Out of Character
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 30 Oct 1986, p. 84-96
Forrester, Maureen, Speaker
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Item Type
Autobiographical. Anecdotes and reminiscences of a successful career. The speaker's role as Chairman of the Canada Council. Some remarks on culture, Canadian culture, and encouraging culture.
Date of Original
30 Oct 1986
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Full Text
Maureen Forrester Chairman, Canada Council, Internationally noted contralto
Chairman: Nona Macdonald President


There's a nursery rhyme about Little Tommy Tucker who sings for his supper, but what an epic poem could be written about Maureen Forrester-when she gives voice, banquet-hall doors open wide in places where princes and presidents reside.

Life as an international celebrity is as glamourous as young Maureen dreamed of as a child growing up in Montreal. Her majestic contralto is heard in concert halls and opera houses around the world and we were lucky today to have her give us a sample with "0 Canada". She has worked in a veritable United Nations of top musical talent: Isaac Stern, Artur Rubinstein, Rudolf Serkin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Pablo Casals, Sir Thomas Beecham, Seiji Ozawa, Pierre Monteux, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Bruno Walter, Eugene Ormandy, are just a few.

Wherever she goes, she makes friends for Canada-our ambassador of song! Critics praise and musicologists marvel that she was among the first to popularize German lieder in this country. Many of us here have had the pleasure of the laughter at Stratford Festival when she played the Queen of the Fairies in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe"-that was great comedy, Madam!

Her thirty-year career did not begin at the top. The youngest of four children, she knew poverty in a family that found refuge in music. She sang in church choirs and quit high school to support her lessons. She understands the struggling artist and now plays a role as the artistic arbiter-Chairman of the Canada Council, which she calls "an insurance policy" for the future artists of this domain.

Miss Forrester has recorded not only her voice on disc and tape but also her memoirs in print. A new book, co-authored by Marci McDonald and published by McClelland & Stewart is titled Out of Character. How does a mother of five children manage an all-involving career that demands constant travel and total physical and spiritual dedication?

With humour is one answer, but let's hear from the gifted grandmother herself-Maureen Forrester-the singer will now give us the word.

Maureen Forrester

How do I do it? Sometimes badly, but I make the attempt. l thought I would like to talk to you about my book. It was a lot of soul-searching for me to put down 56 years of a life.

Avie Bennett knows I can't write; I hate writing. I can talk-I have verbal diarrhoea most of the time-but to write is really painful for me. I tried with one young man and he said `No, I just can't get it out of her. Years ago when the children were young, Marci McDonald came to interview me. She arrived (and you will know when it was, because she had on a miniskirt); a very cute girl who sat crossed-legged, and took down notes while my children kept running in.

"Mummy, Daniel is shooting bubble gum at me, and it's just terrible. What am I going to do?" I said: "Well, you just shoot back at him."

Then back to Marci, "Yes, you were saying?" She wrote the most phenomenal article about my life, with all those things going on in the background. So I thought she has the real beam on me, and let's see if we can't encourage her to take down all my stories.

We spent most of last August in Muskoka doing this, and she got more out of me than I knew was there, but it was really fun. I was born in Montreal and came from a lower-middle-class family. I lived in a coldwater flat, with an incinerator at the top of the street, and a French bakery down the street. A few blocks away were rubber and paint plants: everything was delivered by horse and buggy. Needless to say, I grew up with a real sense of smell.

I had a wonderful childhood, but I was a wanderer from year one. By the time I was four, I would walk around the corner and wait at a local streetcar stop, get on the streetcar with somebody who looked like they could be my mother and go to the end of the line. I remember one streetcar used to go up through Outremont. I would look at all these wonderful big houses and imagine that I was going to live there. I had delusions of grandeur as a very young child, and one of the houses which I found interesting was Pierre Trudeau's.

I would get off at the end of the line, cross over and take the streetcar going the other say. Very often it went to the westend of the city, nowhere near where I lived in the east-end. My mother was always being called, because I knew my telephone number, Amherst 1373, and my parents would have to travel an hour-and-a-half across the city to pick up this child, sitting on a policeman's knee, eating ice-cream cones. l wasn't disturbed, because it was all great fun.

My mother was a wonderful, wonderful woman with a lovely voice who hated housework, hated cooking even more and loved her children. She was always arranging church activities such as a bazaar. So I was brought up more or less as a loner, since my two sisters and brother didn't want to babysit me-so I babysat myself! I really had a fascinating life as a young girl.

When I started to sing, my mother would have me engaged to perform at the Women's Christian Temperance Union national or annual meetings. I would hate doing this because I wanted to play baseball or go off skiing.

She certainly guided me into my career. I was a soloist, and she had levels for me to achieve: if only I could be soloist of a downtown church-which I did; if only I could sing the Messiah at Christmas-time in Toronto with Sir Ernest MacMillan-and I did that; and if only I could do this and if only I could do that. It was all fun and I did them all.

However, when I started to sing seriously and be paid for it, I realized it was all very nice to sing on a good day when I felt like it, but what to do when there was little catch in the throat? How to get by then when people are paying money? I found a teacher-Sally Martin-she was a little, plump Scottish woman with wonderful sparkling blue eyes and white hair. She used half the lesson to cook for me and the other half to teach me. She eventually retired and went back to live in England.

Then I had another teacher-Frank Rowe-who was an oratorio singer and very proper. He was an interesting man who taught in a tiny studio. Among his first pupils were Louis Quilico, Joseph Rouleau, Andre Turp and myself. We all learned something from him, but realized that he was getting on-he was 80 years old-and we all had to find another teacher. I thought I should go to New York because it was the place to go to study. I went and tried to get an application from the Juilliard School but they wouldn't even give me one because I didn't have my high school graduation. (I had only six months of high school in Montreal.) I went back to Montreal very disappointed, and continued singing. Then I heard from a friend of mine that she had started to study with a wonderful teacher-Bernard Diamant-someone quite new to Canada who had come from Holland. I thought I should hear him sing, and how beautifully he sang music unknown to me-wonderful German lieder, Schubert and French songs.

Afterwards I went to see him, and, being the confident type, told him I could sing and I liked singing. He listened to me with his wonderful charm and then he said:

"Well, you have quite a nice voice, you know that's God's gift-but you don't know how to sing:'

I just about kissed him, but as you can imagine, he is a rather shy man, so I held back.

Diamant taught me in a very short time something that has seen me through this long career, and that is technique. One of the sad things in this country is that we don't have enough teachers who teach technique. How do you sing on a day when you don't feel like it? And Diamant is the master. He is also a great teacher of interpretation. He taught me to interpret how I felt and not just be a carbon copy of somebody else and to always try, even if it is wrong, to sing, to interpret and lift the notes and words off the page, and be most precise about the text. Singing beautiful melodies is one thing, but to deliver the text so that the people understand it, even in a foreign language, has to be worked at very hard. That's what I thank him for and that is why I asked him here today to give a public thank-you for the wonderful gift he gave to me, one I would like to pass on to young performers.

I studied and studied. I did the Ladies Morning Musical Club on Thursday afternoons, picking up fifty dollars here and twenty-five there. I was singing a lot of CBC recitals on Tuesday nights or Sunday mornings. The CBC used to do a great deal of this-and I would be heard from Newfoundland to Victoria. All the ladies' clubs, and there were many of them in those days, would get together and offer me a tour at $200 a concert from Winnipeg to the west coast. I hired John Newmark who was by then a very, very well-known accompanist in Canada, and a wonderful man, but really beyond my financial means. However, I knew how important it was to have a good accompanist; that was 60 per cent of my battle on stage.

John and I would go out on tour, but, of course, to get $200 a concert and then have to pay for an accompanist, his travel, my travel, the hotel bills, taxis, a new dress and have my hair done was an enormous amount of money.

I was always overdrawn at the bank. l think I will always be overdrawn at the bank always seem to spend more than I make. My banker used to come to recitals and say: "You have ._' o something about this; I know you have good reviews and you have got a future, but how do I explain that to my auditor?"

One day Eric McLean, unbeknownst to me, wrote an article in the paper stating it was sad that young people with talent have to take every little job that comes along just to make ends meet.

It wasn't as though I only sang. I got up at 5 a.m. and worked at a quarry-not in the quarry, I opened the office. I was a telephone operator and I used to connect the scale house with the stone-crushing plant. It was an enormous place in Montreal and I did all my scales at 6 and 7 in the morning when the office was empty, and got them out of the way. I came home in the afternoon, took lessons, studied my music and sang in the chorus of operettas at night.

J.W McConnell read in his newspaper, The Montreal Star, that this is a girl who might be worth watching and isn't it a pity that this situation is the way it is? So, he called me in.

He had me investigated and told me that I could have as much money as I needed. l told him I needed someone to pick up my overdraft, that I had enough money to live on and pay my way, but I couldn't cope with the overdraft. So for two years he did just that, and it was absolutely astounding, because in those days, 1953/54, it came to about $20,000.

Can you imagine what that would be today for a young person travelling, with the price of airline tickets, hotels, the cost of clothing? It is an enormous difficulty for young people before the Canada Council stage. (The Canada Council only funds people when they are kicking off their "professional" life.)

That is what I always tell service clubs: If you hear of somebody who is very young and talented, pick them up and give them that little assistance to make sure that they get to the professional stage. It is terribly important and very necessary. Very few performers' relatives or parents can afford to see them through that stage of their lives.

I was then engaged by Jeunesses Musicales to tour Europe-eight countries, mostly very small towns, but occasionally I would sing in Bordeaux or Cologne, and a local society would re-engage me for the next year. That was an important audition platform for the future of the singer. Back in Canada after that tour, I was re-engaged to go to Morocco. At the same time, a young lady in Montreal, Monni Adams, wrote to every conductor in the United States on my behalf, and said:

"Listen, we have this young girl who has gotten wonderful reviews from Europe and Canada and she has never sung in the United States. Would you care to audition her?"

They all wrote the same back: "We are very interested, we are booked up for three years, don't write us, we'll write you." But she also got a small handwritten letter from Bruno Walter, the great Bruno Walter, who stated he was always interested in young people, and that, if Miss Forrester could come to New York on such-and-such a day, he would be happy to hear her. I phoned Mr. Walter to say I was scheduled to sing in Oshawa that day and after that, somewhere else. He said:

"My dear, you are obviously much busier than I. When you can come, I will make time."

I thought that was very sweet. He told me not to bring an accompanist and to bring Bach and Brahms.

He played for me and it was very interesting. There was something very special about this man; he didn't have to tell me anything; I knew exactly what he was going to say. When you are on the same wavelength with someone, it is very important.

Bruno Walter was a wonderful, fatherly man. He asked what I was doing in February. I said I was going to Morocco. "Das tut rnir leid," he said (that makes me sad), "because I wanted you to come and do my last concert with the New York Philharmonic next year, and make a recording of Mahler's Second Symphony."

I didn't even know who Mahler was! I said:

"Isn't that wonderful? Oh, Dr. Walter, I'll not only cancel Morocco, I will even drop dead!"

I went home and everybody was all excited; Mr. D. (Diamant) and John (Newmark) thought it was fantastic. I looked at the music and thought:

"What is this? A four-minute piece of music! I thought it was a big solo part."

I had such chutzpah as a kid-that is, nerve, gall. I memorized the music on the way to New York. I had Mr. D. teach me how it went; learned it; and since I have a good memory, thought:

"This is nothing, I will do it on the plane."

But when I look back now to February 1957, it was this that launched me into my solo career and Mahler has been the biggest part of my repertoire ever since. Perhaps, once I am gone, the one thing I might be remembered for is having sung a great deal of Mahler with a great many phenomenal conductors. It is wonderful music, very spiritual.

When I heard the orchestra at that first rehearsal, I realized why everyone was excited. I never cease to be turned on by the music. When I sing with an orchestra and we are doing a Mahler work, I look up into the balcony, and if the performance is going well, I see Bruno Walter in the dark silk jacket he wore with a little white, almost clerical collar.

He auditioned me, and the next day he announced to the New York Philharmonic that he had hired an absolutely unknown Canadian girl. The offers then came from every manager in New York to manage me-unheard. If Bruno Walter put his stamp of approval, that meant that I was good enough for them.

I believe it is absolutely essential that the older generation of performers endorse younger performers whom they think worthwhile. If somebody asks me to recommend a young, good singer, I always do. After Bruno Walter, my career went in leaps and bounds. I have had 35 years of a career that is just incredible, and a wonderful time all over the world.

I know that Avie wants me particularly to tell you my China story, which I have told to many people. I went to China just before I was made Chairman of the Canada Council. External Affairs just love it if you will sing an encore in the language of the country. The Chinese have very high-pitched voices and I have a low voice, and they equate a low voice with evil. However, I told External Affairs if they could find a one-verse, slow lullaby, and bring me somebody to speak the sounds into my tape-recorder, I would see how I fared. They sent me this darling man who had lived in China for six years, but China has a thousand dialects, so it almost doesn't matter how you pronounce because you will never please two people at the same time. They have a different pronunciation for every word.

I arrived in China with the Toronto Symphony and conductor Andrew Davis and at the first rehearsal there were 5,000 people in the audience. They always have a little lady who announces the next program item off in the winds. When she announced my song, the whole place went berserk. I thought: "Oh, my God, it is a popular song."

I took a deep breath and started the first verse. Everybody goes "terrific"; second verse (it had three verses) they were going "not bad for a foreigner," I got to the third verse, and you know how it is when people get embarrassed, they start pulling their hair, and I thought that I had better check with the interpreter when I get back stage. There was great applause anyway. Afterwards, I went back stage and the interpreter, who was a darling man, said:

"Oh, that was very good you know. Do you know what you are saying?" I said "Not really." "NaniWan," he said, "is a song about a beautiful place. It is very green. There are flower baskets everywhere, and the workers have planted the field and there are sheep grazing. Your first verse was perfect; your second verse more than perfect."

I asked what the second verse was all about.

"Before the workers came to NaniWan, all was empty and barren and unpopulated-nothing."

"Tell me about the third verse."

"Beautiful," he said, "but you made a little mistake, you switch word a little bit, but it was very cute. The story is that the revolution came; Regiment 395 arrived bringing workers, so now NaniWan is green with flower baskets and sheep. You said, then came revolution and the Regiment 395 came and brought in the workers, learn from NaniWan because now it is empty, barren and there are no people at all."

What a way to make friends!

The Chinese love to laugh. If I went to the zoo, or any city, to a factory, they would suddenly produce a little Chinese instrument band and insist that I sing NaniWan. They were determined that I know it properly before I left China. People would stroke me and call me "NaniWan" It was very funny. A few years ago when the Chinese Premier visited Ottawa there was a reception. I was invited to a private cocktail party before a gala and was standing on one side of the room. Across the room I saw Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau talking with the Premier. The Premier took a look at me and then made a beeline across the room towards me. I thought: "Oh my God." He said:

"Haaaaaaa! You are very famous in China," and I turned to Pierre and said:

"Yes, by your mistakes shall you be known!"

"I have been back to China since and have learned another song, a slow one-verse lullaby. China is a great country, I just adore going there. It is a privilege to be chosen by your Department of External Affairs to go to other countries and blow the horn of your own country-especially in a country like China.

It was a wonderful, exhilarating experience and I have been asked to go back for six months. Maybe I will go back and do a little teaching. The Chinese want to catch up so badly-they have so much talent and learn so fast, that we are all going to have to watch out. I tell you, they are fantastic!

I have been all over the world. I have met some wonderful people, lots of them very simple, whom nobody will ever hear about, but who have been fabulous to me. I have had five phenomenal children, a great husband and, even though we are separated, we are good friends. My next book is How to Separate from a Husband and Be Great Friends. I have three grandchildren and am hoping for 20.

Another turn in my life happened when I took on the Canada Council. Now what did I know about running boards? Nothing. I have sat on a few boards, but not on the scale of the Canada Council. I would like to tell you about the Council, because I think very few people realize how the board of the Canada Council works. There is a 21-member board, headed by the chairman. Meetings take place in an enormous boardroom where all the heads of every department, plus their associates, and maybe their first secretary or more if need be, sit in on every meeting with the board of the Council.

Meetings are very open-if someone makes a complaint regarding Canada Council decisions, it is brought up at a board meeting and the department in question has to defend what it thought was the right grant, or why it did not give the grant, or whatever. It is quite a different type of board from what people imagine-there are no secrets in the Canada Council. If anyone wants to find out something, they go to the department and are given the dossier to peruse.

Very often, if there is a complaint because somebody feels he or she has been improperly evaluated, I go through the whole dossier to decide whether it was right or not. And it is usually right, because we cannot fund everybody, and that is the saddest thing.

For instance, modern dance is so underfunded, because we just don't have the money. We have ten million dollars added to our base now, and private donations pledged. All our clients have spent the money, literally and mentally, which we haven't as yet got in our hot little hands. So how can we give it out before we get it in? It is a very difficult job because not all deserving artists get what they need. We can't do it. It is a sheer problem of dollars and cents.

It is very hard to say to-the government that we really believe artists should have more, because the average person thinks that people involved in the arts are playing at their hobby, that they are dabbling at a hobby instead of making a living.

Making a living in the arts, though, creates so many jobs for other people. Think about the Canadian Opera Company and how many people it puts to work-not only singers, but ticket sellers, programme designers, artists, painters, set builders, carpenters, plumbers, the people who show you to your seat. The arts is the third-largest industry in Ontario.

It is terribly important that they get funded, and, when they don't, they complain a lot-and they are good at it. The person who complains the loudest usually gets the most. Across the country, the symphonies are all suffering from lack of funds. Vancouver had a tremendous problem last year, and almost went under. That would have been disastrous. One of the big problems is ticket prices. They are too expensive for the average person. It is fine for people who have money, but I find it very difficult to go to the theatre and pay $50 a ticket and take my family with me. I don't know what the overall solution is in that department, and I will leave that with you to think about.

My personal solution is to have a credit line for my family. I have five children who are all interested in the arts. If you really want them to be turned on by opera, ballet or theatre, offer them a line of credit. I offered my second daughter and her husband a subscription to the opera, and they loved it. Now they are paying their own way. Instead of saying, Here is $1,500 for whatever, you should say to them that for everything they attend that is cultural, when they bring you the ticket stubs, you will reimburse them.

It is a good idea because it gives them the opportunity as a young couple to go out for dinner and then see something wonderful; be turned on and maybe end up as board members in the theatre, ballet or opera company, or to do something in the community for the arts, even though they have other professions themselves.

I spoke of this recently and a woman came up to me and said:

"Oh, Miss Forrester, I think that is just wonderful. I just gave my 10 year-old a credit card."

"Whatever for?" I said.

"For the best book store. I said I don't care what you read, but read:'

And I thought that was a fabulous idea. Of course, there has to be a limit. I am sure the publishers of Canada think it is a good idea too.

My book has a lot of parts of my life that people don't know about. I had a baby before I was married; I had an abortion. It was a very difficult time during my career but I managed. I told the truth in my book regarding the hardships I have had in my life.

Young people can get very discouraged and get hooked on drugs or on alcohol because of problems they perceive as insurmountable. It is important that they realize a mistake need not ruin their future, but they must also know that not everything in life is a bed of roses.

It makes one a better person to have had hardships and to have overcome hardships and not to blame anybody else for your mistakes. I have made lots of mistakes and have tried to overcome them. I have had a great life, wonderful family, marvellous friends and I live in a great country that appreciates the arts, and does things for its young artists.

I have nothing to complain about. I am looking forward to my old age.

Somebody said, what are you going to do next? I replied that I was going to be the queen of the geriatrics ward. We are going to sing a lot because singing is good for the soul and keeps you alive and healthy and well.

I hope you read my book, or borrow it, and I hope it will give you the incentive perhaps to help someone young who doesn't have money, or who needs that extra push and encouragement to make it possible to have a great life. You see standing before you a happy woman who enjoys life to the fullest and is looking forward to the next 30, 40 years, hopefully, and thank you for letting me talk to you today.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Montague Larkin, stockbroker and a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Out of Character

Autobiographical. Anecdotes and reminiscences of a successful career. The speaker's role as Chairman of the Canada Council. Some remarks on culture, Canadian culture, and encouraging culture.