Whatever you think is the “normal” route for an opera singer, Cara McLeod didn’t take it. In 1998, she moved to Fort McMurray with her then husband, and worked as a legal secretary. They lived there for 18 years before she moved back to Edmonton four years ago.
She took singing lessons as a teenager, and enjoyed doing karaoke competitions in bars, but it was always more of a hobby she loved, not a goal she had a burning desire to achieve. “I didn’t have career aspirations at the time, I just knew I wanted to train for it and perform when I could,” she says. But a certain show lit a slow burning spark before her move north.
“I was working full-time and singing as a hobby, and it was great. I was in a community choir in Sherwood Park, and we did this big concert at the West End Christian Reformed Church. Michael Massey was conducting, and we were one of the choirs singing in this big concert. I was in the back row with my music book, and at the front of the stage were the four classical soloists. I saw how close they were to the action, how that was the ultimate connection with the audience, conductor and musicians, and realized that’s how I want to connect with people.”
It was the first time singing opera struck a note within her, but it would be a while before she made it to centre stage. She got a music diploma in Fort McMurray, then left for three years to the University of Western Ontario to get her artist’s diploma in performance. In her first year of a master class, performing in front of fellow students as a test, she received a major stage, and life, lesson.
One measure away from the end of the song, she started crying and couldn’t stop. “I’m a very emotional person, and the words I was singing really resonated with me in the moment because of some personal stuff I was going through at the time,” she explains. Her teacher asked if she wanted people to buy tickets to come see her someday. Through tears, she said yes. “And then she told me, ‘The song is not about you and your feelings, it’s about giving it away to the audience so they feel something.’”
Over the last year, McLeod has been giving her live music away, and her audiences have definitely felt it. A week after the first lockdown, after being inspired by opera singers in Italy singing from their balconies, McLeod did the same. Her neighbours told local TV stations, and she soon became one of Edmonton’s busiest pandemic performers, playing in parking lots and backyards, outside seniors’ homes, and once out of the trunk of her car (she even had her Beatles moment singing on the roof of the Jubilee Auditorium). She recorded backyard performance videos to post online, which brought her back to her more spontaneous, pre-opera days.
“I have so much respect for people who can play an instrument and sing at the same time, because I tried that when I was younger and my mom said I was the worst piano student she ever had. But, with these video performances, if I’m learning a new song on piano and recording it within 24 hours, I’m not going to be prepared with it like I am with opera.”
Despite a career that spans more than 15 years — one that’s come full circle after she performed, centre stage, with the famed Michael Massey at the Winspear — McLeod says she still feels new to the scene. A big reason why is her attitude. She laughs hard, loves deeply, and she’s never felt frustrated with how things were going in her career because she’s been too busy enjoying the ride, whether in a karaoke bar, a community choir or, in 2009, at the Sant’Ivo Alla Sapienza in Italy. “Organic is a great word to describe how it’s gone, because I’m very intuitively led. I don’t say no to things very often, and I always think that whatever experience is meant to come up is what I’m going to do.”
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This article appears in the May 2021 issue of Edify.