Opera community mourns loss of Canadian vocal coach Stuart Hamilton

Stuart Hamilton, an award-winning Toronto-based pianist and radio broadcaster who was one of the country's top vocal coaches for more than six decades, has died at age 87.

Hamilton's career as pianist, radio broadcaster and vocal coach spanned more than 60 years

Legendary Toronto vocal coach Stuart Hamilton died Sunday at age 87. (William Porquet)

The Canadian opera community is mourning the death on New Year's Day of Stuart Hamilton, an award-winning Toronto-based pianist and radio broadcaster who was one of the country's top vocal coaches for more than six decades.

He died in Toronto at age 87.

Hamilton worked with Canadian singers including Lois Marshall and Maureen Forrester, and played concerts across Canada, and in New York and London as a soloist.

Originally from Regina, Hamilton was the first music director of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble and could be heard on CBC's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera for more than 25 years.

Hamilton died after 10-year cancer fight

Hamilton's sister, actress Patricia Hamilton, said he was in palliative care in a Toronto hospital before his death after battling cancer for 10 years.

In an emotional phone call with CBC, she spoke of his love for singers and his generous spirit. "A lot of his pupils were able to come and see him before he died," she added.

"Stuart was a great mentor and a great friend to everybody," said conductor Robert Cooper, who produced Saturday Afternoon at the Opera for three decades. "He was a gracious, urbane, gentle human being with boundless operatic knowledge."

Bass baritone Robert de Vrij, executive director for Opera Canada magazine throughout the 1990s, tried to visit Hamilton at the hospital on New Year's Day, but learned his longtime friend had passed away earlier that day. 

Hamilton was a gifted pianist, de Vrij said, but was "bloody brilliant" as a coach for so many singers.

"I would dare say that there are so many Canadian singers — an inordinate number of Canadian singers — who owe, in a large part, their career and success to what he gave them," de Vrij said.

Hamilton's lifelong influence in the country's musical world landed him many honours.

He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1984 for his contribution to the country's music, won the Toronto Arts Award in 1989 and was the recipient of the Governor General's Award commemorating Canada's 125th year.

Hamilton worked with Canadian singers including Lois Marshall and Maureen Forrester, and played concerts across Canada, and in New York and London as a soloist.

Hamilton an 'operatic encyclopedia'

But he's perhaps best known for inspiring others singers in Canada's music community.

Many took to social media to remember his musical impact and well-known affinity for leather clothing.

"I'm now imagining him, the confirmed atheist, surprised but nevertheless coaching all the singers in heaven with tremendous aplomb ... wearing white leather chaps and a magnificent pair of wings," wrote mezzo-soprano Ramona Carmelly in a Facebook post.

Carmelly told CBC Toronto she was a student of Hamilton's off-and-on for more than 20 years.

"The most wonderful thing about Stuart is he believed in us more than we believed in ourselves," she said.

"Heaven just gained an amazing, inspirational, flamboyant, kind coach, who's instruction was far more than just the pronunciation and vocal line," echoed tenor Stephen Bell on Facebook.

In a blog post on Sunday, Toronto-based pianist and vocal coach David Eliakis called Hamilton an incredible coach, a huge inspiration and an "operatic encyclopedia."

"I remember walking into his studio at College Park; he greeted me in his Harley Davidson t-shirt and full leather ensemble, and within minutes he had made me feel so at ease, and so ready to enjoy making beautiful music," he wrote.

"I couldn't get over the amount of information coming out of this man, and how he was able to deliver it in a way that made it feel more like a group of friends discovering the joy of music making rather than it feeling like a lecture of information I've heard a thousand times before," Eliakis added.

Hamilton leaves behind two sisters, Patricia Hamilton and Dorothy Marshall, and his nephew, actor Ben Carlson.