Magazine article Opera Canada

Thoughtful Villain: Catching Up with Baritone Gregory Dahl on His Debut with English National Opera

Magazine article Opera Canada

Thoughtful Villain: Catching Up with Baritone Gregory Dahl on His Debut with English National Opera

Article excerpt

Gregory Dahl is proud to have been booed at his curtain calls on more than one occasion--purely because of his aptitude in playing some of the darkest villains in the baritone repertoire. He particularly enjoys dress rehearsals in front of school student audiences: "They always boo me. And that's a huge compliment, if it doesn't smash your ego up!"

Despite being a memorable lago and Macbeth, he insists that in real life he is not one for stratagems and spoils. "Off stage, my true character is Papageno," he says. "You know, happy-go-lucky. But I often come on as hate. That's why it's both fan and self- actualising. I am who I am because of how I've grown up in my own world. But on stage I can grow into that madness, that evil. I'm really Papageno, but I come on as the guy that's going to eat the Pamina."

Born in Winnipeg, Dahl had begun a career as a schoolteacher before taking the decision to move to Toronto and embark on a serious study of opera. A meeting with the renowned and revered Mary Morrison helped him make the choice. "I was leaving behind a solid job. I could have decided I wanted to keep teaching, but I said, 'No, I want to try this. I think I really wanted to be an actor'."

Indeed, impressive acting skills have been fundamental to his career. Like most opera singers, he has acquired them more through experience than training. "You learn from being the character," he says. "The audience will already feel the emotion with the music, so our job is to inhabit these characters."

I meet Dahl backstage at English National Opera, with a few nights left in the run of Tchaikovsky's Vie Queen of Spades, in which he has been playing Count Tomsky. He is fall of energy and certainly affable, but doesn't immediately suggest a happy-go-lucky Papageno. A combination of deep thinker and quick talker, he often interrupts one sentence with a new one, as if the ideas never stop sparking in his head.

Tomsky is less an embodiment of evil than a nihilist, though it is hard to sum up his personality in any simple description.The central character, Hermann, becomes increasing delusional; he disintegrates while his friends, including Tomsky, fail to intervene. Dahl admits to having had difficulty pinning down the role (though his performance was supremely assured right from the first night)."Maybe I shouldn't go there, but I did go to David [Alden, the director] and ask, 'I say that Hermann is my friend, but I don't always act like his friend.' I think we lie in life, but we don't lie on stage, unless we're really lying, so the audience knows it. I say 'friend' four times, but he dies in front of us, so who are we? Are we just a community that doesn't care about Hermann? No, we care about Hermann.

"So there has to be some journey. On the other hand, Tomsky stays pretty much where he is, whereas Hermann goes on the ride. I always like to watch how a composer brings you in and how he treats you at the end. I kind of just fade away into the fabric. I'm left on stage, but there is nothing left for me to sing, except with the chorus guys. [Tchaikovsky is saying],'Off you go'."

"Some of these roles can, after a while, get depressing. To be Tomsky, you don't really have much respect for human life, or yourself. I find playing all these roles, they affect me, not psychologically... well, there is a bit of that. …

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