never associated with operatic aspirations.  It was fun.  It is fun. Well, it ought to be fun! The extreme highs and lows of the piece are meant to be melodramatic. She is a character of extremes.  In her first duet with Candide, we learn how she aspires to an entirely different world than the one of Candide’s dreams. So the piece is really about living her dream … only as all the characters find out, the dreams come at a cost. The version we are doing in TO is all the more challenging, because it really includes all the musical theatre elements that are required of Cunegonde, as well. You can’t sing the role like Lucia di Lammermoor –  it wouldn’t sound right. So, not unlike Despina, in Cosi fan tutte, you look for other colours or, when in musical theatre, do like the musical theatre singers do, and put character in your voice.

As I have aged with the piece I have learned more about how to sing it, pace it and play with it. One needs to be in fine health to sing it and have all your tools at your command – and always be mindful of what you are doing to keep it lined up.I hope people will find it funny.  It is pretty hard not to tap your toe once the coloratura section starts and that toe-tapping temptation includes me and the orchestra! They get two goes at it, since it is in the overture as well.

Bernstein is a curious composer, who wrote classical music and musicals and jazzy pieces.  Please reflect for a moment on the challenges a singer faces reconciling those aspects in Candide, a piece that sits right on the boundary.    

He is an American composer.  He wants everything from us as performers.  I think he respected the classical traditions.  I think we should sing it with the same respect and accuracy that we do in classical music and in the intricacies of 21st century music for rhythm and pitch.  I feel the same way about Sondheim.  Yes, he bridges the world of musical theatre and classical, but it seems clear to me in this piece where the line is drawn and most of it needs to be classically delivered.  It is fun to throw in a line or two of character-voice and to sing it back in my old musical theatre version of me.  It needs it.  It can’t be sung as Lucia – it is Cunegonde.  If you get a chance watch the video of him working on the recording of West Side story – he wanted it as he wrote it.  One should not try to be more clever and  more of a genius than Bernstein; simply respect him and the libretto, and it will be clear.

Fortunately, because I began in musical theatre and my voice is not a full lyric soprano, I can still pull off the crossover parts of this work.  The parts of the role that demand bel canto singing are never abandoned.  Singing in one’s own language changes things somewhat, but my aim is still to communicate and that is the same whether it is Strauss or Bernstein.

You sang Despina in Atom Egoyan’s Cosi fan tutte when the COC last presented it, and will be one of the anchors in its revival next season.  The opera is sub-titled “The school for lovers”, an aspect Egoyan exploits in his concept.  If it were “The school for singers” you might be the principal, and so I wonder: what lessons would you teach us?

Funny question!  I think I would rather not be the principal. 🙂  I would like to be with the teachers in the rooms doing the creative work, not the discipline, paper trails or policy work.  That being said, I think I get your question.  I don’t know that I can answer that in a complete way because there would always be a subsequent question or explanation wanted.   Here is some of the advice I have given over the years: When you do an audition or a recital set out a list of goals (none of which can be memory with text or pitches) that you will evaluate yourself at the end of the day.  I suggest five goals.  The results of auditions are out of our hands but how we feel at the end of that audition is in our control.  If the only goal is to get the job you will end up disappointed too often.  Take ownership and make your own goals. In my set of five goals I want three I will do and rarely miss – and two that are a challenge to myself to improve in places where I do not always succeed.  We all want to strive for perfection but getting there is an impossible task so don’t ask for a perfect audition.  I will steal something I read on line recently; the job is auditioning.  The perk is the job. Be yourself, not some version of an admired artist or described professional.  Sincerity will win out.

Please, oh please, don’t let the business or school rob you of your love of music.  That being said if you want a career in this profession you will need to love the journey as much as the performing. One spends so much time preparing alone before we ever get to the first rehearsal when we start to collaborate and then again before we finally get to perform in front of an audience. Be prepared. You never know when that opportunity to step up and show what you can do will happen.

Don’t take everything that comes your way – or take a dream role simply because it is offered.  Sometimes the timing is wrong. I have, at times, advised singers to say NO. You will have mentors who can advise you. Trust their knowledge of the business and your instrument to know if it is a good opportunity at the right time or not. If you take on something before you are ready and it goes poorly it will be harder to put it behind you both in your confidence and in the eyes of the professionals who heard it.  Career building is an art form.

I think you have a gift for comedy.  Is all acting & theatre the same regardless of genre, or is there something you do differently in comedy? 

Thank you for that compliment.  It is very hard to address our strengths as artists but I do trust this element of my performing. All acting needs to be sincere and come from within the story and character, and that includes comedy.  I am not sure how to describe this in a way that will not leave your readers asking more questions.  Comedy is about listening, about beats and about clean ideas.  It usually is crisp in execution.  Watch Carol Burnett if you want to know where I think most of my ideas were formed!  We watched that as a family every week when I was growing up.  I still to this day will say – “Thank you, Carol Burnett!” You need to be willing to take risks in rehearsals to find those moments.  When I was working with Sir Thomas Allen, we had a blast.  It was always consistent and true to the character but there were nuances that would change. Opera can’t be improvisation because there are too many elements that rely on being consistent.  HOWEVER the process of staging is a place to play and that is where the comedian in me gets to explore and improvise.


Tracy Dahl and Sir Thomas Allen in the COC’s Così fan tutte, 2014 (photo: Michael Cooper)

If you could reprise any of your favourite roles, here or anywhere else, what would you sing?

I have been blessed to sing a variety of roles in my life as a performer.  I never tire of singing Adele in Die Fledermaus.  She was the perfect bridge from musical theatre to opera.  She is trying to pass herself off as a lady of society – and in some ways that is how I felt coming into opera.  Truly, she is the best example of your question above and, because there is so much dialogue, often there was room or even need to improvise while troubleshooting props and such.I really loved singing Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but I only sang it once.  The same is true of Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. I would love to sing that again. Baby Doe … I learned and performed in ten days for Calgary stepping in.  I would love to sing that role again. Marie in La Fille du Régiment, is probably the role I feel really let me live out all my strengths as a singer.  It is a very physical role, one of the ones I would often get asked to do a cartwheel in. (Those years of gymnastics were good for something!)  It has dialogue – which I love doing; ties me back to my straight theatre days.  It is comical and heart-breaking. My favourite moment in that opera is saying good-bye to the soldiers and Sulpice at the end of Act 1. I always felt really connected to the male chorus in that opera.I would be happy to sing Lucia (di Lammermoor) or Gilda (in Rigoletto) again … I love to sing. I know it is a blessing to still be singing and being given opportunities to share the gifts God gave me. I have no expectations moving forward, but to be prepared and ready if and when I am asked to step on stage.

Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

There are four teachers I would like to thank.  Marie Enns, my elementary music teacher who saw something special in me and first put me on the stage as “Piggy number 1” in the Three Little Pigs in grade 3, and then on a dinner theatre stage in Winnipeg.  I learned a lot about performing from her and responsibility and being accountable as a performer.  She still is making music in seniors residences and care homes in Winnipeg.  Her love of music has never diminished.

My second vote of thanks: Herbert Belyea and his wife Audrey who were my private music teachers when I started in Winnipeg, voice and piano.  I made some wonderful friends in that home.  I learned in a safe and supportive environment about singing – I still remember the day Mr. Belyea said, “Did you hear that? That was your vibrato”.

Dodi Protero was the first teacher to identify that I was a coloratura soprano and taught me Glitter and Be Gay by singing it with me.  My teachers in Banff were are all special people but Dodi was the one that could look me in the eye – she was also petite – and sang with me.  I don’t think I would have discovered that voice without her.

Mary Morrison

Mary Morrison

The biggest influence in my musical life has been Mary Morrison.  I met her at Banff as well, and it was the beginning, as Bogart said, of a beautiful life-long friendship and mentorship.  I have no stronger musical champion than Mary.  I have learned SO much about singing from Mary.  I was a very natural singer when I met Mary but she very gently began a process of teaching me. I remember going to Mary and asking where my larynx was, because everyone was saying it had to be low.  LOL.  She showed me and told me to forget about it, mine was “just fine”, she said. It was with Mary that I got a thirst for understanding how my voice worked.  I wanted to do scales.  Honestly I think we spent more than half our lessons then just singing exercises. Her passion for a scale and a vowel never tires. All of it is based in wanting to serve the texts and the music of the poet or librettist and composers. I can hear her voice in my head now as I write, laughing at how many different ways I could sing an “Ah” vowel!  I call her often and ask her advice now on singers I am working with and on ways to troubleshoot their issues or simply to bend her ear and have a teacher moment of “Can you believe!”.  Every conversation includes a pep talk encouraging me in my own singing.  She is truly an inspiration.  I am so grateful for the way she somehow made the journey in technique so much fun and so informative. I am grateful to her for her never letting go of the desire for my sound to be better.  I never left discouraged.  I always left wondering how I could make those sounds again, which I could because Mary made that part of the process.  She empowered her students.  Mary always made time for me in her busy schedule. I was a fly-in student – of which she had many.  I didn’t do the university route.  So I was coming in for lessons when I could.  She opened her home to me and to many other singers as they would fly through and run in for the 10,000 mile check-up.


Next season Tracy Dahl reprises her portrayal of Despina in Atom Egoyan’s production of Cosi fan tutte with the Canadian Opera Company. But first there’s her portrayal of Cunegonde in Candide with the Toronto Symphony conducted by Bramwell Tovey, Thursday April 26 and Saturday April 28 at Roy Thomson Hall.

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