CBC Digital Archives

Contralto Maureen Forrester

Since the Canadian Opera Company's inaugural eight-day season in 1950, the company has introduced some of the world's greatest singers, commissioned works by Canadian composers and librettists and devised innovative ways of attracting audiences. From that very first performance to the long-awaited opening of a new home at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, CBC Digital Archives goes backstage with the Canadian Opera Company.

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Before Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester earned standing ovations around the world, she was a 20-year-old contestant in a CBC Radio talent show. After Forrester sings Handel's Ombra mai fu, she tells show host John Adaskin that she's a part-time telephone operator and "a starving musician." Adaskin praises the young artist's voice. "Believe me," he says, "if you keep singing as you did tonight, you won't be a starving anything."

• This is the first known recording of Forrester singing. She beat a male singer on her first appearance CBC Radio's Opportunity Knocks to advance to the next round. However, she lost in the finals to 19-year-old Montreal pianist Morris Kronick. He was later known as horn player and bandleader Maury Kaye. As the first runner-up, Forrester won $100.

• Maureen Katherine Stewart Forrester was born July 25, 1930 in Montreal. The youngest of four children, she studied piano as a child and sang in church choirs. She left school at age 13 and financed her own studies with odd jobs including secretary and telephone operator. She made her professional debut with the Montreal Elgar Choir on Dec. 8, 1951 at the Salvation Army Citadel in Montreal.

• In a 2000 interview with CBC Television, Forrester said her five-decade singing career was decided by her mother, who loved to sing at their Presbyterian church. "I wanted to be a basketball player," Forrester said.

• The young Forrester auditioned for Bernard Diamant, a well-known vocal coach. He told her she had a beautiful voice but didn't know how to sing. Diamant forbade her from performing in public for six months while he moulded her contralto, the lowest female singing voice. Forrester started as a soprano but switched as a teen when her voice deepened. Her voice was famous for its depth and power.

• The singer's career was launched with the help of J.W. McConnell, publisher of the Montreal Star. He became her patron after reading glowing reports from his young critic Eric McLean. McConnell later cut off his support, however, after learning that Forrester had had a baby out of wedlock with violinist Eugene Kash, who later became her husband.

• Forrester's rise to international acclaim was given a huge boost with her New York debut on Nov. 12, 1956. She sang Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony under the direction of legendary conductor Bruno Walter. Forrester later became known as one of the world's leading interpreters of Mahler's music. Walter had worked with Mahler himself at the Court Opera in Vienna.

• A skilled linguist, Forrester has sung in every major language in every major opera house. While known internationally for grand opera, over her long career Forrester showed her versatility at both comedy and drama. She performed solo recitals, in operettas and even played a madcap witch in the 1970 CBC Television production of Hansel and Gretel. Throughout the '70s and '80s she appeared frequently with the Canadian Opera Company in a variety of roles including Brangäne in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and the Marquise in Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment.

• Forrester and her husband, Eugene Kash, met when she performed at an Ottawa high school. Eighteen years her senior, Kash was conductor of the Ottawa Philharmonic Orchestra. Forrester had the first of their five children while on tour in Germany. The birth was kept secret, and they married almost two years later. The pair separated in the 1970s but remained close friends.

• Forrester has received virtually every honour possible, including almost 30 honorary doctorates. Forrester was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1967. In 2000, she was given a star on the Walk of Fame in Toronto. Buildings named in her honour include the Maureen Forrester Recital Hall of Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

• Forrester played a key role in a memorable moment in Canadian history. It was she who hatched the idea of getting Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on stage to sing at the gala capping his 1987 meeting with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in Quebec City. At what has become known as the Shamrock Summit, Forrester said from the stage: "Would you come down and join us, Mr. President and Mr. Prime Minister?" They sang When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

• Forrester died on June 16, 2010 at the age of 79.

Medium: Radio
Program: Opportunity Knocks
Broadcast Date: April 16, 1951
Guest(s): Maureen Forrester
Host: John Adaskin
Duration: 4:21

Last updated: February 13, 2014

Page consulted on April 9, 2014

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