The big debut

Mary MacKay
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Soprano Tracy Cantin of Summerside will be hitting the stage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago this fall with her first professional operatic performance.

Tracy Cantin, daughter of Rollie and Rosemary Cantin of Summerside, was home for a bit this summer to visit family. She was the only Canadian young artist chosen for the 2012/2013 season for the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Centre ensemble at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MARY MACKAY

A debut is definitely a big to-do.

And soprano Tracy Cantin of Summerside will be hitting a high note when she steps on stage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago this fall as the fifth maid in the season opener of Elektra by Richard Strauss.

“It’s a fantastic role. It’s my professional operatic debut at one of the greatest opera houses in the world. You only get one debut, and I’m thrilled that mine will be in Chicago,” says the 26-year-old, who was the only Canadian young artist chosen for the 2012/2013 season for the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Centre ensemble at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

It’s a long road from Summerside, P.E.I.. to the world of opera. but Cantin got her singing start at the age of 12 when voice teacher Beth Gould came to town from Ontario.

She started off with musical genres like folk music and music for young children and added more as time went on.

“I sang a lot of pop and jazz when I was in high school. but then I definitely got into a whole different vein,” says Cantin as she laughs of her operatic endeavours.

Oddly enough, Cantin had other career aspirations in mind when it came time to focus on her future education.

“It’s funny because I didn’t really know I could study music more than what I had been doing . . . . I think I was in Grade 11 and my teacher said, ‘So what are you going to do in university?’ I said, ‘Oh I don’t know. I’ve always thought about being a hair dresser,” she remembers.

“She said, ‘I think you really have something. Maybe you should think about studying music in school.’ I didn’t realize that there were degree programs at pretty much any university you could possibly think of.”

Cantin studied music at UPEI for two years and then graduated from the University of Alberta with her bachelor of music and earned her masters at the University of Western Ontario.

For the last two years, she has been at McGill University

in Montreal enrolled in a specialized artists diploma program.

Cantin’s first true taste of opera came in 2008 when she took a year off and sang with the Edmonton Opera Chorus. That was followed by a role as the mother in a University of Alberta production of Hansel and Gretel.

“That was my very first experience in a full role . . . . That really whet my appetite for the stage and for performing and just for doing something from beginning to end because it was such a story. The audience was engaged in such a different way than just scene work,” she says.

More amateur roles followed, including interpretations of Alice Ford in Verdi’s final masterpiece, Falstaff, at the Opera NUOVA’s Vocal Arts Festival in Edmonton, Alta., and in Haliburton, Ont., and the role of governess in Britten’s Turn of the Screw at Opera McGill.

Cantin was enrolled at McGill when she decided in January 2011 to apply for the young artist program for the 2012/2013 season for the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Centre ensemble at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“I didn’t tell anybody, but I filled out an application for Chicago and I sent it off. I thought there’s no harm; if they send it back and they don’t want to hear me well it was only a $20 application fee. I can spend $20 on just the chance,” she says.

She admits her application was definitely sparse in many areas.

“Their questions were: ‘What conductors have you worked with? What principal roles have you sung? With what opera companies?’ Because I was still a student and really hadn’t done any of things . . . so I had to leave a lot of those areas blank,” she says.

“I looked at this application and I thought ‘They are never going to invite me.’”

Six months later she received an email stating that she’d been granted an audition.

“My reaction to that letter was, ‘Oh my word, what am I going to do?’ Plus, you have to get yourself to Chicago, that’s an investment at that point . . . ,” Cantin remembers.

Five days later she was in the Windy City, ready to give her all at the audition at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Cantin performed her first piece and then watched for the panel’s response.

“The people behind the table started whispering and discussing among themselves and one woman said, ‘So you’re Canadian? Do you think it would be hard to get a work visa if you had to?’ I said, ‘Well I don’t know. I don’t have a criminal record. I’ve never tried to get a work visa but I imagine I could if I needed to,’” Cantin recalls with laughter.

The panelists then asked for a second piece and the 10-minute audition was over.

About a month later Cantin received an invitation to a callback audition in September, the costs of which would be covered by the opera centre.

Cantin was one of four sopranos called back.

“It was pretty nerve-wracking. That audition was on the stage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which is one of the greatest houses in the world. The biggest names that you would ever hear have sung on that stage,” she says.

Cantin and the other sopranos were seated on the sidelines to wait their turn to perform.

“I sang second. The woman who sang first was phenomenal. She was so polished and poised and beautiful. She was the bees knees. She was so good. I adored her. I thought ‘Oh well, that’s that,’” she says.

“It kind of took my (case of) nerves away again because I thought, ‘If nothing else, there are people in this audience right now in the American market who are going to hear me because it’s an open audition. So in the hall were conductors and directors and agents and people representing opera houses from all over America because this round of callbacks is one of the highest levels in all of America.”

Cantin sang her piece and the panel then requested that she sing a second one.

“It was going really well, and I kind of went off in my own little world and all of a sudden I made a mistake. I shot back to reality and thought ‘Ah, there it went.’ It happened so fast. It was in a fast passage and I missed a note. I don’t know how obvious it was (to them), but it was like a red beacon in my head,” she says.

All of the performers trying out for the ensemble were ushered into a reception room to mingle with people in the opera industry as they awaited the news of who would be chosen to be part of the 2012/2013 season.

“I came to find out that people who go every year they bet on who they think is going to get in. I think we mingled for about an hour and as I was talking one older woman came up to me and said, ‘I hope you won because I bet on you,’” she laughs.

They started with the sopranos, first calling for Emily Birsan and then Kiri Deonarine.

Thinking they were listing the chosen singers alphabetically, Cantin was sure she was out of the running, so when they called her name next she didn’t budge.

“I was sitting next to a gentleman who actually writes the reviews for the Opera Canada magazine here. He elbowed me and said, ‘I’m pretty sure they just called your name.’ I looked at him and I looked at them, I smiled and I’m sure very awkwardly rose from the table,” she says.

“My heart was just pounding out of my chest.”

Cantin signed her contract then and there for the upcoming season,

She then wrapped up her final year at McGill and returned to Chicago this spring to join the ensemble.

She has performed in a few concerts to date and will start to prepare for her professional operatic debut soon in the Lyric’s season opener.

“For the longest time, I’ve had this dream, this hope. It has been a long journey . . . but I’m finally starting in the profession and it’s really exciting,”  Cantin says.

“I love the music and I love communicating with people. It’s an incredible, incredible art form and it’s a really amazing opportunity to be able to express yourself so intimately and for people to react without knowing why. It moves people so deeply. It’s so primal. It’s really amazing.”  

Fast facts

Soprano Tracy Cantin,  who hails from Summerside, recently joined the ranks of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, as a studio ensemble member at the prestigious Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, for its 2012-13 season.

She will make her professional operatic debut this fall in Strauss' Elektra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, and will also cover the roles of Eva in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Amelia in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra.

To learn more about Cantin or hear her sing, visit www.tracycantin.com.

Organizations: Lyric Opera of Chicago, McGill University, University of Alberta Lyric Opera of Chicago.It University of Western Ontario.For Edmonton Opera Chorus Lyric Opera of Chicago.Cantin Opera Canada magazine

Geographic location: Summerside, Chicago, Montreal Edmonton Haliburton America Windy

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