Tracy Dahl, amazingly wonderful soprano, performer and teacher speaks out about life on the road, making a home life work while continually energizing her career and apart from music, what makes her heart sing. This interview is crafted from several frank and funny conversations and emails that the wonderful Canadian soprano Tracy Dahl and I had about her life and career. She was kind and generous to share so honestly her journey and I hope that those of you embarking on a career or who are facing similar challenges to the ones Tracy faced can find a common thread to help you find your way more easily. This interview begins a series for The Resonant Life which will feature Canadian artists, in the operatic field principally, speaking about their lives onstage and off. It is my intention that by sharing our journeys, none of us feel that we walk alone.
Tracy Addresses the Big Questions First!
Chocolate-white, milk or dark? Definitely DARK
Sushi yes or no? No
Sports alliances? Football fan (Winnipeg Blue Bombers) and learning about Soccer daily, avid soccer mom.
Surprise Talent: Can whistle with four fingers…very loudly!
No, really, this time we get down to the important stuff.
I asked Tracy to talk about road life. A reality of our work is the commitment to a portion of time away from home and on the road. Like Tracy I have had a changing relationship to the road as I have went on in this career. Knowing the length and breadth of her career I was really curious about what her experience was with this.
Can you say a bit about road life?
I think life on the road has changed significantly since I began. I was less conscious about money in the beginning and very social with the whole cast. I took countless pictures on the road and made copies and sent them to everyone. My dad was always fair with his family, so I took that into work and I would be fair and take pictures of everyone and send them all copies. It was like I was creating a big family album.
I hear you on that one. I think there is a piece here about creating a family when you are away, your “road family”. Apart from the obvious theatre needs to create an energy and a level of comfort for the work to go ahead there is a dynamic I almost always see of people making a cohesive whole out of the splintered parts of singers from all different places. We all need support and community in life. I think it is also really interesting how we take those important ‘values’ we have and live them where ever we are, your dad’s fairness for example. Road life isn’t a different me than home me, so I love that you took that value of fairness and transferred it into how you interacted with a cast, right down to pictures!
What are the pros and cons of road life?
One of the pros — and there are many — of being on the road has been making new friends, being with colleagues, many of whom are now close friends.
But among the cons, it is difficult to keep up those friendships. But somehow, in this odd world in which we operate, we can pick up where we left off. Working with like-minded people can be extremely invigorating or enervating. I love the conversations.
I have had the same experience. When I was young I was crushed the first few shows when I felt I had made this amazing bond with people and we were going to be best friends forever ( and that was the days of snail mail only) And I was so disappointed when I realized that the show was over and they weren’t going to respond. But as you say, when you meet them again in another show, sometimes several years later, you pick up with the same heart you had before.
Warning! Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear!
What do you think it is important for younger singers to know that isn’t in a book?
I tell my students to be careful of the ‘opera romance’; when one is in a production or young artist program one can easily fall in love with their leading man or woman. What starts as respect and awe can easily be turned into passion.
Yes, I’ve seen it happen too. What else?
When I was a young singer I asked the male lead in Norma out to dinner, so I could ask him about the business, and he accepted but suggested “I shouldn’t do that again”. Why? He explained that to some men this invitation could be misinterpreted as personal and not professional interest. I have come to believe that that is because there aren’t a lot of people in the business who are accountable. You have to be careful. It isn’t exactly an amoral zone, but people are just not accountable. Being on the road, singers can find both fame and anonymity. If they are not accountable, be that with their spouse or to God, they can and will take advantage of that airline ticket that, in the end, takes them away.
There is no doubt there are predators for young singers of either sex. Leads in shows have power in the cast and that can be very dangerous and seductive to those in smaller roles or chorus. Sometimes people get taken advantage of, and sometimes they get flattered by the attention and think it will lead to career advancements.
Speaking of not being accountable, what about professional promises that those in power make to singers?
We all know that directors, conductors, intendants imply promises with what they say. Someone is talking and saying “You are brilliant” and “We are going to have you back. Tell us what you would like to sing!” and then they don’t come through. Just as we can be what I call polite-ical (a combination of polite and being politically correct) the management will do the same thing and in the end lead you to believe things will happen. Honestly, being an artist is like being in a mass therapy session. We are exposed. It happens to us all.
So true. It can be a real roller coaster. Especially when someone seems ‘hot’ about your talent and you get swept up in it and start to expect a real pay off, which, as you say, often doesn’t materialize. That is a real learning curve. You have to move the focus inside, so that you invest less in the outer praise. You can end up bitter and disappointed. What sort of expectations have you held about your career?
I expected that I could come to a place in my career and pick and choose what I did. I didn’t expect that a voice type has a limited shelf life. Real or imposed, it is there. I thought that, because of this attitude in the opera world, I had to get a more aggressive, proactive manager. Also, I did expect it to be difficult to have children and be on the road, but I didn’t expect there to be as much dissension over my having children.
How do you deal with the criticisms and setbacks of this work?
If I feel assailed, whether by my own demons or the situation, I go to the cross. I’ve got some place to go where I’m wholly loved. My success on the stage doesn’t affect my place with God. I’ve got scriptures that I quote if I’m feeling poorly, to arm myself.
Having said that, I’m harder on myself than most papers are. Even working with conductors who might be difficult, that doesn’t usually faze me. It is when I let myself down that is the hardest thing to let go.
It is interesting to me that the same inner voice that drives us to work hard and towards our goals of ‘perfection’ as singers, can also be the voice that drives us into the ground and can incapacitate us to be fully the performer we are. I call those voices gremlins or inner critics now. I think most singers have an abundance of inner critics and could use a few more cheerleaders of kindness and compassion in their corner. We are, almost all of us, terribly hard on ourselves.
I have only once burned about what someone wrote about me. That is rare. What I find most frustrating about criticism is the people around me that want to discuss it; chorus, backstage members, managers etc. I don’t want to discuss it. It is frustrating when they won’t respect that choice. If the reviewer has given me reason to doubt their judgment then how can there be integrity in their praise or in their criticism?
It really comes down to giving away your sense of self again, doesn’t it? It is like you give away all the power for your evaluation of a ‘job well done’ to someone you don’t know, and possibly don’t respect. It is so important for a performer to know in themselves how they have done and what they need to work at. Giving that power away to outside sources is damaging usually.
I don’t even like quoting reviews in my program bios although this seems to be the new trend. I think it is cheap. I shouldn’t have to tell people I have “ringing high notes”… When I know that reviewer isn’t one I respected, then there is no integrity in it.
How did you come to be in this career?
I didn’t choose this life. It was an accident. It wasn’t planned. It fell into my lap. Because of that I had to play catch up like crazy. I was doing musical theatre, but hadn’t thought about the classical end. I began taking lessons in grade 7 from a teacher who taught classical voice and Gilbert and Sullivan, but nothing lighter. When I got into opera I was already performing in musical theatre and doing straight plays. Manitoba Opera decided to do an Opera in the Schools program and sent out letters requesting teachers send their singers. I auditioned and was cast as Gretel and given the role of Barbarina in Le Nozze di Figaro for Manitoba Opera’s main stage production. Rehearsals of Nozze went on simultaneously with Side by Side by Sondheim at the Manitoba Theatre Warehouse. I was belting “There won’t be Trumpets” at night and rehearsing the opera during the day. In terms of opera I only knew Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas. My High School year book said “Broadway Bound!” I was close… just a few blocks shy!
So many different roads aren’t there? I was a country and western singer with a guitar, when a local man who had a HUGE collection of Joan Sutherland albums brought a few by to the house and told my mother he was sure I had the voice to be an opera singer. I remember thinking it was high and loud. But it sure wasn’t an epiphany, like “Oh, I have to sing like that!”
What do you hate about your job?
The question “Where are you singing next?” I hate the brag time that can happen around singers. It is tiresome.
I always think this question is a fear mongerer. You end up feeling like a loser if you don’t have the great season lined up, but a braggart if you do. And no one wants their colleagues to feel uncomfortable (do they?) But that question comes inevitably at dinner after the first rehearsal and at every patron event. I don’t think I have perfected the best answer that dodges it and deflects it.
However to be fair, I am sure for some of my colleagues who don’t have children they get tired of the stories of my children, so it is all where our ‘pride lies’. God says not to store our treasure on the earth and to keep our eyes up.
What about the family part of your life? When did that piece get put into your puzzle?
At the beginning there was a young man who I was close to and he could not deal with my success. He was an aspiring musician as well. That was disappointing on many levels.
Funny thing isn’t it? I have known several marriages and friendships that broke up over professional jealousy, even when they weren’t of the same voice type fighting for the same job. There is this ego piece that gets in the way, and we can’t feel good about ourselves when our loved one or friend is rocketing past us. I wrote about that in my blog. I called it the Amneris Complex. At least Amneris figured out that killing off her lover and rival didn’t leave her feeling better.
So, what about the big question every female singer out there has for you-how do you balance family and an international career?
Marriage has been a wonderful thing for me. We had a sweet courtship. We had to deal with the issues of being separate and then together– beginning a family etc. It never occurred to me not to marry till a specific time. The timing was out of my hands. I probably never thought it would happen.
I remember feeling that way too. The road life is not conducive to dating I found!
AND I met him in Winnipeg!
So you meet a great man in Winnipeg and you dealt with the issue of your absences. Did you always want to bring children into the mix?
I had always wanted to be a mother. I am sure I was picking names for my “children” to go with each crush I had along the way as a teenager. It was always part of my dreams. I am the youngest of four daughters. My eldest sister passed away in 1975 but my other sisters are married with children. I love my nieces and nephews. I think being a primary babysitter for my first-born niece really drove home that I too wanted that bond with children. We were older when we married so we wanted to start our family more or less right away. We always talked about how we would manage with children and being on the road. It had never occurred to either of us that it might be difficult to conceive. We had to have the intervention of doctors and it was a real commitment. I am so happy we struggled through. To be corny but truthful; they complete me.
> Being truthful is never corny. Having kids is such a big emotional place. It is as if words can’t really hold all those things it means. Same reason we have opera right? Words aren’t enough, they sound ‘corny’, but music completes the emotion.
What effect has having children had on your life?
> I am a more grounded person since they came into my world. This world can throw us into an “all about me” mentality. It simply cannot be so with children. They support me in unconditional love — okay maybe an ice cream or a movie thrown in there for good measure.
Ha ha ha! When I think back to what you said about people being untrustworthy in this business and not good as their word, I really see that you have created your support, your place of trust and security in your marriage and your children. I don’t think for everyone they find that in family necessarily, but I do believe we all need a way to define ourselves and see ourselves reflected outside of our life as singers. It is a dangerous thing to give over your sense of self entirely to your career. Gutting in fact. I remember when I got married and we talked about having kids, ( I was older too) I said ‘absolutely, I don’t want the rest of my life to just be about me anymore’. I didn’t think at all about if it was the right time to have kids. It seemed like, you meet someone, you are in love, and you know you want kids, you have kids. Life keeps unfolding. What about you?
> When I was adjudicating for the Met competition I recall a woman telling me about how it was important to discourage young singers from marrying or having children before their careers were started. I said I didn’t think I would suggest that to a singer, trying to be “polite-cal”. I feel that if you have found your soul mate, if you are blessed with a pregnancy, these are gifts too — just like the one lodged in your vocal chords , just like your intellect — and should not be pushed aside. The career is so unpredictable and entirely in someone else’s hands. If you have found that perfect person to complete you, then make a choice that is in your hands: marry. Your spouse maybe the one thing you need to support you to your dream. If children come, thank God!
> There is truth in the words this female Met adjudicator spoke, especially if we are talking about children. It is HARD work. I could not in good conscience tell anyone to walk away from love for the unpredictable future of an opera singer. If anyone tells you it is easy to be a parent and a singer I will tell you they are lying. At the beginning of having my family I had companies say, “If we had known she had children, we wouldn’t have hired her”. I have lost work. I have lost accumulated years with my children from the months added up from being on the road. The balancing act of being a mother and singer is constantly shifting. Think of the ages of the children as being the variable and how that affects any family dynamic. When the children were very little, in grade 1 and under, they came with me when I traveled. I had to employ a nanny, get housing for all of us and then there were the airfares! Then Raymond would fly out every two weeks and sometimes more. Now when I’m gone for five weeks they come out for at least one weekend. If not, then I try to get home for a day or two at the beginning, and then they come for the opening. We have MSN and a webcamera so we can see each other and talk. My work calendar is never full but at times it is close to it. We just keep talking and get as much face time as possible.
> So the question I have to ask is what keeps you singing when the family attraction feels so great?
Good question. Sometimes I wonder myself about the cost to my family. What keeps me going is that I know that they, my children, are well cared for by my husband. They have a unique relationship not all children get to define with their fathers. This may be a justification but I can leave knowing that they are well looked after and well loved. They are nearly at an age of independence from babysitters and our world will shift again. Why keep singing? It is what I do best. My work so fully engages me. I love the interaction between colleagues, the conversations about psychological agendas, why the characters do what they do. I sincerely love the process of rehearsing. I love the musical genius of the people I have encountered and marvel over the genius of the music and texts I get to sing. I like the rehearsal process the most. The performance second
So true. So many times after opening night I am ready to go home because the really fun and interesting part is over. When I teach now I often encourage singers to be ‘musical detectives’ and the piece is like a mystery for the singer to unravel so they can interpret it for the audience. The work on the score and in rehearsal is so satisfying. Speaking of satisfying moments, what has been your most memorable?
Lucia in San Francisco on opening night. I was subbing for Ruth Ann Swenson and was already booked to come in for the second cast. I had flown in the day before and got the call the next morning to come and sing that night. I hadn’t sung it in five years. Jaden (my son) was a baby at that point. It was a whirlwind. I walked it that day with no other preparation. It was so exciting. Jaden took his first step the opening night just before I left for the theatre and I thought “If you can learn how to walk, then I can go and sing this Lucia.”
What an amazingly freeing perspective you gave yourself that night. Instead of setting an impossibly high bar of what everyone expected of you, or of what you expected of yourself, or creating some seminal moment in your career out of this, you saw it through the eyes of a child’s first step. That really gives permission to be brave, try something out and to explore. I love that.
I really connected with the man who sang my brother on stage that night. The energy between us was very honest. He was working off me, and I was doing the same. I loved it! When I killed myself in the mad scene he came and picked me up, which wasn’t even the blocking! The ride that night was amazing. Joan Sutherland was there too. I knew I was singing in front of the century’s most famous Lucia.
You were so in the moment in that performance it sounds like. Nothing existed outside of the drama you were creating and with that you made such freedom available to yourself and your cast members. I have such admiration for you that you were able to be so fully present that way. When I think about the situation, it feels like you were able to put on blinders to all the outside pressure and noise and just be there and sing. The audiences’ experience feels so secondary. Sometimes I think as singers we get so caught up in “how is it going out there? What are they thinking about me?” that we no longer are in the creative act, and that never serves us, or the audience. I see that so clearly illustrated in the experience you had. I love that story. With such a wealth of experience in life and theatre I have to ask, if time and money were no object, what do you long to do?
I just really want everyone I love to be in one place, and to go on trips that are vacations and NOT work. Paris, Egypt, Greece and the like.
Sounds like in many ways, singing has been the perfect career for you as it has allowed you to travel so much already, and has helped you make friends all over the world.
Thank you so much Tracy for being so generous to talk with me about all these areas of your life, both personal and professional. It seems that you have a very clear sense of what roots and grounds you and from that rooted place you are able to take on criticism, conductors, career ups and downs, absences from loved ones, whatever life has to throw at you. You have found a center in family and God and you know why you sing. You are an amazingly generous performer and colleague which I am lucky to have experienced, but also a terrific soccer mom and wife. I look forward to the coming chapters in your career and life in its’ continual unfolding. Thanks again for sharing with the up and coming crowd your wise woman insights.
Tracy and I in Nixon in China in Vancouver-I as the glamorous Third Secretary and Tracy rocking those glasses as Madame Mao.