It's been 30 years since 21-year-old coloratura soprano Tracy Dahl made her Manitoba Opera debut and launched an international career that has taken her to most of the great opera houses of the world.
That was never the goal of the four-foot-11 graduate of Shaftesbury High School. Her yearbook entry read: "Destiny: Broadway. Fate: To be typecast as a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz."
In the early '80s, Dahl was breaking into musical theatre at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Grease and Side by Side by Sondheim when she abruptly came to a fork in the road on her way to a career. While she was singing in the Sondheim musical revue at the Warehouse at night, Dahl began rehearsing by day her first MO appearance as Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro.
"Singing with the orchestra was what was uniquely different and exciting for me," she recalled earlier this week during an interview in her River Heights home. "The Marriage of Figaro was a huge turning point. I wanted to explore this opera thing but I didn't know if I could do it."
Then there was the fact that size matters in musical theatre, but not so much in opera. The words of Alan Lund, the longtime artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival, still echo in her memory after she told him she was mostly cast in the soprano character roles that precluded her from singing the show-stopping numbers.
"He said, 'It's a shame that voice is in that body,'" remembers Dahl. "He said, 'I'm not going to cast you as a young lead.' It was harsh but musical theatre is so physically oriented."
Dahl, who is making her 15th MO appearance this week as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto, found opera more accepting of her particular package of talents and became sought-after around the globe. She even made it pretty close to Broadway in 1991, when she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Adele in Die Fledermaus at the Lincoln Center.
"I got to New York City, 20 blocks off Broadway," she says of her career highlight.
Her latest Winnipeg performance is the first since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2010. She kept her illness hush-hush as she underwent a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, as well as chemotherapy and radiation. Her world stopped for a year.
"It was devastating to cancel everything I cancelled that year," she says. "I had a lot of work. It was one of my best years."
Dahl alternated between two wigs when she made the rare venture out of the house after losing all her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes
"I'm a mass of scars, but I'm here," says the mother of two boys, 11 and 14. "Cancer is a beast, a nasty beast."
She is grateful that her singing ability returned, along with bookings. Bramwell Tovey, the former Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra music director now at the podium of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, was especially supportive, hiring her in the middle of her chemotherapy. They toured together to the United States and Australia, where she made her Sydney Opera House debut singing a Gershwin tribute show.
"I got a call from Bramwell when I was sitting in Cancer Care Manitoba waiting for a treatment," she says. "He absolutely believed that I was going to be well."
And she is, although she can't say her cancer is in remission.
"I currently don't have any cancer in my body but breast cancer is a tissue cancer, so you can never say it is in remission," says the vocal coach whose students include Over the Rainbow finalist Colleen Furlan and fast-rising soprano Andriana Chuchman
In April Dahl returned to opera, singing the title role in Maria Stuarda with the Pacific Opera Victoria. That same month she received the Golden Baton from the WSO for artistic achievement.
"Thirty years, it seems like a long time; 30 years of trying to be as good a singer as I can possibly be," she says.