Opera great Forrester dies

JOHN COULBOURN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:27 PM ET

One of the greatest operatic voices of her time started out as a soprano, morphed into a mezzo and soared to international stardom as a contralto.

Regardless of the vocal range, Maureen Forrester was always a proud Canadian.

Forrester died Wednesday in Toronto, after a long battle with Alzheimer's, mere weeks shy of her 80th birthday.

Born one of four children in a working-class family in Montreal, Forrester as a child was too involved in helping her family make ends meet to allow music to be much more than a hobby for her, singing in the church and radio choirs, and picking up the rudiments of music theory.

At age 16 and employed as a secretary, she began to take music more seriously, signing up for voice lessons at her brothers' urging.

Forrester made her professional debut at age 21, her symphony debut in Montreal in 1953 and after debuting in Toronto and Paris, made her way to the New York stage in 1956. And though she never looked back career-wise, her heart never left as she launched what would become a stellar operatic and concert career that, at its peak, saw her perform as many as 120 times a year on stages around the world.

In 1957, she converted to Judaism in order to marry violinist and conductor Daniel Kash, with whom she raised five children -- Paula (Burton), Gina (Dineen), Linda, Susan (Whaley) and Daniel. To her great regret, the couple separated in 1974.

Although her career took her all over the globe, Forrester not only managed to find her way back to Canada, but she remained resolutely Canadian as well.

She famously assumed the Chair of the Canada Council for a five-year period from 1983-88, heading it up through a time when the Council's long established commitment to an arm's-length relationship between the government and arts funding was under serious threat from the ruling party of the day.

Although her commitment to the Council and its goals was celebrated, it took her focus away from her career at a time, as she would later observe, when she really should have been devoting her time to performance, coaching and storing up the resources that that would see her through a comfortable retirement.

In later years she was all but buried in laurels. Forrester was named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1967, received a Toronto Arts Award in 1988, was named to the Canadian Hall of Fame, is a member of the Juno Hall of Fame, was honoured with a star on Canada's Walk of Fame, was awarded a Ruby award as a creative artist by Opera Canada, accumulated 29 honorary doctorates and even served as chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University.

Late in life, Forrester happily made her home at Toronto's Performing Arts Lodge, surrounded by friends and peers from the cultural community, until the ravages of her disease dictated that she be moved to a facility that could offer better care.

Maureen Forrester was born into a Canada where culture was a commodity that was most often imported and, like so many of her generation, she devoted her talent, her career and much of her life to transforming it to something we not only made here, but exported as well.

And while she deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest voices Canada has ever produced, we should never lose sight of the fact that she was a cultural pioneer as well -- one of a few people celebrated by an anonymous poet in To The Pioneers:

"For us, the heat by day, the cold by night, the inch slow progress and the heavy load," he wrote. "For them, the shade of trees that now we plant, the safe, smooth journey and the certain goal.

"And yet, the road is ours as never theirs; Is not great joy on us alone bestowed? For us, the master joy of pioneers. We shall not travel, but we make the road."

john.coulbourn@sunmedia.ca


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