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The sky's the limit for cancer surviving soprano

Tracy Dahl performs with Pacific Opera Victoria in its production of Lucia di Lammermoor Feb. 12-22
Soprano Tracy Dahl performs with Pacific Opera Victoria Feb. 12-22.

Any performer would be envious of international opera star Tracy Dahl’s resume.

Regarded as a Canadian treasure for bel canto vocal performance, Dahl has performed with the San Francisco Opera, Washington Opera, Los Angeles Music Center Opera, Houston Grand Opera and Metropolitan Opera. Internationally, she has performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, Aix-en-Provence Festival and the Hamburg Opera. She has appeared with the Manitoba Opera, Canadian Opera Company, Banff Centre of Fine Arts, Calgary Opera, Opera Hamilton, Edmonton Opera, Vancouver Opera and Opera Lyra Ottawa.

She appeared alongside opera star Placido Domingo and among her numerous opera awards is a Juno nomination, but at home in Winnipeg, she still makes the beds, does the laundry, and as we chat on the phone, she is making a roast for dinner with her 13- and 16-year-old sons and husband Raymond.

“Please excuse the noise. I’m chopping potatoes,” she says in a light, age-defying voice.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Dahl has been singing all her life. “I was the fourth of four girls and three out of four of us took singing lessons. It was just the thing you did,” she says.

She had “no clue” she would turn to opera and was singing Gilbert and Sullivan as a musical theatre student when the Manitoba Opera opened an opera in the schools program and she applied. “I got the job and I liked it so much I thought I would do that. It was fast and exciting, I really had to work to keep up.”

She studied at the Banff School of Fine Arts and made her operatic debut as Barbarina in Marriage of Figaro, with the Manitoba Opera in 1982.

Her career quickly took flight and she appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1986, made her US opera debut at the San Francisco Opera House with Domingo in 1987 and appeared as Adele in Die Fledermaus in her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1991.

“I was not aiming for the metropolitan, I just ended up there,” says the modest singer. “It was super, duper, duper exciting performing the role. It is just a perfect, perfect, perfect comedy.”

Her Met debut was a surprise to Dahl as she was understudy for the role. “It was unscheduled, they just called and said, ‘we need you to do it tonight.’ It was not like I got to anticipate it or anything.”

Her CBC recording Glitter and Be Gay was nominated for a 1995 Juno award. “Glitter and Be Gay was the first opera aria I learned,” she says as the sound of dishes clatter in the background. “I performed it last year in Calgary. I’m happy to still be able to do what I did when I was 19.”

Dahl knows she’s fortunate just to be alive. In 2010, she was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. “It was a difficult time for me and my friends and family. And then we were told it was as bad as it possibly could be. I had to cancel all my jobs … I had a very good year lined up.” She underwent a double mastectomy followed by chemotherapy. She stopped singing and focused on regaining her health. “And I still tried very much to look after my family. People in our church helped look after the family, brought meals and took great care of me. We were very well supported,” she says.

But the stage continued to call and she was happy when she was able to begin performing again.

“I was 48 when (cancer was diagnosed) and when I turned 50 I was really happy. I know people who are not happy to turn 50 or a couple of years older and I just want to say, ‘you’re alive another year, be happy you’re alive – celebrate your birthday.’”

Many sopranos have left the stage by the time they are in their 50s, says Dahl. But her drive to perform is still strong. “Every time I threaten to (retire) the kids say, ‘don’t do it, not yet,’ they still like the travel, but I’m sure there are a few young sopranos who would like me to shut up - excuse my language.

“I teach in the city, that keeps me in shape. I still think it’s what I do best though, performing. It’s where I feel most at home.”

This month Dahl will grace the stage at the Royal Theatre with Pacific Opera Victoria in its production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Dahl portrays Lucia. “I love that this is the dramatic side of it. For years my career was as the comic relief, that’s the last thing Lucia is – it’s all about the drama. It’s a compelling story, she’s really a tragic person.”

POV’s version of the Italian opera, loosely based upon Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor, is set in the Depression era. “It’s the story of a family facing financial ruin, she’s forced to marry to save the family fortune,” she says.

It’s a role Dahl has taken on before, but, she says, every performance is like the first. “I still get nervous – there’s nothing blasé about it.”