Mau­reen For­rester: Canada’s mu­si­cal am­bas­sador to the world

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - News - — JESSE KLINE

Born to a Scot­tish fa­ther and Ir­ish mother in a work­ing-class neigh­bour­hood in Mon­treal, Mau­reen For­rester started her mu­sic ca­reer per­form­ing in church and ra­dio choirs. She went on to be­come one of this coun­try’s most prom­i­nent Jewish en­ter­tain­ers and, in­deed, one of the most cel­e­brated Cana­dian opera singers of all time.

It may seem an un­likely tale – almost as im­prob­a­ble as the fact that she dropped out of school at age 13 and went on to re­ceive 29 hon­orary doctorates and serve as chan­cel­lor of Wil­frid Lau­rier Uni­ver­sity – but For­rester dis­cov­ered her mu­si­cal tal­ents early in life, tak­ing a job as a sec­re­tary at age 16 to fi­nance her singing les- sons, and was able to ex­ploit them with un­par­al­leled success. By the time she was 21, in 1953, she be­gan her pro­fes­sional ca­reer with her sym­phony de­but in Mon­treal. It was a ca­reer that, at its height, saw her per­form­ing up­wards of 120 times per year, all around the world.

De­spite be­ing best known as an op­er­atic con­tralto, For­rester started out as a con­cert singer. In 1970, de­spite protes­ta­tions from a col­league who said For­rester did not have the skills to per­form in an opera, con­duc­tor Mario Bernardi hired her to per­form in a pro­duc­tion of Hansel and Gretel that aired on CBC Tele­vi­sion. For­rester never looked back.

She also never lost touch with her hum­ble be­gin­nings and never let the fame go to her head. In the mid-1970s, for ex­am­ple, For­rester agreed to a pro bono ap­pear­ance in a pro­duc­tion of Werther, along­side Paul Frey, a young Uni­ver­sity of Toronto stu­dent. Frey, who was in awe of his larger-than-life co-star, did not feel it was right for him to take the fi­nal bow, de­spite play­ing the ti­tle role. When she got wind of this, For­rester so­licited the stage manager to hold on to Frey un­til af­ter she went on stage, so he could have the fi­nal bow.

“As she came back off­stage, pass­ing a red-faced Frey, pro­pelled out by the stage manager for his proper fi­nal bow, Mau­reen mut­tered to him, ‘The name of the opera is Werther, af­ter all!’ Stu­art Hamil­ton, who was work­ing with For­rester at the time, told the Globe and Mail in 2010. “She was ut­terly gen­er­ous in that way.”

For­rester was also a strong ad­vo­cate for the arts and Cana­dian artists, hav­ing cham­pi­oned and pre­mièred pieces from a wide range of Cana­dian com­posers through­out the years. She also chaired the Canada Coun­cil for the Arts from 1983 to 1988, and fa­mously stared down the Pierre Trudeau gov­ern­ment in 1984, af­ter it tabled leg­is­la­tion that would have made her arm’s-length or­ga­ni­za­tion – along with the CBC and the Na­tional Arts Cen­tre – more “ac­count­able” to the gov­ern­ment of the day. Af­ter For­rester told the pres­i­dent of the Trea­sury Board that she would step down if the leg­is­la­tion passed as is, the of­fend­ing pas­sages were promptly dropped from the bill.

“Mau­reen had saved a prin­ci­ple ba­sic to the in­de­pen­dence of the arts,” for­mer Canada Coun­cil di­rec­tor Ti­mothy Por­te­ous told the Globe in 2011.

In 1957, For­rester con­verted to Ju­daism, in or­der to marry Toronto vi­o­lin­ist Eugene Kash. And although their mar­riage ended in 1974, For­rester kept the faith and raised their five chil­dren in a Jewish house­hold.

“My fa­ther and mother fell in love soon af­ter they met. Their life to­gether was like a tale from a ro­man­tic movie,” Linda Kash told The CJN in 2013. “How­ever, my fa­ther’s fam­ily would have been against the mar­riage if she did not con­vert to Ju­daism. She was con­cerned about be­ing Jewish enough to raise us as Jews, and we know ev­ery­thing about our her­itage.”

For­rester was named a com­pan­ion of the Or­der of Canada in 1967 and an of­fi­cer of the Na­tional Or­der of Quebec in 2003. In 1990, she was in­ducted into the Cana­dian Mu­sic Hall of Fame, and re­ceived a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2000.

For­rester passed away at age 79 in 2010.

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