The passing of Canadian and international superstar contralto Maureen Forrester on Wednesday, June 16 2010 at the age of 79, after she suffered some time from dementia, ended a singing career that spanned all continents and saw her work with the greatest conductors of her time.
She was born in a poor section of east Montreal on July 25, 1930 to working class parents during a hard time for North Americans. The Great Depression had begun with the U.S. Black Tuesday stock market crash 9 months before and the youngest of four was not brought into life with the pedigree most operatic contraltos are afforded.
But Forrester possessed from the start a larger than life personality and proved to be one who would never back away from a challenge. It helped that her parents were hard-working and the family managed through the tough times.
Contralto’s Debut with Montreal Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
Forrester began to sing at church and on the burgeoning media of radio, in choirs. She was forced to drop out of school in Grade 9 due to a teacher shortage caused by World War 2 and never did complete her education. She worked at many jobs, including using her voice as an operator for Bell Telephone.
Encouraged by a brother to take singing lessons – eventually studying with Bernard Diamant, a Dutch-Canadian baritone of the time – and she excelled. She performed her recital debut at the YMCA in 1953 and rose quickly; everything she did garnered her positive reviews and fresh opportunity. Soon she had her debut with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra – Beethoven’s ninth – under Otto Klemperer and in 1956 made her New York debut in the historic Town Hall.
Forrester Sang with John Newman and Great Conductors Like Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein
Maureen Forrester developed a strong life-long working relationship with pianist John Newmark and one of the great conductors of that time, Bruno Walter. Herr first European tour came by the time she was 25 and she was soon performing with most of the big orchestras of the time in North America, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Other conductors she worked with included Leonard Bernstein, Herbert Von Karajan, Eugene Ormandy, Andrew Davis, Raymond Leppard and Seiji Ozawa.
Opera Roles and Recordings and Forrester Renown for Mahler Work
Throughout her career Maureen Forrester performed dozens of opera roles and made many dozens of recordings, some considered the best of her time. Recordings included Symphony No. 2 with the New York Philharmonic, with Walter conducting, and the Song of the Earth for conductor Mario Bernardi. She was well-noted for singing Mahler.
In her lifetime she was given some 29 honorary university doctorate degrees and was the chancellor of Ontario’s Sir Wilfred Laurier University from 1986 to 1990. Married for twenty years to violinist and conductor Eugene Kash they had five children, two, Linda Kash and Daniel Kash, are well-known actors; Daniel appearing in nearly 100 TV shows and films while Linda has been a regular on many shows, including the Canadian series Robson Arms.
Maureen Forrester Had Great Sense of Humor: played “…witches, bitches”
The daughter of a poor Scottish cabinetmaker and his Irish wife was known for a strong sense of humor and one quote she reportedly gave often to the press, eventually put into a song for her by friend David Warrack, went like this: “I’ve played mother, maids, witches, bitches, nurses, aunts and roles in pants. It’s obvious I’m highly qualified, but I never get to play the bride.”
Maureen Forrester was named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1967.