“If you’re big, show that you’re big – don’t try to hide it!” Thus Maureen Forrester exhorted a voice student in Canada back in the 1970s.
Forrester, who died in Toronto on June 16, a few weeks before her 80th birthday, was big in many ways: big in physical stature, in voice, in reputation, and big-hearted towards colleagues and others. In a career that spanned 50 years and most of the globe, she applied her earthy sound and sharp musical intelligence to repertoire that ranged from Bach to the most recent productions of numerous Canadian composers and from oratorio to opera, lieder and musical comedy.
Born in Montreal on July 25, 1930 to parents of Scotch-Irish extraction, Forrester left school at the age of 13 and worked at odd jobs to support her studies with various voice teachers, among whom the most significant was Bernard Diamant. She made her professional debut in her home town in 1951, but her international career was launched by a recital at New York’s Town Hall in 1956.
The following year she sang with Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic in London and recorded Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony with Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic; Walter later chose her as soloist in his final recording of Das Lied von der Erde, of which he had conducted the world premiere half a century earlier. She went on to perform with many other celebrated conductors, including Barbirolli, Bernstein, Casals, Karajan, Klemperer, Krips, Levine, Ozawa, Reiner, Sargent, Stokowski and Szell.
Forrester was primarily known for her performances with orchestra and as a recitalist and recording artist (she made some 130 recordings), but she eventually chalked up a considerable number of important opera appearances at the Met, La Scala and elsewhere in works as diverse as Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Menotti’s The Medium, and including Gluck, Wagner, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Massenet along the way.
During the 1980s, Forrester - who was married from 1957 to 1974 to the violinist Eugene Kash, with whom she had five children - served as chairwoman of the Canada Council and as chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University. In Canada she was a ubiquitous and much-loved personality.