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Maureen Forrester: Opera Canada Awards: creative artist.

In the world of Canadian music, Maureen Forrester is an icon. There have been few artists with such a long and distinguished career. In addition to being one of the greatest contraltos of our time, she has also been an inspiring teacher, a goodwill ambassador for Canada, an untiring champion of Canadian music and a high-profile administrator for major arts organizations such as the Canada Council. Recipient of just about every conceivable award and accolade, including the Order of Canada and over 30 honorary degrees, Forrester is likely the most decorated singer in Canada. Her imprint on the Canadian music scene is indelible.

Forrester celebrated her 70th birthday on July 25, but she feels she still has much to offer. "I tell people that the day they put me in a box, I'd probably open the door and say, `Hey wait a minute, here's another song!'" she says with a laugh. Next year, she will celebrate another milestone--a half century in front of the public. What accounts for her ongoing energy? "I enjoy life and I just love what I do."

One of four children born to a working-class family in Montreal, Forrester had to work at the age of 13 to earn a living: "I had all of one-and-a-half years of high school." Even though money was hard to come by, her mother encouraged her to study piano and sing in various church choirs. The advancement of her career was helped immensely by Montreal Star publisher J.W. McConnell, who, recognizing the young Forrester's talent, underwrote her professional expenses for more than a decade. As a result, in 1950, she came under the tutelage of Dutch baritone Bernard Diamant, who had a great influence in her career, and she also travelled to Berlin to study with Michael Raucheisen.

Forrester made her professional debut in 1951 and her recital debut in 1953 in Montreal, accompanied by John Newmark, who became an important collaborator for many years. One of her most significant milestones was her appearance with Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic, as the soloist in Mahler's Resurrection Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 1957. Their partnership was the stuff of legend. Walter personally coached the young Canadian on Mahler, and their recordings set the standard for all that came after. One of Forrester's biggest regrets is that she did not record Dais Lied yon der Erde with Walter, due to an exclusive contract she had signed with RCA a few months earlier.

In her prime years, Forrester gave some 120 performances annually on five continents. "I spent 90 percent of my working life on the road," she says. She sang with many of the greatest conductors, including Walter, George Szell, Leopold Stokowski, Otto Klemperer, Fritz Reiner, Josef Krips, Herbert yon Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir John Barbirolli, Eugene Ormandy, William Steinberg, Igor Markevitch, Lorin Maazel, Ferenc Fricsay, Zubin Mehta, Hermann Scherchen, Seiji Ozawa and Sk Andrew Davis. She also worked with such young conducting geniuses as Riccardo Muti and James Levine at the beginning of their careers. Her musicality and professionalism made her a perennial favorite. "I never had any problems with conductors," she says. "The great ones are all very demanding, but if you come prepared, they don't give you a hard time. They like me because I show up on time, know my part and I am cheerful."

Even when she was in demand worldwide, Forrester remained loyal to her Canadian roots, averaging 30 performances a year at home and appearing frequently with the Montreal and Toronto symphonies. A champion of Canadian music, she has sung in numerous premieres of new works, and many composers have written pieces especially for her.

An emotional person, Forrester reacts to music on a gut level and draws upon her own life experiences in her interpretations, which explains why her Mahler has the capacity to move an audience like no other's. Known primarily as a concert singer, she nevertheless undertook a good number of operatic roles. She made her stage debut in Montreal as a sewing girl in Charpentier's Louise in 1953, followed by the Innerkeeper in Boris Godunov in 1954. In 1962, she made her Toronto stage debut as Orpheus in Orpheus and Eurydice, under Nicholas Goldschmidt, who describes the experience as "unforgettable," and adds, "She is one of Canada's treasures."

The bulk of Forrester's operatic performances took place in middle to late career. Her most celebrated operatic roles included Brangaene (Tristan), Dame Quickly (Falstaff), the Old Countess (Pique Dame), Herodias (Salome), Klytemnestra (Elektra), La Cieca (La Gioconda), Madame de Croissy(Les Dialogues des Carmelites), Erda (the Ring) Ulrica (Un Ballo in Maschera), the Witch (Hansel und Gretel) and Madame Flora (The Medium).

Forrester has always been interested in members of the younger generation and they, of course, Tenor Ben Heppner says, "The legend of Maureen Forrester was well established in my mind long before I had the pleasure of meeting her. Her quality work, outstanding vocal abilities and exquisite musicianship were familiar to me, as evidence by the well-worn grooves on my records." Heppner first met Forrester at the COC Production of Elektra in 1983. "All of the warmth and beauty of the voice I had heard on recordings was there in person, but what struck me most was Maureen's absolute love of life. She worked tirelessly on the day of the opening, and hosted festivities at her sumptuous suite. I was amazed at her energy, so I asked her how she could do all of this on the day of the show. She looked at me and said dryly, `Overdraft, honey, overdraft.'"

Forrester has long been a sought-after teacher, and she feels strongly that "you have to give back, to pass on what you learned from the great teachers of the past." She taught at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto as early as the mid-'60s, followed by a stint at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia with her then husband, violinist Eugene Kash. She was also on the faculty of at the University of Toronto in the early '70s.

In 1986, she published, in collaboration with journalist Marci McDonald, a book of memoirs entitled Out of Character. Unlike many puff pieces of divaspeak, Forrester wrote about her private life with honesty and candor, without sensationalism but with a zany sense of humor.

She remains close to her former husband, five children and 11 grandchildren. A happy and optimistic person by nature, Forrester wrote in her book 14 years ago, "There are so many things still left to do and songs still waiting to be sung. I swear I've barely taken wing." Prophetic words indeed.
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Author:So, Joseph
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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