Before Celine or Shania, Canada had its own diva in the form of opera star Maureen Forrester.
Born of Scottish-Irish descent in a working-class French-speaking Montreal neighbourhood in 1930, Forrester sang in choirs as a child and studied the piano. She dropped out of school at age 13 to help pay for singing lessons by working as a secretary at Bell Canada. (Additional financial assistance came from the Montreal Social Club.) Her teachers included Dutch tenor Bernard Diamant, a teacher at Montreal’s École Vincent d’Indy and McGill University.
Forrester’s professional debut occurred December 1951 at the Salvation Army Citadel where she performed with the Montreal Elgar Choir. At age 23 she began a long association with John Newmark, a Montreal pianist, accompanist and coach with whom she would tour the world. That same year, in 1953, she performed her debut recital at a local YWCA alongside Newmark.
International recognition soon followed as Forrester toured Europe on behalf the Jeunesses Musicales of France in 1955. (The Montreal office of JM, for whom Forrester toured Ontario and Quebec in the ‘53/‘54 season, would inaugurate a Maureen Forrester Award in 2012, the winner of which performs two seasons across Canada with the troupe.) The tour, with John Newmark, was so successful it was extended into 1956.
At age 28 she was chosen by German-born conductor Bruno Walter, best known as a disciple and student of (and friend to) Gustav Mahler, to record Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony,” and Walter’s own “Song of the Earth” with the New York Philharmonic.
Having established herself as a recitalist and concert singer, Forrester made a late entry into the world of opera. Conductor Mario Bernardi hired her in 1970 to sing the role of the Witch in a CBC-TV production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Other high-profile roles included Marcellina in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, the Stepmother in Massenet’s Cendrillon, and the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.
Forrester was always a strong supporter of Canadian culture and emerging talent. She chaired the Canada Council from 1983 to 1988, and premiered several major vocal pieces across a spectrum of Canadian composers.
She was also a teacher, giving master classes in 1965-66 at the Royal Conservatory of Music and at the University of Alberta in 1985. She also taught part-time at the University of Toronto in 1971-72.
Forrester’s storied career as one of the world’s leading contraltos was recognized by many institutions. She was awarded the Companion of the Order of Canada in 1967 and was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1990. Canada’s Walk of Fame awarded her a star in 2000, and she was made an Officer of the National Order of Quebec in 2003. She also accumulated some 30 honorary degrees from Canadian universities, including McGill, Toronto and Dalhousie.
Her memoir, Out of Character, co-authored with journalist Marci McDonald, was published in 1986 by McClelland & Stewart.
Forrester passed away in Toronto on June 10, 2010 at age 79. She was survived by her five children (from her marriage to Toronto violinist Eugene Kash) and their children.
Makes professional debut at the Salvation Army Citadel
Awarded the Companion of the Order of Canada
Toured China with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame
Awarded a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame
Made an Officer of the National Order of Quebec