The Canadian contralto, teacher and administrator, Maureen (Katherine Stewart) Forrester, is the youngest of a family of four children raised in Montreal. She she studied piano as a child. Encouraged by her mother she joined Montreal church choirs, where two organists, Warner Norman at St James United and Doris Killam at Stanley Presbyterian, provided a background in music theory and literature. After she left high school at 13 her studies were financed by her earnings as a secretary, supplemented by assistance from the Montreal Social Club. She sang as a soprano until she was 17. She had begun voice studies at 16 in Montreal with Sally Martin, who soon recognized the potential of her lower voice, and she continued at 19 with Frank Rowe, a retired English oratorio and opera tenor. Forrester’s studies with Bernard Diamant, whom she has acknowledged as her most important teacher, began formally in 1950 and later continued on a casual basis into the 1960s. She also studied with Michael Raucheisen in Berlin (1955). She was first runner-up in ‘Opportunity Knocks’ of spring 1951 and also competed in ‘Singing Stars of Tomorrow’ and ‘Nos Futures Étoiles.’
Maureen Forrester made her professional debut with the Montreal Elgar Choir in Edward Elgar’s The Music Makers on December 8, 1951 at the Salvation Army Citadel. With the Opera Guild of Montreal she was a sewing girl in Charpentier’s Louise on January 9-10, 1953 and the Innkeeper in Boris Godunov on January 8-9, 1954. Although she had sung as a church soloist and in contests, Forrester did not make her recital debut until 29 Mar 1953 at the Montreal YWCA accompanied by John Newmark. This collaboration became a long-standing one and included world tours. She was then engaged to give a recital for the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club, which subsequently awarded her a scholarship. The expenses of launching a career which many accurately predicted would be among the greatest in Canadian annals were assumed for more than a decade by then publisher of the Montreal Star, J.W. McConnell, who had been made aware of the young singer’s gifts by his music critic Eric McLean.
After Maureen Forrester’s MSO debut on December 8-9, 1953 in L.v. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 under Otto Klemperer she appeared on CBC radio and TV, toured Quebec and Ontario 1953-1954 for the JMC (YMC), and made her Toronto Symphony Orchestra debut on December 29, 1954 in George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Forrester made her European debut on February 14, 1955 in Paris at the Salle Gaveau with Newmark. The European tour which followed, planned by the JM of France to last two months, was so successful that they continued to perform in recital and oratorio, and on the BBC and the Westdeutscher Rundfunk until January 1956. A subsequent Canadian tour included the premiere on August 11, 1956 at the Stratford Festival, of Harry Somers’ Five Songs for Dark Voice, a work commissioned for her by the festival. Among other pianists with whom Forrester has collaborated in recital are Stuart Hamilton, Donald Nolan, John Arpin, Derek Bampton, and David Warrack.
Maureen Forrester made her New York debut on November 12, 1956 at Town Hall and shortly afterwards, at the request of Bruno Walter, she sang in Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony (the ‘Resurrection’) in Bruno Walter’s farewell performances (February 17-19, 1957) with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. (She later sang the work at the orchestra’s 10,000th concert, a gala performance in March 1982). In addition to a demanding schedule of recitals, oratorio appearances, and broadcasts in Canada in 1957, she appeared with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London (under Thomas Beecham) and the Berliner Philharmoniker in its home city. Also in 1957 she married the violinist Eugene Kash (they separated in 1974). They have five children. At the 1958 Vancouver International Festival she sang Johannes Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody with the Vancouver Bach Choir under Bruno Walter (repeating it three days later in the presence of HRH Princess Margaret) and premiered Jean Coulthard’s Spring Rhapsody. She sang in 1960, 1961, and 1963 at the Casals Festival, and her 1960 performances there of the Alto Rhapsody and Alessandro Scarlatti’s recently rediscovered Salve regina were filmed by the NFB (Festival in Puerto Rico). In 1961 she gave the Canadian premiere (July 30) of the Salve regina at Stratford and the premiere (August 26) of Milhaud’s Bar Mitzvah Israel at the First Israel Music Festival in Jerusalem. In November she began an eight-concert tour of the USSR, and late in 1962 she toured Australia. She had lived for two years in Connecticut, and moved to Toronto in 1963. Her European and USA appearances continued. In 1963 she sang in the NBC TV production of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion (BWV 244). In 1965 she and Lois Marshall joined the USA-based Bach Aria Group (founded in 1946 by William H. Scheide), bringing the number of Canadians in the group’s quartet of singers to three (with Norman Farrow, bass-baritone, an original member). Forrester sang with the group until 1974.
Although she had coached singers previously, Maureen Forrester gave her first master-classes in the summers of 1965 and 1966 at the RCMT. In 1966 she became chairman of the voice department at the Philadelphia Music Academy, beginning her second sojourn in the USA. She returned in 1971 to Toronto and taught in 1971-1972 part-time at the University of Toronto, where her pupils included Mary Lou Fallis. She has also given master-classes for the Department of Music of the University of Alberta (in 1985), and in many locations where she has performed.
Often described as one of the world’s leading contraltos, Maureen Forrester always remained loyal to her Canadian origins and to Canadian music. She premiered Gabriel Charpentier’s Trois Poèmes de St-Jean de la Croix (1955), Jean Papineau-Couture’s Mort (1956), Robert Fleming’s The Confession Stone (Stratford, July 16, 1967), Harry Freedman’s Poems of Young People, and Srul I. Glick’s … i never saw another butterfly… (Toronto, September 6, 1969), four of Keith Bissell’s Six Folk Songs of Eastern Canada (at a CBC Festival, July 12, 1971), Oskar Morawetz’ A Child’s Garden of Verses (under the title From the World of a Child, at a CBC Festival, February 10, 1973) and his Psalm 22: God Why Have You Forsaken Me? (January 4, 1984), R. Murray Schafer’s Adieu Robert Schumann (with the NACO, March 14, 1978), Beauty and the Beast (with the Orford String Quartet, April 1, 1981), and The Garden of the Heart (with the NACO, May 6, 981), Jean Coulthard’s Three Sonnets of Shakespeare (Vancouver, April 2, 1978), and Stephen Chatman’s You Are Happy (Vancouver, March 1989).
Maureen Forrester gave as many as 120 performances a year on five continents (at one time averaging above 30 each year in Canada alone) and performed with virtually every major orchestra and choir in the world under John Barbirolli, Thomas Beecham, Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Casals, Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, Krips, James Levine, Ernest MacMillan, Seiji Ozawa, Fritz Reiner, Malcolm Sargent, Leopold Stokowski, Szell, Bruno Walter, and many other conductors. She appeared frequently and toured as soloist with both the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (USA, 1981-1982 performing Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’Eté) and Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Japan and China, 1978). She returned to China in 1982 with Claude Corbeil and pianist Claude Savard.
Although she sang very little opera until the 1970’s, Maureen Forrester was Cornelia in a concert performance on November 18, 1958 of G.F. Handel’s Julius Caesar with the American Opera Society and made her Toronto stage debut on May 28, 1962 as Orpheus in Orpheus and Eurydice under Nicholas Goldschmidt at O’Keefe Centre. In June 1966 she sang the role of Orfeo in the first recording of the 1761 Vienna version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, conducted by Charles Mackerras and published by Vanguard Bach Guild. Other assignments have included Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde in Buenos Aires (1963) for L’Opéra du Québec (1975) and for the Canadian Opera Company (1979); Cornelia in G.F. Handel’s Julius Caesar (Forrester’s USA stage debut on September 27, 1966, with the New York Opera); the Witch in Norman Campbell’s CBC TV production (1970) of Hansel and Gretel (a role she repeated at the 1979 Guelph Spring Festival, and at the San Diego Opera in 1984); Ulrica in The Masked Ball with the Edmonton Opera (1971); Fricka in the Canadian Opera Company’s Die Walküre (1971); Carmen in a concert performance (1972) with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra; Madame Flora in Menotti’s The Medium (1974 at the Stratford Festival and again in 1977 for the COMUS Music Theatre production in Toronto which also was telecast by CBC in November 1978); Mistress Ford in Falstaff for L’Opéra du Québec (1974); Erda in Das Rheingold for her Metropolitan Opera debut (February 10, 1975); the Countess in The Queen of Spades at Festival Canada (Festival Ottawa) in 1976, again in 1979, and in 1990 for her La Scala debut; Herodias in Salome with the Edmonton Opera in 1977 and the Canadian Opera Company in 1986; the Marquise in the Canadian Opera Company’s Daughter of the Regiment in 1977, Festival Ottawa’s in 1980, and her Opéra de Montréal debut in 1994; Klytemnestra in Elektra for the Canadian Opera Company (1983), Madame de la Haltière in Massenet’s Cendrillon for the San Franciso Opera (1982) and the New York City Opera (1983), the Old Prioress in Dialogues des Carmélites (COC, 1986), and Amente Nufe in the premiere of Schafer’s Ra in 1983.
Maureen Forrester also ventured into Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire, performing as Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe (1984 at the Stratford Festival) and as Katisha in the Canadian Opera Company’s Mikado (1986). As part of Carnegie Hall’s centennial celebrations she was a soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra in Verdi’s Falstaff (November 15, 1990) and with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under Raymond Leppard in the world premiere of an orchestral arrangement of Benjamin Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies (22 Jan 1991).
Maureen Forrester’s voice, originally a dark mezzo of trumpet clarity and power and at maturity a duskily sumptuous, extraordinarily responsive contralto at ease in the mezzo range, commanded virtually the entire repertoire within that range, although most effective, perhaps, in lieder, (especially J. Brahms, Robert Schumann, G. Mahler, and Strauss), in oratorio, and in orchestral works with voice such as G. Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. From the outset of her career, Forrester’s singing was marked by a reliable and sophisticated musicianship of which impeccable pitch is only one facet. This quality, abetted by stamina and poise in the face of a hectic travel schedule and heavy advance bookings, has made her popular with conductors and managers at home and abroad. In the early years a few critics felt she used the same sound to meet the varied demands of song, resulting in overly placid interpretations. However, as her experience deepened and her vocal control became more refined, her communicative powers increased. In the Toronto Globe and Mail, May 5, 1977, John Kraglund wrote, ‘It seemed to me that a well-ordered musical world would require that all vocal artists – if they could not study with Miss Forrester the art of using the voice as an instrument to interpret meaning as well as notes – should attend as many as possible of her concert performances.’
In the late 1980’s Maureen Forrester’s voice took on a reedier quality, and she began to include less contemporary music in her repertoire. During the 1990s she cut down on travel and trimmed her schedule to approximately 50 to 60 engagements annually. She sang with the BC Boys Choir in a 1995 concert, and in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s tribute concert of G. Mahler’s Second Symphony in 1995, at which she was presented with the $125,000 Royal Bank Award. Further reducing her opera and classical recitals, by 1996 she had embarked, with composer-pianist David Warrack, on a national tour of their show Interpretations of a Life, featuring humourous tunes written for her by Warrack. By 2002 she performed only occasionally, and resided in a Toronto nursing home.
Maureen Forrester served a challenging term as chairwoman of the Canada Council (1983-8). Throughout the duration of this voluntary position she travelled extensively, continuing to promote Canadian music and actively communicating to various levels of government the need for greater support and increased funding for the arts on behalf of Canadian musicians, artists, and cultural organizations. She was also chancellor 1986-1990 of Wilfrid Laurier University. In 1986 she was named honorary president of the International Year of Canadian Music, and also had her memoirs, Out of Character, published. Until the late 1990s she remained active in aiding various charitable foundations, performing at benefit concerts; she also was appointed as a director of duMaurier Arts in 1993, and was honorary chair of the Toronto School of Music Canada.
Maureen Forrester was named a Companion of the Order of Canada (1967) and received the University of Alberta National Award in Music (1967), the Council’s Prize of the Harriet Cohen International Music Award (1968), and the Molson Prize (1971) awarded by the Canada Council for outstanding cultural achievement. In 1977 she was made an honorary member of the International Music Council. She was national president of the JMC 1972-5 and a member of the board of the NAC 1973-1979. She was a founding director of the COMUS Music Theatre Foundation in 1975, and received the CCA’s Diplôme d’honneur for outstanding service to the arts in Canada in 1980 and the Canada Music Day Award in 1981. She won a Canadian Music Council medal in 1983, was given a life membership from Canadian Actor’s Equity in 1986, and won the music award from the Toronto Arts Foundation in 1988. In 1990 she received the Order of Ontario, and was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame (only classical performer besides Glenn Gould to have been so honoured). In 1994 Wilfrid Laurier University named its recital hall for her and established a music scholarship fund in her name. Forrester received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 1995, a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, and Opera Canada’s first ‘Ruby’ award in the creative artist category in 2000. Also in 2000, CBC Radio Two featured Forrester on In Performance, and CBC TV aired the television documentary Maureen Forrester: The Diva in Winter on its Life and Times series. The Stratford Festival administers a Maureen Forrester Award, and features promising Canadian musicians in its Maureen Forrester Young Artists series. The selection committee for the Royal Bank Award termed her ‘a remarkable Canadian who has enhanced Canada’s reputation around the world with her art, and provided leadership in artistic endeavour.’
Maureen Forrester was awarded nearly 30 honorary doctorates, among them: honorary LL D (Sir George Williams) 1967, honorary D LITT (York) 1972, honorary D LITT (St Mary’s) 1972, honorary D MUS (Western) 1974, honorary D MUS (Mt Allison) 1974, honorary LL D (Wilfrid Laurier) 1975, honorary D MUS (Toronto) 1977, honorary LL D (McMaster) 1978, honorary LL D (Victoria) 1978, honorary LL D (Carleton) 1979, honorary D MUS (McGill) 1982, honorary LL D (Trent) 1983, honorary LL D (Dalhousie) 1983, honorary DU (Ottawa) 1984, honorary DU (Sherbrooke) 1985, honorary D MUS (Laval) 1985, honorary LL D (PEI) 1986, honorary doctorate (Montreal) 1987, honorary D LITT (Lakehead) 1988, honorary LL D (Windsor) 1988, honorary LL D (Simon Fraser) 1989.
Maureen Forrester died in Toronto on June 16, 2010, at the age of 79, after suffering from Alzheimer’s complications.