Music Issue: Racing to the stage against her own clock

Editor’s note: As the Juno Awards 2013 prepare to celebrate the best of Canadian music this weekend, Western Journalism students help us celebrate the best in Western Music. Read the full Music Issue.

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Irena Welhasch Baerg did not set milestones. She set a deadline.

The Winnipeg-born soprano decided early in life she was going to give singing everything she had. But there was a limit on how long she would try. If she was not singing major roles by the time she was 30, she would find another profession.

Welhasch Baerg left home at 18 to study at the University of Toronto, but struggled financially. “I was so dirt poor as a student my goals had to be practical goals,” she said. “I had to eat and pay the rent.”

And she beat the deadline.

At 26, she joined the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and got her first big break singing Rosalinda in Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. She would go on to star as Blanche in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites – aired on CBC in 1986 – and to give more than a thousand performances as Carlotta in the Toronto production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera.

Welhasch Baerg has performed the title roles in such classics as Dvorák’s Rusalka (in 2000) and she has shared the stage with such opera greats as the late Dame Joan Sutherland. However, her most memorable performances are with world renowned baritone Theodore Baerg, a music professor at Western and her husband. They met in 1982 while performing with the COC.

“He was my leading man,” Welhasch Baerg said.

For the baritone, it was love at first sound. “I heard her singing from outside the room and I thought, ‘Wow! I love that voice,’ ” Baerg said. And when they worked together he was impressed by the level of her commitment to her artistry.

That dedication paid off. She proved herself within two years and for the next 10 years the COC would rehire her on a regular basis.

To add to her university education, Welhasch Baerg studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (1981-82) and received private sessions in New York. She also spent two summers at the Banff Centre (formerly known as the Banff School of Fine Arts) and continued her journey to perfect a craft that is never fully perfected. “You are always learning. You have to keep improving your technique.”

But her voice was not the only thing she had to train.

“Part of your training includes developing your psyche to become more resilient,” the singer said. “You can’t let negative circumstances affect you.”

However, there are situations you can never prepare for. Her father getting lung cancer almost destroyed her. When he lost his voice to the disease, she lost her desire to sing.

Her father died in May 2010. It would take more than a year for the singer to regain her desire and her voice. “You lose it and then you have to find it all over again. Sometimes you just have to get up and do it.”

Welhasch Baerg has sung actively for more than 30 years, and sometimes she can’t believe how far she has come. “It’s a little bit like a dream already,” she said.

And sometimes it only hits her when she hears young singers performing, she said. “My husband and I will look at each other and say, ‘We did that! And not just that, we did it on the world’s greatest stages.’ ”