Canada’s premiere coloratura soprano, Tracy Dahl has appeared throughout her career with such opera houses as the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Canadian Opera Company, Teatro alla Scala (Milan) and the Théâtre du Châtelet (Paris).
I have known her closer to home, first seeing her perform Adele in Die Fledermaus at Manioba Opera, while I was still a teenager. Since then, I have gotten to know her as a fellow voice teacher in Winnipeg where we often meet at concerts, competitions and masterclasses. She is a dedicated teacher and devoted to her family.
Tracy almost lost all of that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. After undergoing a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery followed by a long cycle of radiation, chemotherapy and systemic care, she eventually made a comeback to the opera and concert stage.
Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought it fitting to do an interview with this indomitable soprano.
TFS: October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. You have had your own battle with cancer. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience, especially from the perspective of a singer?
Tracy Dahl: As a singer there were many concerns of course along the path to health after my diagnosis. The first casualty was work. I lost a tremendous amount of work that year having to cancel engagements for the second surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I managed to sing after my biopsy and just before the lumpectomy but after the pathology of that surgery we knew we were going to be in health mode for the better part of a year. it is hard to believe that is that long but in reality for me it was just shy of year from mammogram to last day of radiation.
There were concerns about intubation, reconstructive surgery and any damage or loss of lung capacity due to radiation. I have had other surgeries where intubation was required so simply informing them of the importance of my vocal chords was imperative. The reconstructive surgery happened at the same time as the mastectomy. There was a chance that they would have to cut abdominal wall muscle to find an artery to attach the new tissue to the chest wall. In attaching that new blood vessel there was also the removing of cartilage from my ribs. The location of which is pretty much right in the centre of your breasts. I can still feel that place now. At one point during chemotherapy and before radiation they sent me to lung specialists to see how my lung capacity had been affected by the chemo as there was certain to be some with the radiation and where it needed to be centered for optimal effect. There is, for anyone, the concerns of putting so many poisons into your body in order to rid it of cancer.
FS: You’ve been doing the CIBC Run for the Cure for a few years now. Was this the beginning of a health/fitness journey for you?
TD: Yes and no. I had been active before but more as a swimmer. Swimming is not as comfortable for me now since the surgery. It wasn’t until the second summer that I joined the Running Room learn to run for breast cancer survivors. The first October run for the cure for me was shortly after my treatment ended. I was unaware of the event before that time. My sister brought it to my attention. She is a runner. She and her husband said they would join us if we wanted to go. So my family met them there. The following summer I joined the Survivor Clinic and that was the beginning of my running.
TFS: Since being diagnosed how have your fitness and nutrition routines changed?
TD: I am certainly aware that fitness and nutrition are important. I have already been on a gluten free diet for many years due to gluten intolerance. I really have not changed much in my diet to be truthful. Prior to the cancer I ate a healthy diet of veggies, fruit and in my case, meats and grains. I had to take lactaid to help with digestion of milk products. Being on post cancer oral drugs has issues as well. I needed to boost my calcium intake and as much as I love broccoli adding milk products for me was necessary. The one thing that I now avoid, as much as possible, are soy products. My cancer is estrogen driven so soy products were out.
My regime is walking daily, seasonal running and seasonal cross country skiing after cancer I added in yoga as well. This is something I wish I had started sooner. I did not do any activities that involved being in a class because of the risks that are involved with infection during treatment.
TFS: What does your normal fitness routine consist of?
TD: Two times a week yoga, sometimes three. Walking daily 3-5 km. Running only happens seasonally for me, not long distances. When I do run outdoors it is between 3 and 4 km. Indoors on a machine I will go 5km. When I am on the road and I have access to a fitness room then I definitely use the elliptical machine. (Fewer problems with sciatica) Seasonal skiing would be twice a week.
TFS: Do you have a favourite exercise or activity?
TD: It changes with my mood! Sometimes the yoga is exactly what I need other times I love being outdoors. If I can combine my activity with my family I love it all the more - skiing or hiking. We have done some amazing hiking over the years in the mountains. This past year we hiked to the top of Ha’Ling Peak in the Canadian Rockies. I still cannot believe I made it to the top.
TFS: I know you have an amazingly supportive family. How are you encouraging a healthy lifestyle for your boys?
TD: The boys are physically active on their own. I don’t need to encourage them to be active. Biking, skiing, ultimate frisbee, soccer, trampoline ...I do however need to present healthy eating options for them or they will chose the fast “KD” route.
S: What do you typically eat? Do you have a specific diet or nutrition plan?
TD: I do not have a typical routine. I sometimes have eggs for breakfast, usually just poached, or toast with honey, as the seasons change I will do a gluten free oatmeal with blueberries. Lunch homemade soups or salad. Dinner is a variety. We have several vegetarian meals as options then there are the meats, fish, brown rice, veggies … Tonight it is BBQ pork tenderloin, rice and roasted veggies- brussel sprouts, zucchini and red pepper.
TFS: What impact have you noticed on your voice through disease to your current healthier lifestyle?
TD: I do believe when I eat well my body has a better chance at fending off illness. I certainly remember well the fear of becoming ill while on chemotherapy. Hand cleanliness and eating well certainly played a role in staying “well” through-out the treatment so we try and stay with that plan.
TFS: How do you maintain your lifestyle while traveling?
TD: Most often hotels and the like have a gym. In T.O. I had a routine with the treadmill, Calgary I use the elliptical. In some cities walking is all I have time for - and if that city is Vancouver or Victoria there are so many beautiful walking paths to chose from.
TFS: What do you do on a performance day?
TD: It depends what city I am in! In Winnipeg life with family demands continue, so I may be running errands or taking children to lessons … whatever needs to happen. When I am on the road. I make sure to get some exercise that day; walk or treadmill and I will spend a portion of the day going through the text for the evening’s performance. It is a balance of conserving my energy and getting ready for the show.
TFS: You have been a fabulous mentor to so many singers, many of whom have stood by you and even Run for the Cure with you. What advice do you have for other young singers?
TD: Keep those you love close to you. Cherish your health. Enjoy the journey because sometimes we end up in different location than we expected but it can be just as special. When auditioning or performing set goals for yourself. I will use the number five as an example; I would make three goals I know I can achieve and two that are a stretch. We want to feel like we succeed. Most singers are perfectionists and it is hard to live with yourself if you are constantly only hearing negative things from yourself. That is the only control you have.
TFS: What have you found to be your most physically demanding performance?
TD: That is a difficult question to answer. I think I would have to say either Marie in Daughter of the Regiment or Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. Both these roles require a great deal of agility physically and vocally. There is often dance and movement involved in both of those works and are marathon sings. I love singing the Donizetti ladies; Lucia di Lammermoor and Maria Stuarda and they have challenges that are not directly physical in the same regard as Marie or Zerbinetta but most certainly feel like a work out in every way by the end of the evening.
TFS: Thank you so much for sharing Tracy. You are such an inspiration to so many through your art and your health journey.
Note: Much cancer can be prevented by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which includes exercise and eating a healthy whole-food diet.