Thank heaven for seniority. As a 28-year-old teacher of choral music in Winnipeg, Gregory Dahl did not have any. Which meant he was among the first to be laid off when the high school at which he worked decided to downsize.
“I had this epiphany,” the baritone said before an open rehearsal of Puccini’s Tosca in Place-des-Arts. “I was in teaching, which I think is a stable job. And this stable job was unstable. For years I wanted to be on stage. I denied it to myself. Finally, I said, that’s it, I’m going to try it.”
The baritone had already got a taste of what was possible with the voice teacher Mary Morrison at the Banff Centre in the summer of 1995. By the fall of 1996 he was studying in the opera division at the University of Toronto (where Morrison is still a sectional lecturer).
The slightly late start had a hidden benefit. In his late 20s, this native of Winnipeg could still be recognized as a big-voiced singer with Verdi and Puccini potential.
“If I had a smaller voice I would have been singing other roles and on the stage earlier,” Dahl said. “But a big voice — it’s hard to get a hold of and control it. It takes time. You have to get a chisel and work on that diamond.”
To say the patience has paid off is putting it mildly. For the Opéra de Montréal in September he was Puccini’s Scarpia in Tosca. In October, he sings Verdi’s Rigoletto for the Opéra de Québec.
Some regard Rigoletto as the most exposed and taxing of all roles in the baritone repertoire. Dahl does not deny the challenges posed by the first act, in which the jester must follow active clowning (which is stopped short by a curse) with a dark soliloquy and a duet with his daughter Gilda.
But Rigoletto is a great character, Dahl notes, “You have compassion for him.” Dahl hopes for help from the wardrobe department in creating a convincing hunchback. “It is very difficult to sing properly when your body is awkwardly aligned.”
There can be no sympathy for Scarpia, however, who is called a hypocrite and lecher in Act 1 of Tosca and does nothing to contradict the description. Dahl believes that the figure of Scarpia has contemporary political resonance. The Roman chief of police is, after all, a “bully in charge.”
“Papageno is my true personality,” Dahl says with a laugh. “Scarpia is totally opposite to who I am. I’m not into violence. I’m a pacifist. I don’t like tension in real life. But this is why I relish playing evil characters. I can delve into that quality on stage in a safe space and embrace it.”
Dahl sings most of the big core baritone roles: Iago in Otello, the title role of Macbeth, Escamillo in Carmen, Germont in La Traviata, Amonraso in Aida, Sharpless in Madama Butterfly. In 2009 he earned enthusiastic reviews by playing a tragicomic double bill in Montreal, singing Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and the title role in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.
Most of Dahl’s work is in Canada, although he has covered Mandryka in Strauss’s Arabella at the Metropolitan Opera and played Count Tomsky in a run of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades at the English National Opera in 2015. The following year he was Max Ophuls in Jack Perla’s Shalimar the Clown for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Work for the Canadian Opera Company has been limited by scheduling conflicts. “This will come,” Dahl comments. It would be a logical development, since the baritone (no relation to the soprano Tracy Dahl) lives in central Toronto with his wife Pamela and children Cohen, 17, and Olivia, 13.
As it stands, Dahl is busier in Quebec and the West, a situation that puts him, paradoxically, in more or less the same position as an operatic globe trotter. Whether you are in Paris or Edmonton, you are away from home.
With strong links to Canadian companies and a playlist of supplemental concert appearances in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Dahl would be happy to travel more to Europe but does not really need the work. At 50 — the height of his career — he is doing just fine in Canada.
“When you start out you want to be this international person,” Dahl says. “But opera happens everywhere. I have a lot of great Canadian colleagues, great singers. This country has so much to offer, on both the French and English sides. And I love singing in Quebec and Montreal.”
Gregory Dahl sings Rigoletto in Verdi’s Rigoletto. October 21, 24, 26 and 28, 2017, Quebec City,