Arts & Life
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This article was published 18/5/2018 (812 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Like about a gazillion, loud ‘n’ proud Winnipeggers cheering on our beloved Winnipeg Jets during the NHL playoffs, I’d be the first to admit that I’ve also become swept up in the tsunami of "Winnipeg whiteouts," hockey pools and fierce debates about goalies that has washed over our fair city this past month.
To experience our usually desolate downtown at night pulsating with the sights and sounds of Canada’s national sport during the recent spate of street parties has been inspiring — and yes, that was me at Portage and Main last week.
Winnipeg soprano Stacey Nattrass has been making her own joyful noise lately as the Jets’ longtime anthem singer, belting out The Star-Spangled Banner and O Canada for regular sellout crowds at the Bell MTS Centre, and millions more glued to the live televised broadcasts each night. It’s a point of fact that every big, burly hockey game — and it’s getting intense, folks — begins with melodious song.
"I’m on this joyride called the Winnipeg Jets playoff fever," says Nattrass, a classically trained singer who studied voice at the University of Manitoba’s School of Music with soprano Henriette Schellenberg and later, her aunt, world-renowned opera singer Tracy Dahl. "It’s starting to hit me now that this is Canada’s team now, and there’s a lot of pressure around that. This is certainly not a job that I take lightly, and I do take it very seriously.
And her efforts are being noticed across the country, with even Canada’s fabled songbird, Anne Murray, tweeting her personal approval, "Great job tonight! Looks like it’s working!" to Nattrass following the Jets’ 4-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of the Western Conference final.
Nattrass is the mother of three young children with her husband Damian — who also moonlights, er, daylights, as a half-time vocal jazz and concert choir teacher at Garden City Collegiate. She began singing anthems for the Manitoba Moose in 1997 at the old Winnipeg Arena.
In 2011, True North Sports and Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman announced the company had purchased the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers, which later became the resurrected Winnipeg Jets. Shortly after, Nattrass was invited to become the Jets’ new anthem singer.
"Stacey had been with us for years and she deserved the gig," says Kyle Balharry, True North’s senior director, game production and broadcast services told the Free Press in 2013. "I think the best thing about Stacey is that she sings the anthem the way everybody in the crowd sings it themselves. What I mean is, she’s not out there trying to change it up with all these weird parts, or going all operatic. Stacey sings it exactly how we all learned it in school."
Given the inordinate pressure of needing to perform the two anthems flawlessly, Nattrass adheres to a rigorous routine of vocal self-care that includes daily steaming ("I’ve had a humidifier in my bedroom since late March," she says), drinking tea, taking copious lozenges and resting her voice as much as possible — not unlike an opera singer — between games. She warms up in her car during her commute to the arena — arriving a full 90 minutes before puck drop to get into her own singing zone before taking the ice. She scrupulously avoids adrenalin-charged fans prior to each performance, even limiting her exposure to social media and news coverage on game day that might distract her from her task at hand.
"I try to block all of that out, because it is quite astounding and overwhelming how many people are out there," she admits. "I literally felt sick to my stomach during the lead up to the first playoff game, but luckily I completely love what I do, or else it would be immensely terrifying," she says. "I also feel like I’ve settled into the ‘new norm,’ which is this enormous frenzy and I’ve actually gotten a little bit used to it now."
Only very recently, Nattrass, who also has performed in several Rainbow Stage shows (her brother Carson Nattrass now serves as its artistic director) and competed for years in the Winnipeg Music Festival, has been sharing the glory with the fans. During the first home game with the Nashville Predators, her performance instincts kicked in, allowing the crowd to take over the anthem patriotically until she rejoined them near the end in an experience that gave her goose bumps.
"I couldn’t believe how loud the crowd was," she recalls. "When I brought the mic down, it completely hit me how amazing that moment was, both as a Winnipegger and as a Canadian. I truly feel so lucky to stand in the centre of it all — it’s such a unique position to be able to experience this from the vantage point that I do. You don’t think of the hockey fan base as being big singers, but look at them go. They’re so proud and it’s very unifying."
Nattrass estimates she’s now sung O Canada 800 times. She offered her strategies to keep herself fresh and avoiding phoning it in.
"It’s easy because there’s almost always someone in that building who’s experiencing his or her first Jets game live, and I sing for that person," she says. "I also know there are so many fine singers in this city who would also like to do this, so that also keeps me on my A-game."
She also comes by performing honestly — her musical parents performed at Winnipeg’s legendary Hollow Mug Theatre Restaurant for many years. They regularly took their two young children to Jets games, and the then-teenage Nattrass quickly realized that she wanted to belt out anthems someday — something she hopes to do "as long as they’ll have me."
"One of reasons the anthem is so important to me was because it was important to my dad, and also to my grandparents," she says, referring to her late father Ken, also a crackerjack accordionist. "It was ingrained in me early that an anthem should be sung just as an anthem, and you shouldn’t mess it up with too many gratuitous notes."
When her dad suffered a sudden stroke in March 2015, her family was given the grim news that he would not likely survive. The Jets had a regularly scheduled game that afternoon, with Nattrass expected to take the ice. She made the valiant decision to go ahead, with Carson setting up a radio in her dying father’s hospital room, to hear Nattrass’s soaring vocals filling the air with the anthem he so loved.
"I knew that my dad would want to me to sing. When I came off the ice, I just collapsed in tears," she says of that powerful moment. "That was the hardest performance, but also my most meaningful performance."
It seems you can’t swing a hockey stick these days without running into a Jets fan. As playoffs fever continues to rise to a feverish pitch, the question increasingly on everyone’s lips is: Will our boys in blue be able to go all the way, and bring home Lord Stanley’s cup?
"I have a lot of hope for that now," Nattrass says without hesitation. "Part of me still can’t believe it, but I actually think it could happen."
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