Her role in Carmina Burana might be at odds with her devout Christian faith, but soprano Tracy Dahl is not at all averse to the idea of surrendering her virginity to a renegade monk.
“You do what is appropriate for the piece that is given, right?” the veteran singer says, on the line from the Winnipeg home she shares with her husband and children. “Do I say no to singing Lucia [the title character in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor] because in Lucia I murder somebody? No, I still sing Lucia. So that doesn’t enter into my equation. I think the only time I’ve ever said no to something was where I knew I was going to have to do nudity on-stage. I went, ‘I’m really not comfortable with that.’ But no one’s going to ask us to do that in this, so it’s all good.”
It’s all good as long as the music is good, that is, and with Vancouver Symphony Orchestra conductor emeritus Kazuyoshi Akiyama returning to lead the band and the Vancouver Bach Choir in Carl Orff’s 1936 masterpiece, a powerful performance is assured. Dahl is also looking forward to working with her on-stage seducer, baritone James Westman—“a fantastic singer”, she proclaims—and to revisiting a piece that never fails to surprise her with its musical complexity and erotic spirit.
“I think what’s enjoyable is the experience of singing in such a large work with such a variety of instrumental colours,” she explains. “You get such different colours out of the orchestra in this piece, and even out of the voices. You have the dying swan, and the baritone who sings both in falsetto and in his whole voice, and the men have chorus scenes that are supposed to sound very raunchy… It’s a very different experience.
“I remember one that we did where we’d enter from the back,” she continues. “There was a ballet going on up front, and so I was often right by the percussion section, and the percussion in this show is crazy. So I think that’s what really makes it stand out as a work, to me: the amazing colours that are brought forth out of the orchestra.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Dahl does not make much of any personal resonance Carmina Burana might possibly hold for her. The medieval text Orff chose for his famous introduction, “O Fortuna”, concerns the “ever-turning wheel” of implacable fate, and specifically to how it can make “adversity/and fickle health/alike turn to nothing”.
That’s something Dahl knows firsthand: in 2010 she was diagnosed with a fast-growing form of breast cancer, and only radical surgery saved her life. Before her doctors gave her the all-clear, she relates, even the simplest song had the power to still her voice, as she discovered when she had to perform Robbie Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose” at a Toronto recital.
“The last verse talks about ‘Though it were ten thousand miles, I will come again,’ ” she explains of what has long been a Dahl family favourite. “And I had been away from home for two-and-a-half months, so I was missing my family terribly, and that was it.…Even though it was about me wanting to see them in that moment, it was also at a time in my life when I was afraid I might actually have to leave them. So I was done. Done! I couldn’t sing.”
This weekend’s performances, she adds, mark the first time she’s tackled Carmina Burana since her illness and recovery, so there is always a chance that she might be hit by a similar wave of emotion—although her glass-half-full optimism suggests that it’s unlikely.
“It’s quite interesting when you come back to pieces after having survived any kind of crisis in your life,” she says. “My crisis happened to be health-related—and even though it was cancer, I’m glad it was that and not a marital one!”
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Vancouver Bach Choir present Carmina Burana at the Orpheum on Saturday and Monday (May 3 and 5).