Tracy Cantin, who has performed in Edmonton, Montreal, Chicago and Melbourne, Australia, owes her budding international opera career to someone who isn’t even in the music business — her mother.
“My mother knew I could sing even before I did,” said Red Deer-born Cantin, with a laugh. “She told me I used to sing in church when I was younger” — although Cantin doesn’t have any solid memories of this early stint in the choir at Innisfail Baptist Church.
Cantin’s astute mom went ahead and hired a private voice teacher for her when she was 12, and this singing instructor immediately noticed a special quality about her voice.
“My teacher heard a talent in me that I didn’t know was there,” said Cantin, who was given various opera CDs to listen to. Before then, Cantin, who was born in Red Deer and raised in Spruce View and Prince Edward Island, didn’t even know classical singing existed. She had only ever sung folk and jazz tunes in school.
But the recordings by Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Spanish opera star Montserrat Caballe, left her transfixed. “It didn’t matter that they sang in German, Italian or French, the music was stunning. . . . Hearing their glorious voices transported me to another world . . . . ”
Now Cantin is doing the same for other audiences while performing in the apprenticeship program of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The 28-year-old, who is in the final year of the program, won a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artists Award this month. She was among eight award winners out of nearly 200 applicants, and the only classical singer.
Awards adjudicators describe Cantin as being “on the cusp of an international career,” noting the critical reviews that have called her voice “luminous,” and “capable of strength and extraordinarily accurate virtuosity.”
Cantin is grateful for this recognition and the award’s $10,000 prize. As someone who has been in the post-secondary educational stream for about a decade, she said “this takes an awful lot of the financial pressure off . . . . It’s an investment in my future,” said Cantin, as the money will allow her to fly to auditions in Toronto or New York this fall.
The former Central Albertan spent her earliest years on her parents’ tree farm near Spruce View, which was close to her grandparents’ cattle and beet operation.
When she was 10, her father, who had often travelled overseas to work on large-scale international construction projects, decided to move the family to P.E.I., where he got a job working on Confederation Bridge. “It allowed us more family time because he didn’t have to travel,” she recalled.
After the bridge was completed five years later, her parents tried moving the family back to Alberta. But they only lasted a couple of months here before realizing their new lives and new friends were back in P.E.I., where they decided to return.
But her grandparents were still living in Central Alberta, so Cantin opted to enrol in the music program at the University of Alberta after high school. She also participated in the Opera NUOVA summer opera training intensive program in Edmonton.
She recalled her official stage debut was as a seamstress in the chorus of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman with the Edmonton Opera. The inauspicious role hooked her on the greasepaint and glory of stage performance. “It was really the first time I was around opera singers.”
After a year of teaching singing to young students, she decided to go for her master’s degree in musical performance and literature at the University of Western Ontario, and then to an arts diploma at McGill University in Montreal.
Cantin next successfully auditioned for a spot in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s apprenticeship program and is the only Canadian in what’s considered to be one of the leading opera training programs in the world.
“It’s a good way to bridge the gap between a student life and a professional life,” said the singer, who’s getting a lot of public exposure through performances with the company.
One of her favourite experiences was singing the part of Donna Anna, the lead soprano, in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “That was a lot of fun. It was also my first leading role.”
Another career high was being asked by Andrew Davis, music director and principal conductor of the Lyric Opera, to be the soloist for his concert with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Cantin found herself singing Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony down under — but one of the most remarkable things about that night was knowing that her grandparents were in the audience. “They’ve been at my every performance . . . . It was so amazing that they had come all that way to cheer me on . . . .
“I have the greatest family in the world. They have been so supportive and so loving,” said Cantin.
She added, “It isn’t easy or cheap to become an artist, but I’ve had a lot of help and support all the way through” — first from her family, and now from the Alberta awards program for emerging artists.