Stuart Hamilton on teaching the world to sing opera

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (06/01/13)

Opening Windows by Stuart Hamilton.jpg

If there's anyone to thank for the illustrious career of Canada's foremost vocal coach Stuart Hamilton, it's Shirley Temple. At the age of five, Hamilton was enchanted by the adorable Hollywood moppet as he sat in his hometown of Regina watching her light up the silver screen. She would be just the first of many women to influence — and be influenced by — Hamilton. The list of singers Hamilton helped coach to fame is long and impressive, including names like Maureen Forrester, Elizabeth Benson Guy, Isabel Bayrakdarian and Lois Marshall. Hamilton has written a new memoir about his life in music, called Opening Windows, and he recently spoke with Michael Enright on The Sunday Edition about the book and his career.

Hamilton's career as a vocal coach spans 60-plus years. As an accompanist and solo performer, he has played many of the world's great concert halls, including Massey Hall in Toronto, Carnegie Hall in New York and London's Wigmore Hall. He was also the founder and artistic director of Opera in Concert and was the first artistic director of the Canadian Opera Company ensemble.

But back to America's tap-dancing sweetheart for a second. How on earth did Shirley Temple lead Hamilton to a life in opera? "She made me realize how hateful my life was in Regina. I wanted to get out and be up there with Shirley on the screen," said Hamilton. Indeed, Hamilton's parents didn't provide much in the way of musical inspiration: his mother played a bit of piano, but not well. His sister, however, was a budding singer. (His other sister, Patricia Hamilton, would become a well-known actor.) "Dorothy had a great voice and I wanted to play for her," Hamilton said. "So I started to study the piano. As it turned out, Dorothy gave up her career after getting married and I only played one concert for her."

It may have been the last concert for Dorothy, but Hamilton's own career was just beginning. Despite his talented siblings, Hamilton regarded Regina as a "desert," and he couldn't wait to get out. He won a scholarship that allowed him to move to Toronto to study piano. He studied under Alberto Guerrero, whose most famous pupil was Glenn Gould. "Glenn and I became friends for awhile, and then he got famous and I didn't," said Hamilton. Guerrero was a great teacher, but he wasn't encouraging about Hamilton's prospects as a concert pianist. "He said I had the worst hands he'd ever tried to work with."

So Hamilton made his mark on Canadian classical music by becoming a vocal coach, a career that dovetailed nicely with his obsession with opera. In Opening Windows, he shares a number of anecdotes about the great singers he's worked with over the years — and they're not always flattering. His friendship with Gould, for example, was once marred by an incident where Hamilton caught the great pianist in flagrante (as they say), and the two used to argue about their musical tastes all the time (Gould despised the French operas that Hamilton adores). And soprano Maureen Forrester, though a gifted natural singer, "was never an intellectual," said Hamilton, who then went on to relate the story of how, when working with Leonard Bernstein, Forrester didn't know what Bernstein meant when he told her to take it from the G sharp. "But she was a fabulous musician."

Music has been such an intrinsic part of Hamilton's whole life, career and identity, that he can't even imagine pusuing any other vocation. In fact, his musical education is still in progress. "Now that I'm ancient and not working as much, I still practice every day," he said. "And I've discovered Bach."

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