Have you ever wondered what it's like — really like — to be an opera singer? The foot lights, the curtain calls, getting paid to sing and act. It seems like a dream job — but is it?
We asked Tracy Dahl, Canada's pre-eminent coloratura soprano, to break it down for us. She has sung the major roles of the coloratura/soubrette repertoire at some of the world's great opera houses: the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, the Canadian Opera Company, Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera, to name a few.
Dahl took time from her busy schedule to answer our questions about this mysterious but rewarding profession.
When did you first have an idea that you might make singing your career?
I think it was actually a bit of a surprise. No one in my family had been a professional musician. I think it would have been my first summer at the Banff School of Fine Arts. I was there in musical theatre. My parents knew I loved to perform and sing so suggested I audition for Banff. I left that summer very bitten by performing but was bound for Broadway not Lincoln Centre!
Describe the training you had to do before you were ready to enter the profession.
I had very little of what one might expect, but so much more of what many now don't have! Let me explain: I didn't go to university to become an opera singer. I had no language training, theory, history or [experience working on] opera scenes common with a university-trained singer. What I had was three years of performing in theatre. I had begun a career at home in Manitoba in musical theatre, which bridged into straight dramatic productions as well.
During this time, Manitoba Opera was doing a school tour of Hansel and Gretel and needed singers. I auditioned and was chosen as one of the two singers to sing Gretel. I was hooked! I loved opera and didn't know if I had what it took but decided to go back to Banff and study opera. I had a lot to learn and wonderful guidance from coaches and teachers there; many have become lifelong friends and mentors, like my voice teacher Mary Morrison.
Is there an opera equivalent of internship programs, to get your foot in the door?
There are many. I teach for one of them at Calgary Opera. Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal all have programs for young artists but getting in is a challenge. There are so many more young people pursuing their dreams now. We have a wealthy history of fine Canadian singers and trust me, there are many more fine young singers on the rise.
What are some obstacles that opera singers must overcome to succeed?
Nerves! Or maybe a more positive way to phrase it: confidence. The art of finding a balance of technical expertise that allows you to trust what your voice can do for you, so that you are open to the dramatic challenges that the physical and emotional sides of music require.
Then there are the lifestyle concerns. Living out of a suitcase is not for everyone. Travelling to and performing in countries where you don't speak the language. Balancing a personal life or a family life is definitely a challenge. There are some fine singers out there whom very few have ever heard because, in the end, they didn't like the lifestyle or couldn't handle the stress.
Tell me about your first opera job and what it meant to you.
My first opera job was singing Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro for Manitoba Opera. I had no clue what was expected, having come from the theatre side of performing. It was life-changing for me. That first time singing with an orchestra was definitely one I will always remember. I sometimes wonder if that's what it feels like the first time a hockey player scores a goal.
I also remember conductor Andrew Meltzer coming and speaking to me before my performance at intermission. I was out in the hall with the chorus and other members of the cast and he told me to find a quiet place and focus on the upcoming scene. To this day I am thankful he told me that.
How does one get hired for new jobs?
I think getting the first job is the challenge. Once you have had that chance to prove yourself, more work will come by word of mouth. I once heard this about getting hired (I will use my name for this example):
Step one: Have you heard about this singer, Tracy Dahl?
Step two: Get me Tracy Dahl!
Step three: Get me someone like Tracy Dahl.
Networking is no doubt the more contemporary word for what managers do. But remember, I went to training programs in Banff and San Francisco. By the time I wanted to find a manager they already knew who I was and wanted me to sign. One's work is the best testament to future opportunities.
Learning a new role — especially a lead role — must be a tremendous undertaking. Where do you start?
Make sure it is a good role for your voice. Get the score [laughs]. The work that must be done first is translating and doing the IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet. Often, I speak the text in rhythm before singing it, when it is difficult.
I learned the last act of Der Rosenkavalier like it was a play. I didn't sing it for a long time. It was so wordy that adding notes was too much at the beginning of the learning.
I will also listen to as many different recordings as I can to hear the extremes in tempos, variety of dramatic interpretations or ornamentations. Then, put the recordings away, and make it your own.
Below: Dahl sings the mad scene from Act 3 of Lucia di Lammermoor, recorded at Arizona Opera.
Every job has its downside. What’s the downside of being an opera singer?
If you are sick and cannot sing, you do not get paid. We typically do not get paid until the first performance and at intermission on the night of each subsequent performance. Staying healthy is so important and worrying about it is a drag!
Leaving home and family regularly [is also difficult].
What’s the typical rehearsal schedule for an opera production?
No more than six hours in a day. It is usually divided into 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 5 p.m., or 2 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. The Metropolitan Opera dress rehearsals are in the morning, so you can't say I don't sing before noon! Performances are normally of course at night.
It's performance day. When do you get up?
It depends where I am and whether I have shifted entirely to night hours. If the room can be dark I will sleep in as long as I can. It is hard to quiet down after a performance. I am often up until 2 a.m. or later after a performance.
Do you have to be careful about what you eat and drink?
I am careful about what I eat as I have food intolerances. I don't consume milk or wheat products. I don't have a meal routine that must be; that breeds a dependancy that is more likely to cause more harm than good. I don't drink much alcohol as a rule when I am in performance mode.
Can you talk much on performance days, or do you need to preserve your voice?
I am quiet on a show day. But a normal amount of talking is good; it wakes your voice up. I like to know earlier rather than later if the voice is in good form.
Are you looking forward to the performance, or are you kind of dreading it?
I am always looking forward to getting on the stage. This is not a career that one would stay in long if you dreaded going to work. For me it is a blessing, another day I get to share God's gift to me with others and explore music and theatre married in the most amazing form, opera.
When do you arrive at the theatre, and what has to happen before you’re ready to go onstage?
I am usually at the theatre an hour and a half before the performance. There is makeup, hair, stage-fight rehearsals, vocal warm-up and time to immerse my head into the person I am about to portray. I will usually check any props I have, walk the set before they open the house. I try to see everyone I will meet onstage and our maestro of course and say hello, the usual opera backstage good wishes for the performance. Personally I take time to pray before every performance.
When you are onstage does your mind ever wander?
I would be lying if I said no but wander to a grocery list, say? No. More about the things that are happening in the moment. Sometimes trying to troubleshoot for a missing prop — letters are the most common thing to go astray. If someone including myself is having an off night, my more analytical self will take over and start directing my energy to conserve or to think of ways I can help. There is no "flight" once you are out there, only "fight," so you have to figure it out. My mind will wander more easily in rehearsals.
How aware are you of the audience?
Not very much in a serious opera but very much so in a comedy because timing is so important.
Is the curtain call experience as amazing as it seems?
Yes, it can be absolutely overwhelming and very emotional!