Forrester, Maureen

Maureen Forrester, contralto, teacher (b at Montréal 25 July 1930 - d Toronto 16 June 2010). Of working-class Scottish and Irish background, Forrester initially studied piano from an early age but, with no thought of making her living through music, left school at age 13 for a series of clerical and receptionist jobs. As a teenaged soloist, however, in church choirs at Stanley Presbyterian, Saint James' United and Erskine and American United, she received music instruction from organists Warner Norman and Doris Killam. Later, through voice studies with Sally Martin and Frank Rowe, she further developed her singing voice - particularly its lower range - and performed in various local concerts.

In 1951, and by that time studying with Bernard Diamant - "He taught me to put a core in the note so it carries, and then you can cover it with any colour you want" - she made her professional debut with the Montréal Elgar Choir in Elgar's The Music Makers. With assistance from a Ladies' Morning Musical Club scholarship, and financial help from Montreal Star publisher and philanthropist J.W. McConnell (who subsequently underwrote her career expenses for some 10 years), she made her solo recital debut of German lieder in 1953 at the Montreal YWCA. She sang minor roles with the Opera Guild of Montreal and, in 1954, made her Montreal Symphony Orchestra debut, performing in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony under Otto Klemperer. During 1953-54, Forrester also toured northern Ontario and Québec with Les Jeunesses Musicales du Canada, appeared in several CBC radio and television broadcasts, and performed in 1954 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Handel's Messiah. Other successes followed: her 1955 Paris debut and subsequent European recital tour sponsored by Jeunesses Musicales and, in 1956, a Canadian tour during which, at the Stratford Festival, she premiered Harry Somers's Five Songs for Dark Voice.

Forrester's very well-received New York Town Hall debut recital in 1956 not only immediately placed her in great demand, but also occasioned her meeting with Bruno Walter for whom, in 1957, she sang in the Second Symphony by Mahler, a composer whose music she had hitherto not known, but for which she has since developed a remarkable affinity for its "universal communicative quality." Harold Shaw recalled her singing works by this composer, more than 20 years later in China, before a spellbound Beijing audience of 8000. Described early in her career as the Canadian Kathleen Ferrier, she has long been favourably compared with the British contralto. Forrester's richly dark voice, whether in its power and clarion brilliance or in its intimate and dusky sumptuousness, has journeyed comfortably through virtually the entire contralto and mezzo repertoire, her imaginative interpretations marked always by superbly impeccable, sophisticated musicianship and by consistent sensitivity. (Her 1985 performance, for example, of Srul Irving Glick's ...i never saw another butterfly, the song cycle of children's poems written in a concentration camp, was of remarkable empathy.) Indeed, demanding schedules of solo recitals, tours, oratorio appearances, concerts and other performances with leading symphony orchestras and world-class conductors have, during her career, taken her to five continents.

Song cycles and solo roles performed repeatedly have ranged from Brahms's Alto Rhapsody to arias in Bach's St. Matthew Passion, from MORAWETZ's A Child's Garden of Verses to Chatman's You Are Happy, from Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe to Handel's Roman Vespers. Always fully at home in the recital and oratorio repertoire, she has nonetheless also appeared in some 20 operas, both in Canada and abroad, where her roles have included Gluck's Orpheus, Cornelia in Giulio Cesare (her US stage debut in 1966), La Cieca in La Gioconda, the Witch in Hansel und Gretel, Madame Flora in Menotti's The Medium, Arnalta in L'incoronazione di Poppea and the Countess in The Queen of Spades. This latter role, sung not only in Canada and the US but in Italy at her 1990 La Scala debut, is one in which her Countess's dramatically chilling death-rattle holds the audience in thrall. In 1965, with soprano Lois MARSHALL, she joined the Bach Aria Group and remained with it until 1974.

A respected teacher of voice, she first gave masterclasses in 1965 and 1966 at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto; was made voice department chairperson in 1966 at the Philadelphia Music Academy; taught part-time at the University of Toronto in 1971-72; and, as she did in 1985 at the University of Alberta's department of music, has given masterclasses in a variety of locations. The wide scope and diverse repertoire demonstrated by Forrester's opulent voice over her career in public performance have also been amply represented in an extensive discography.

Regularly described as "truly world class," the contralto remains a strong supporter of Canada's musicians and composers, premiering many new works such as Gabriel Charpentier's Trois Poèmes de St-Jean de la Croix, Robert Fleming's The Confession Stone, Harry Freedman's Poems of Young People, Jean Coulthard's Three Sonnets of Shakespeare and R. Murray Schafer's Adieu Robert Schumann. She was invested in 1967 as a Companion of the Order of Canada and, among many subsequent honours and awards, received the Molson Prize (1971), was made honorary member of the International Music Council (1977), received the Canada Music Day Award (1981), won a Canada Music Council medal (1983), was given a life membership from Canadian Actor's Equity (1986), and received the Order of Ontario in 1990. Inducted that same year into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, she is the only classical performer other than Glenn Gould to hold that honour.

Accepting the chair of the Canada Council in 1983, she for five years used this voluntary position to promote Canadian musicians, artists and cultural organizations with government agencies across Canada. Chancellor from 1986 to 1990 at Wilfrid Laurier University, she was honoured in 1994 by that institution's simultaneously establishing a music scholarship fund in her name and christening its Maureen Forrester Recital Hall. She received, in 1995, the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for her many accomplishments and for her major reputation in the development of Canadian arts and music. With her receiving, also in 1995, that year's Royal Bank Award for "significant contribution to human welfare and the common good," Forrester joined a prestigious list of earlier recipients, including Morley Callaghan, Hugh MacLennan and Northrop Frye. She holds in addition some 30 honorary degrees.

Ever good-humoured, Forrester was well-known for her affectionate graciousness with performer and interviewer alike: "Temperament is an excuse for singers who don't know their parts, or is simply bad manners." Married to violinist Eugene Kash from 1957 to 1974, she has seen two of her five children pursue careers in theatre. Out of Character, her memoirs published in 1986, not only recounts her many associations with musicians and managers - with whom she has always been popular both for her arriving at rehearsals fully prepared and for her physical stamina - but also reveals her personal warmth and greatness of spirit.

Claiming that she would "never stop singing," Forrester by 1996 toured Canada in a one-woman show, Interpretations of a Life, a musical biography. By turns comedic, melancholic, pensive and whimsical, the production, written by her long-time accompanist David Warrack, contains songs ranging in style from classical to pop, and its Canadian success has resulted in a CD recording and requests that it be taken abroad.

Reducing her earlier hectic annual schedule of some 150 appearances to about 60 - many of these benefit concerts for arthritis, AIDS and other causes - left Forrester more time for her philanthropic activities.