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Teacher takes subbing to the opera stage

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What do you do when the artistic director of a major opera house calls you with four hours’ notice and asks you to sing the iconic lead role in one of the most well-known operas in the world?

You say yes!

That was the scenario that unfolded one day in late October for Catherine Daniel, a substitute teacher with Edmonton Catholic Schools. During a 3:00 p.m. spare period, Daniel received a call from Joel Ivany of Edmonton Opera asking her to “jump in” to the role of Carmen that evening because the original casted soprano had become ill. 

Daniel, a trained mezzo-soprano with many years of opera experience, has sung the role before, most recently with Opera Tampa in February 2020, and she speaks French, so the opera’s language and music were quite familiar to her. But it was still a huge challenge to familiarize herself with the role on the fly, especially the spoken dialogue, which varies from one production to another. 

“It was nerve-racking, but I love this music, I love that role, I love to sing and perform,” Daniel said. “You don’t want the show to fail or to be cancelled, so I didn’t even think for a second that I would say no. Yes, of course I’ll do it. That was the spirit behind what happened.”

After getting the call, Daniel rushed from JH Picard School to the Jubilee Auditorium, whisked through a two-hour rehearsal, was quickly fitted for costumes, grabbed a quick bite and was on stage promptly at 7:30. She’s never been asked to jump into an opera role like that before, and there were moments on stage when Daniel wondered if the experience was real or just a crazy dream.

“When you’re a performer, there’s something audacious about being on stage in a situation like this. You have to be courageous and accept the humour of it. It’s a wild exercise in improvisation and immediate storytelling.”

The home-crowd advantage contributed to the night’s success. The audience was well aware that Daniel had jumped in at the last minute, and that she is a native Edmontonian, so there was a lot of excitement and energy from the crowd supporting her because of the unexpected nature of the experience.

Daniel also credits the success of the evening in large part to the teamwork of the opera’s technical team and her fellow castmates, some of whom hid on the side of the stage mouthing the text to her. She also had the French dialogue written on cards glued to various handheld fans she used as props while singing. As a teacher, she gives herself an 87 per cent on her performance. 

“Quite a few of the cast I had worked with before,” Daniel said. “When people say that a cast is like a family, well opera is like that, opera in Canada is like that. We all know each other directly or know someone who knows someone, so I wasn’t on stage with a bunch of strangers. Everyone was super supportive.”

Ongoing career

Daniel has been working with Edmonton Opera since 2014 and will be singing the role of Fricka in their production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in the spring of 2024. 

She began her singing career at 15 with Schola Cantorum, a local children’s chorus now known as Cantilon Choir. While initially afraid to sing, she was encouraged to take voice lessons by the conductor Ardelle Reis. After graduating from high school, she attended Faculté St. Jean, fully intending to become a classroom teacher. 

Reis, however, convinced her to pursue a degree in music as well, and she graduated with a music and an education degree, but ironically not a performance designation. Another mentor she studied with, voice teacher and performer Tracy Dahl, convinced her to take up performing as well. So by 2011, Daniel was working as a teacher but also singing and performing. 

While she is a music specialist, as a substitute she has taught all subjects, which has given her a profound respect for generalists.

As a music teacher, however, she sums up her teaching philosophy this way: “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher who encourages everyone to sing and everyone to participate. I will never say to a child ‘just mouth the words’... because it’s very traumatizing to tell a six-year-old child that they can’t be musical, experience music or be part of a performance.” 

Daniel wants musical performances to be inclusive and fun for every child as well as the families who come to see them perform at school concerts.

“In the same way that I experience ... this passion that I have for singing and storytelling and being on stage and feeling comfortable on stage, I want to pass that on to my students so that they have a positive experience, so they feel that they can participate, sing, perform, play an instrument and that it be a pleasant experience. I really want to be the kind of teacher who facilitates that type of learning.”