Contralto  Maureen  Forrester
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Maureen Forrester, CC, OQ (born July 25, 1930, died June 16, 2010) was a Canadian operatic contralto. She was born as Maureen Kathleen Stewart Forrester in Montreal, Quebec as one of four children to Thomas Forrester and May Arnold, and grew up in a poor section of east Montreal. At age 13, she dropped out of school to help support the family, working as a secretary at Bell Telephone. She was able to pay for voice lessons with Sally Martin, Frank Rowe, and baritone Bernard Diamant. She gave her debut recital at the local YWCA in 1953. Her accompanist was John Newmark, and this was the start of a life-long collaboration. She made her concert debut in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Otto Klemperer. She toured extensively in Canada and Europe with Jeunesses Musicales. She made her New York debut in Town Hall in 1956. Bruno Walter invited her to sing for him; he was looking for the right contralto for a performance and recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 2 -"Resurrection" This was the start of a warm relationship with great rapport. Walter had been a student of Mahler, and he trained Forrester in interpretation of his works. She performed at Walter's farewell performances with the New York Philharmonic in 1957. Forrester became known for her performances of Mahler and for her great stamina, often giving up to 120 performances a year while raising the five children she had with her longtime husband the conductor Eugene Kash. She was considered to have superb German diction and great dramatic sense, which made her a highly-regarded performer of Lieder. She also performed regularly in concert and opera. She sang at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1975 in Das Rheingold, Siegfried, and Un Ballo in Maschera. Forrester also provided the voice of the Bianca Castafiore character in the television series The Adventures of Tintin. She has been a champion of Canadian composers, regularly scheduling their works in her programs, especially when she toured abroad. From 1983 to 1988 she served as Chair of the Canada Council. In 1986, she published her memoirs, Out of Character (ISBN 0-7710-3228-5), with the help of journalist Marci McDonald.

In November of 1988, Maureen Forrester was performing the Mahler Symphony #2 with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Zubin Mehta.  [Names which are links on this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]  Between the performances, she graciously allowed me to visit her at her hotel for an interview. 

She had performed with the CSO a number of times, as shown in the box below.

Maureen Forrester
Chicago Symphony Orchestra appearances

(subscription concerts at Orchestra Hall unless otherwise noted)

Chicago Symphony Chorus, Margaret Hillis, director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus, Doreen Rao, director

forrester March 13 & 14, 1958
MOZART Requiem
Bruno Walter, conductor

Maria Stader, soprano
Maureen Forrester, contralto
David Lloyd, tenor
Otto Edelmann, bass

November 5 & 6, 1959
MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde (recorded by RCA)
Fritz Reiner, conductor

Maureen Forrester, contralto
Richard Lewis, tenor

June 27, 1963 (Ravinia Festival)
CASALS El Pessebre
Pablo Casals, conductor

Olga Iglesias, soprano
Maureen Forrester, contralto
Paulino Saharrea, tenor
Pablo Elvira, baritone
William Warfield, bass-baritone
Timuel Block, Jr., treble

May 7, 8, & 9, 1964
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9
Jean Martinon, conductor

Ingrid Bjoner, soprano
Maureen Forrester, contralto
Leopold Simoneau, tenor
Heinz Rehfuss, bass-baritone

April 7, 8, & 9, 1966
BACH Saint John Passion
Jean Martinon, conductor

Judith Raskin, soprano
Maureen Forrester, contralto
Ernst Haefliger, tenor
John Boyden, baritone
Kenneth Smith, bass-baritone
Martha Blackman, viola da gamba
Stanley Buetens, lute
Edward Mondello, organ
Gavin Williamson, harpsichord

July 30, 1966 (Ravinia Festival)
VERDI Requiem
William Steinberg, conductor

Saramae Endich, soprano
Maureen Forrester, contralto
Jacob Barkin, tenor
John Macurdy, bass

August 2, 1966 (Ravinia Festival)
MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde
William Steinberg, conductor

Maureen Forrester, contralto
James King, tenor

February 8 & 9, 1968
CHAUSSON Poème de l'amour et de la mer (released on Great Soloists: From the Archives, vol. 10)
BRAHMS Rhapsody for Contralto, Male Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 53
Jean Martinon, conductor

Maureen Forrester, contralto

July 7, 1973 (Ravinia Festival)
MAHLER Symphony No. 3
James Levine, conductor

Maureen Forrester, contralto

November 13, 14, & 15, 1975
DVOŘÁK Stabat mater
Rafael Kubelik, conductor

Teresa Gara-Zylis, soprano
Maureen Forrester, contralto
Eric Tappy, tenor
Paul Plishka, bass

May 29, 30, & 31, 1980
MAHLER Symphony No. 3
Edo de Waart, conductor

Maureen Forrester, contralto

November 17, 18, 19, & 22, 1988
MAHLER Symphony No. 2
Zubin Mehta, conductor

Marvis Martin, soprano
Maureen Forrester, contralto

Though I have only indicated it in a few places, there was almost a continuous gale of laughter.  She was delighted to relate the stories and discuss her observations, but most of all she was having a great time just being herself.  I took this as a great compliment that she was comfortable enough to simply enjoy chatting with me.

Here is what was said that lovely afternoon . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    We were talking about titles and translations, so let’s start right there.  Do you believe in opera in translation?

Maureen Forrester:    No, I like opera in the original.  I like the surtitles very much because I think it makes the people understand the recitatives; even those who’re dragged along by their wife or husband, or who pretend for social reasons that they love it, and they fall asleep or they want to leave early!  I go to some operas that I know very well but I find new things in them that I didn’t realize were there.  And if you don’t want to look, you don’t see them.  They’re done so wonderfully.

BD:    This makes opera more accessible.  Is opera really for everyone?

MF:    I think so.  It’s like a soap opera when people get caught up in the melodrama of Bohème and all the other operas.  Maybe for the Wagners you need a little more training just for the singing capacity!  It’s a long sit!  People are afraid to admit that they don’t know anything about opera; they are embarrassed that they didn’t have an education.  Well, this is in America.  If you were brought up in Italy and you had little local theatre and it cost you two dollars to go, you went.  But opera in America is very costly, and in Canada it’s the same.  The tickets are very high, and we need to get subsidies to bring in more young people.  We do lots of school opera, and we have a young company that goes out and sort of enlightens the public.  It’s really what I call
blood and guts.  It’s lots of fun, and the people on stage have as much fun as the people in the audience!  That’s what’s nice about it! 


See my interviews with Sir Andrew Davis

BD:    So is this the secret, then, to educate the young audiences to make more audiences in the future?

MF:    I think so. 

BD:    And the supertitles are helping that, of course?

MF:    Oh, absolutely.

BD:    Are supertitles going to mean the death of opera in English?

MF:    No.  There are lots of operas written in English; the Benjamin Britten operas are in English.  Some people like to do others in English.  I just finished doing the old Countess in Queen of Spades and I’d always done it in English with Svoboda, the wonderful Czech designer.  But we did it in the original Russian in Toronto just a few weeks ago, and it’s so much more beautiful because the music suits the text.  It’s just wonderful.  When the old woman comes into the room where Lisa has been fooling around with Hermann, in English you say,
What’s all this noise?  Stop fooling around!  What’s going on here?  Whereas when I sang it in Russian, it sounds that she’s angry.

BD:    It has more impact?

MF:    It suits the character, bang, bang.  It’s wonderful to do.

BD:    Since we are talking about opera a little bit, let me ask the
capriccio question.  Where’s the balance between the music and the drama?

MF:    It should be 50-50.  Far too many young singers sing beautiful melodies and forget there’s a text.  The composer was turned on by the story, the text, first and then he set it to music.  So that you have to respect the storyline and make sure the audience hear the text.

BD:    And the supertitles are helping that?

MF:    I think so.  I really do think so. 

BD:    Do you ever find that the supertitles make the jokes come too early or too late in comic operas?

MF:    That depends on who’s running the gadget, the machinery.  They shouldn’t do that.  

BD:    I’ve heard from a number of singers that they get two laughs
when they read and when they see it!

MF:    It should be half-way between.  In Toronto they’re pretty good at it because it was John Leberg who created surtitles here – supertitles as you call them.  He’s very good because he usually does the adjusting for the Opera Centre at Toronto, but he’s leaving us unfortunately.

BD:    Are we going to get another kind of musical training, the Maestro del Titles?  [Both laugh]

MF:    It’s like people who write scripts for movies.  You have to be very careful that it goes with the action.  You can’t have a shooting before it happens.  The sound man and the script man have to get together.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You sing concerts, you sing operas, you teach...  How do you divide your career among all that?

MF:    I don’t teach very much.  I do the odd masterclass usually for young people who want to know all the secrets of doing everything!  [Laughs]  You just say,
“Experience teaches you everything.  The more you do something, the more you find out about the piece.  It’s never ending!

forrester BD:    But then how does the student get good experience rather than bad experience?

MF:    They have to sing things that suit them, and don’t sing things before they’re ready.  You wouldn’t sing Elektra at the age of twenty-two.  If you did, you’re insane! 

BD:    But they try!

MF:    They try, but then it sets them back vocally for a couple of years because it shreds the vocal cords.  They’re pushing through so-called ‘drama’, or over a technique that’s not really solidified.  That’s big singing, and it’s long.  Elektra stays on the stage for an hour and twenty minutes.

BD:    So what solid advice do you have for the young singer?

MF:    The type of teaching I give is that you have to learn to creep before you walk or run.  Always sing things that are comfortable for your range.  You have to be able to sing on a day when you don’t feel in great voice.  Then you can sing the piece.  Yesterday they might have had a great high B, but if isn’t there today, you don’t really have a great high B!  You have to have it on a bad day.  I’m very funny about that because years ago I did Hansel and Gretel, and it was televised.  There’s one high B.  I’m a contralto, not even a mezzo.  I do some mezzo roles but it’s a fluke that I can do them.  At the end of the Witch
s Ride is the high B, and now I insist that they fly me.  I won’t do the witch unless they physically fly me, because every child in the world knows I fly since I’ve been doing it on television!  But I tell the conductor to trust me.  I have one high B a day, and you’re going to get it at the performance.  But when I was doing it in Cowdray and the wire broke.  It’s like Peter Pan.  There’s a little thin wire that’s attached to this big body, but it broke on the track.  When you go into the wings, you’re about sixty feet up in the air, and I started to fall really fast.  At the last minute, two stage hands caught me coming down, and at that moment I had to come around the front of the stage, plant down the fourteen foot broomstick and sing the high B!  You know, I think that’s best high B I’ve ever done in my life!  I was so happy to be alive!  [Gales of laughter throughout the telling of this story]  The director said, It’s all right.  We have a million dollars insurance on you.  You have to laugh at that because a million dollars for a paraplegic is really little money these days.  When you think about it, it doesn’t get you very far in life, unfortunately, with the amount of care you need.

BD:    You hope you never collect on that policy!

MF:    No, I hope not.  [More laughter all around]

BD:    Is the witch fun or is she is really evil?

MF:    I do her like Charles Laughton’s wife, Elsa Lanchaster.  She was kind of dipsy redhead.  I think she’s kind of good natured; the children do come back at the end.  I know children like ghoulish things, because my own grandchildren just love the scary.  Look at Hallowe’en.  I play her as a kind of crazy lady, just a bit strange, but fun. 

BD:    What does the witch want out of life?

MF:    Hmmm...  Well, of course she likes to make cookies out of little children...

BD:    She would have certainly done that with Hansel and Gretel given the time!

MF:    That’s right, that’s right.  What you see was a spell she cast over them.  She puts them in the oven.  The man who made the film, when I did it, didn’t want the public to believe that the witch is put in the oven and dies in the oven, so when the surtitles came up, they pan the orchestra playing away, and there I am playing the cello!  That’s my payment, being forced to play a musical instrument!  [Still more laughter]  I thought it was rather cute.  I have a picture of myself when playing the cello.  The cello didn’t have any strings on it, but everyone believed that I played it that day!  Isn’t that funny how it’s the illusion or what you imagine you see is so much fun. 

BD:    Didn
’t they put you on a motorcycle and pan you around for the ride? 

MF:    Oh, yes.  I’d never been on a motorcycle in my life.  It was chroma key, painted all blue, and they take you into this big gymnasium.  They said not only to ride it, but they wanted me to lie on the motorcycle!  I said,
“Are you out of your mind???  I can’t even drive a motorcycle.  I’ve never been on a motorcycle!  I ride a bike but lying down on it and then laughing for three minutes???  Well, I learned how to do it, like I do a vocal exercise.  That’s something I teach.  You can’t suddenly go [imitates a cackle-y laugh] at a high pitch.  You have to do it [demonstrates laughing up and down a scale] as though you are doing an exercise.  You just keep going up and down the scale and back again and crescendo.  It was such fun!

BD:    Are there any parts that you sing that are not fun?

MF:    Not fun?  Well, one of my very favorite roles is Klytemnestra.  We did it at the Tanglewood festival.  

BD:    There’s an evil lady!

MF:    She is really evil, but the pain between her and her daughter is a wonderful scene.  It’s about a half an hour, and it’s just wonderful to do. 

BD:    Does that opera work better in concert than it does on the stage?

MF:    I haven’t seen it enough on the stage to know.  I’ve only sung it several performances in three engagements.  I’m going to do it again this year in Pittsburgh.  I’m looking forward to it.  I really like to sing that role, whereas I love Wagner but I don’t like singing Erda.  It’s not really very interesting.

BD:    You just pop up at the end, and that’s it?

MF:    Yes.  I like to have a role on stage where I can command the stage for a bit of time.

BD:    But you’re not a ‘hammy’ actress, are you?

MF:    No.  I can be if I’m doing a funny part like Quickly in Falstaff.  I like doing Pique Dame, and I like doing the old Prioress in Dialogues of Carmelites.  That’s a good role because I like acting, not just singing.  I hate standing with a spear and singing; that’s boring, and nowadays the public really wants more from you
– even in concerts.  A friend of mine said that I really bring an interesting presence on the stage.  I really try to become involvednot moving around, but that you’re always up and you’re listening.  If you’re seen physically fiddling with your thumbs, other people would say that this person’s bored out of her tree, and wonder what she’s doing on the stage.  You have to be involved with the music.

BD:    When you’re onstage in the opera, do you become that character or you’re still portraying that character?

MF:    No, I become the character at the moment. 

BD:    How long does it take you to throw it off after the curtain calls?

MF:    When I’ve spent the fee!  [Laughter all around]  Oh, that’s so easy to do, especially if you come to Chicago with all these wonderful stores!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re presented with a whole long list of roles that you can sing.  How do you decide which roles you will sing and which roles you will decline?

forrester MF:    There are lots of roles I can’t sing as well as everybody else, and I don’t want to do a role like that.  I’m not a Carmen – I’ve never been a Carmen-type.  Vocally I could easily have sung it, and Orpheus I do well.  It suits my voice more.  There are roles that are fun to do.  I like doing some comic roles I like doing Quickly, and the Fille du Regiment.  I like to play the piano on the stage and give the singing lesson.  I’ve done it with lots of wonderful sopranos, and that’s fun to play.  I wouldn’t want to have to play twenty-three performances of it though.  Three or four or five or so is enough, I’d say.  Musically it’s not as satisfying as Elektra.

BD:    You don’t get bored with it, do you?

MF:    No.  Strangely enough I’ve only done Delilah once.  It suits the older voice very well, but physically I’m not the right size for it. 

BD:    You say you’re a real contralto.  What it is difference between a contralto and mezzo-soprano, aside from range
– or is it just range?

MF:    You have to know how you make your voice darker or more silver if you’re singing a dark role.  I think in colors when I sing, like painting.  But it’s just that where your middle of your voice is.  In mine it’s the alto range.  For many years I couldn’t sing a good high G.  I could do it on a good day but not consistently.  But as you get older and more experienced and know your own equipment, you can do a lot of things you never thought you’d be able to do.

BD:    Has your voice gotten bigger over time, or darker or lower?

MF:    More projected, and maybe more dramatic.  When you’re young, you sing everything as if you have a plum in your mouth.  You absolutely must work on your diction, especially if you sing a lot of lieder, as I’ve done.  But I like other languages.  I love singing in French because French is my second language.  I was born in Montreal.  When you sing in French, you have to lighten your voice up.  It’s another color. 

BD:    Do you sing differently from house to house depending on the size of the theater?

MF:    Yes, you do.  What I found difficult doing the Mahler here was sitting behind the orchestra.  I’m used to Carnegie Hall and Symphony Hall in Boston, which has little bit of an echo.  This hall has no echo so you don’t know how far your voice is going.  I feel almost like it’s stopping five inches in front of my face.  It has such a strange feeling.  Maybe if I was down on the lip of the stage I’d feel differently, but sitting back with the choir I had a feeling I wasn’t being heard.

BD:    So you just have to trust your technique?

MF:    You have to trust it, and do it as you feel you’re doing it normally.  But it’s interesting about different halls.  There are halls that you love and the halls that you don’t love as much.  Of course, everyone in the world loves Carnegie Hall, and my favorite opera house is Buenos Aires because of that oblong shape, and it’s wood and plaster.  I have a son-in-law who’s an architect, and I said to him that if he sees people putting out tenders for an opera house, build it in wood and plaster in a shoebox, and he’ll probably get the job.  I don’t know why all the architects feel that they know better.  When they say they’ve hired the best acoustician, then I know they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.  Sound goes out like an ice-cream cone, not like a fan.  That’s the simplest of description.  If you turn to the left, the right side of the hall does the same to you.  The secret of singing in a hall is to sing to the top two corners of the hall at the ceiling.  Then you’re not missing anybody right and left, but not waving your head too much from side to side.

BD:    When you raise the face, though, are you not closing off the throat?

MF:    No, you’re not throat closing, but you look up towards the balcony at the far corners of the hall, and then you project to the hall.  But if the hall is very round, that is not good.  We have a disastrous hall in Toronto called Roy Thomson.  It’s a beautiful-looking hall [shown below].  The veranda looks like a wedding cake and you’d think the best seats in the house would be the balconies facing the stage, but they’re the worst seats in the house!  It’s not bad, but it’s not a good hall.  Sound gets distorted and doesn’t get through.  That’s the worst part.


BD:    Is there any way to overcome that, or do you just have to put up with it?

MF:    No, they’ll have to use it for some other function, and build another hall. 

BD:    Use it as a basketball stadium!  [Both laugh]

MF:    Keep it for people who use lots of speakers, for the rock bands.

BD:    Is ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ music?

MF:    Yes, I think it is music.  There’s good Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and there’s just people who will make noise.  The ones who succeed at it are very creative and inventive, but the wow, wow, wow, wow pounding away is very hard to listen to.  One thing I don’t like with a band is that the drummer goes [demonstrates] bong, bong, bong, bah, bah, bah, bah!  He doesn’t understand color.  You can make the timpani sound wonderful; you don’t have to just whack away!

BD:    So you’re looking for more creativity and inventiveness?

MF:    Yes.

BD:    Is that what makes any music great
creativity and inventiveness?

MF:    And color and weight of sound.  Especially in live music where we don’t depend on speakers, one has to persuade the audience to listen.  So if it’s just rock, you get very tired.  Maybe some kids become mesmerized when they’re shaking their heads as you sing, but I find it very tiresome, very tedious to listen to that kind of music.  I like music of all kinds.  I can even listen to Indian Ragas.

BD:    They can be very soothing.

MF:    Very soothing, but after a while it’s getting too long, and I’m not into Indian culture so I don’t understand it.

BD:    Same kind of long as Wagner-long?

MF:    Perhaps for my ear, but Wagner-long is very beautiful.  The orchestration alone
you close your eyes and it’s astounding. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve sung Brangäne a number of times.  Tell me a bit about her.

MF:    She’s very protective person to her mistress.

BD:    Overly-protective?

MF:    Not overly, but she wants to do the right thing.  About that watchtower thing... I did it with Zubin Mehta in Montreal, and he had me sing right over the center of the audience at the peak of the theatre.  People said it sounded like fifty speakers.  I had a tiny little television to watch him beating, although I actually could see him down in the pit.  But when you’re singing, you can’t look.  It’s quite an effect, but to get back downstairs I was running along these cat walks and down ladders and elevators to get down for the end of the second act when they all run on stage [demonstrates her panting]!  It’s looks unbelievable; you just run a mile.  You fall on the stage in a collapse!  But it’s a wonderful opera.  I remember it was Jon Vickers when he was in his prime, and it was quite exciting.


BD:    Is there anything more you can do with Erda in Rheingold except pop up and sing?

MF:    When I made my début at the Metropolitan Opera (in 1975), it was the funniest début you’ve ever had in your life.  I arrived in the building for my first rehearsal very excited.  The woman at the switchboard hands me two piles of fan mail tied in pink and blue ribbon.  I don’t know if she separated girls and boys or what...  She then hands me two keys – one is for my locker and the other is for my mail box. 
“Welcome to the Metropolitan, and oh yes, you’re expected at Studio 376, (or something like that).  I’ll buzz you in the door.  I pushed the button in the elevator, and it opened up to a prop building, and I meet a guy on his knees tacking something on the floor.  With a cigar in his mouth he said, [imitating a rough-n-tumble workman] Hi, honey, what can I do for you?’  I said, [imitating a meek schoolgirl] I’m here to rehearse and I wonder if I’m in the right place.  Oh, why don’t ya stay, honey.  Come on, I’ll show you were to go.  So he takes me down and the pianist tells me all the gossip of the building first, while I’m dying to rehearse this thing.  Then finally we run through it and I said, I’ve got to get down to the stage right now, and he said, Oh, I’ll take you down.  People get lost in this building.  So we go down to one of the technical rehearsals where we have all the rocks, and people are all sitting around on the edge of the stage.  So one of them says to me [whispers], Miss Forrester, just sit over there, we’ll get to you first.  I kept thinking I don’t know anything; I’ve never seen this production.  I know somebody said I come in over the rocks, but I don’t see any spot to come in from.  So I thought bless Wagner because he always puts your theme at least sixty bars before you sing in case you fall asleep!  [Bursts out laughing]  People have been known to do that!  So I wandered around the stage, and I swear to you this is not a lie.  There’s a man with a hydraulic lift leaning against it with a flashlight and a comic book, and I said, Excuse me, I’m Erda.  Do you know where I make my entrance?  He said, [again imitating a workman] Oh yeah, I think you’re the dame I screw up here.  Hop on, honey!  I go up and my little eyes come over the top of the mountain and I go, Weiche, Wotan!  Weiche.  It was like being on West End Avenue... nobody sees you.  They didn’t put any make-up on me, and all I do is have my head above the rocks.  So at the premiere, all my family was there.  I asked them how was it, and my ex-husband, who’s still a dear friend, said, Honey, let me put it to you this way...  If you can’t see what you’re looking at, you’re not sure you can hear it!  I came and went and nobody knew I was there!  Well, yes, a few people knew, but it was not the role to make a début at the Metropolitan Opera.  [Much laughter throughout this story]

BD:    Did you like singing Erda in Siegfried also?

forrester MF:    Yes, I do.  That was more forward.  It was better, much better.

BD:    Did you ever sing Waltraute, or is that more a mezzo?

MF:    No, I’ve never sung it.  I’ve sung Fricka.  I like the Walküre Fricka.  It is kind of fun to do, but short.  That’s why I tend to sing more the ‘mothers, maids, witches, bitches, mediums, nuns, or aunts or pants, but never the bride!
  Somebody wrote me a song about that, can you believe it?  [Much laughter all around]

BD:    Do you ever wish you’d gotten the tenor?

MF:    Yes, sure.  But I tend to do character roles because they’re more fun to do.

BD:    Let us deal a little bit with Fricka.  How much of a bitch is she? 

MF:    Well, I don’t know.  I played her as sort of a nagging wife.

BD:    Does she ever believe she can really get Wotan’s love back again?

MF:    Probably not, probably not.

BD:    So it’s a lost cause?

MF:    Yes, it’s a lost cause and she feels it’s her own inadequacies.  That’s what makes her anger, I guess. 

BD:    So really she’s blaming herself?

MF:    Well, most women do, you know.  They pretend they don’t but they do. [More laughter]

BD:    So she’s not happy with Wotan’s success elsewhere; she just wants him back?

MF:    She wants him back. 

BD:    What will she do with him if she got him back?

MF:    [Giggles]  Probably kill him in his sleep!  I don’t know!!!  Oh dear ...

BD:    What goes through her mind when she sees Brünnhilde right at the end of that scene?

MF:    I really don’t know in all honesty. 

BD:    So there are some characters you play just as characters, and you don’t delve into what happens later?

forrester MF:    No, no I do them musically.  It depends on if you have a wonderful stage director who gives you incentive, his motivation for doing this opera.  Sometimes you don’t agree, but you do it that way and it comes off better.  Your own concept might not be that way, but if you grumble about it and then do it your own way, then it disturbs the opera.  The stage director has a visual concept and dramatically knows what he wants, and somebody sticks out like sore thumb, it’s distracting.  It changes the whole plot line.  In Pique Dame, the part I like is when she’s dying.  I remember Kaslik, the Czech director, when we were doing it in Montreal.  He said,
When you’ve just undressed and you’re in your night gown, and the maids have said that she’s a crotchety old dame, I want you to let the audience know immediately that you are not very well.  You are old.  She is 89, I think, but you are old and you are not well, and it’s in this drafty castle.  Then I remembered my father dying.  My father had pulmonary edema, and I took him out of the hospital and we looked after him.  I knew he was dying, but he was a very shy man.  When I saw him in the hospital always facing the wall, I realized he was so shy to see people, having anybody see him in a gown in the hospital.  So we brought him home.  We had oxygen for him.  I don’t know if you have ever heard anybody who is dying, but the heart drowns in the fluid of the lungs.  So he goes [imitates gasping].  Well, I do that on the stage.  I do it softly but I can feel the whole audience sitting up and thinking, That woman’s not well.  It was a simple little suggestion of a very fine director who let you go into your memory and pull out what is needed.

BD:    It gives me a creepy feeling just listening to you.

MF:    Then when Hermann comes and shakes the chair, he frightens her.  So I do it well before he gets to her, but once I’m frightened, the mouth is going ‘uh’.  She suddenly has a heart attack, and you have to see that she can’t breathe.  She is struggling for air, and apparently it’s very gripping on the stage.  Sometimes you don’t have to make a noise, but you have to make that noise at the beginning to make people aware she’s not really well at all.  Hermann doesn’t actually kill her actually.  She dies of a heart attack, so she has to die of fright.  What they did in Toronto, which I thought was good, was after the ball I came in wearing this enormous two and a half foot head-dress, and this gown and hooped skirt.  Two girls surround me and they undress me on stage.  They take everything, and I said I’m not even going to even wear under-garments because they really do fall down and you really do look old!   I had a little grey night-gown and a bald pate with just tufts of hair.  I’ve seen pictures of it and, my God, I really do look old!  Then it’s believable that she’s old.  Nowadays you have to ‘act’ the part because of television.  So many things are televised, everything is a close-up.  You can’t do it from far away, coughing and pretending you’re in the part because visually you see it in the eyes of the person who is not involved.

BD:    Is it all schizophrenic to play an opera on the stage, knowing that the cameras are going to be close up, and yet there’s someone in the hall half a block away?

MF:    You have to forget the camera.  I really forget the camera.  When you do it in the opera house, they usually have some cameras down near the pit for the close-ups when they’re doing broadcasts.  You just forget it because they’ve seen the production several times and the director has decided which shots he’s going to use close.  You’re in his hands, but you have to do it as if was done on the stage.  You can’t suddenly change it.

BD:    And yet you’ve got to be alive and react to what’s happening.  You can’t do it exactly the same move for move.

MF:    No, no you can’t.  We did in Stratford Iolanthe, and they televised that. That was really quite cute, and some of the little dances we had to do two or three times simply because of the action.  The hardest thing in the world is to film dancers because you have to film them from the bottom.  That way they have these elongated bodies and legs because you’re aiming under the tutu almost, which is funny.  But in Iolanthe the girls were all like little bees, and they were very funny.  I made my entrance on a trapeze... a strong trapeze!  [Lots of laughter]  An elderly woman told me she was amazed to see an old thing doing that!  She said she’d just love to do that.  It changed her whole day to think that somebody my age would do something crazy by coming in on a trapeze!  It rejuvenated her and all her friends.  Maybe that’s what one has to do
go into seniors’ homes and put on plays where they do bizarre things, and rev them up and tell them there’s lots of life in the old girl yet!

BD:    [Protesting]  But you’re not that old!

MF:    Oh, I’m 58.  That’s getting there; it’s getting along.

BD:    You still have quite a long time to go!

MF:    Oh, I know I have.  Only the good die young!  [Much laughter]  Everything I do I have fun in life, and I’ve never ever tried to look younger than I am.  That’s one of the reasons that you manage in life.  I’m not interested in a thirty-year-old lover.  That’s kind of silly.  You have to enjoy every stage of life.  But I know people who are thirty who are old.  They practically give up at a certain stage.  I take one day at a time, and next week is more exciting than this perhaps – or maybe not, but try for it.  Shoot for the stars!  I’ve got four grandchildren; I probably will have twenty!  There are five children and we’re a great family.  We have a great family life.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made a number of recordings.  Do you sing differently for microphone than you do on the stage?

MF:    Yes you do, because you can’t over-sing for the microphone.  Sometimes you have to over-sing for a big hall, but at the microphone, you always have to give that little extra so it doesn’t go [demonstrates a wide, slow vibrato] ‘wa-oo-wa-oo-wa’.  You don’t want to rattle the sound.  You have control your vibrato a lot more because it’s not pleasant on a disc.

BD:    So you are actually changing everything?

MF:    It’s just a slightly different energy.  You’re not throwing it as far.  But the wonderful thing about a microphone is that you can whisper, and it comes out that way.  It’s wonderful! 

BD:    You mean you can be more subtle?

MF:    Be more subtle, yes.  

BD:    Are there any recordings that stand out as being your favorites, or do you like them all?

MF:    I never listen to them.  I might listen to it after it’s been pressed, but I really don’t have time to play records, and I don’t travel with a CD and listen to myself sing all the time.  I sometimes listen to an old record that I made.  Somebody sent me the Bruno Walter Lied von der Erde on a CD.  We made it in mono and it’s incredible, isn’t it?  Some of the older records I listen to once in a while, but in all honesty I really don’t listen to myself sing very much.

BD:    But you’re pleased that they’re out there?

MF:    Oh yes, I’m happy to record.  My favorite record of last year was Kern to Sondheim because that was fun and everybody was surprised.  They said they didn’t know I did that sort of thing!  Every teenager sings every popular song of the day, and those were the songs I sang.  I used to sit on the bumper of a car with my girlfriend and sing every song of the day.  We used to have those printed books that looked like comic books with all the words.  They used to sell because there wasn’t television in those days.  We loved music and I always liked ballads, really.  I realize the ones I sing usually have a message.  It’s either sad or happy, but it’s not just the ‘blah’ song.  My real problem with what the kids like nowadays is that everything is so monotonous and repetitive.  Where’s the poetry in it?  It just goes,
He loves me, he loves me, he loves me, he doesn’t love me anymore, he doesn’t love me.  I am bored out of my senses!

BD:    You want to know why he loves you!

MF:    Why?  Now you know why, because you nag, nag, nag, nag, nag!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Have you ever thought of writing some songs or some lyrics?

MF:    No.  I’m not really a writer, but I’m turned on to a song by the text.  When I hear a young person get up and sing beautiful sounds, I ask them what they say.  They hem and haw, and I tell them they have to know what every word means.  How can you weigh a word without knowing what it means?  You have to put a color on that word.  Is it sad?  Is it happy?  Is it angry?  Is it pensive?  It has color that goes with the actual sound you’re making, and the weight and the vibrato that has to be right.

BD:    Do you think about every one of these details as you’re singing or do you just go out there and let it sound?

MF:    I learn the song that way, and then it plants itself in my mind that way if you do it enough.  People worry about their memory.  If you sing something enough, you memorize it.  You know where the knives and forks are in your kitchen, and that’s memory!  You have to work on each piece enough so that it beds itself indelibly on your mind.


BD:    Have you ever had a memory lapse during a recital?

MF:    Oh yes! 
I tell young people don’t be embarrassed.  Everybody can forget.  But if you get really rattled, you’re going to make a mistake or another one a little bit later, so just throw in any word.  If you’re really stuck though and musically you forget the next phrase, then stop, go to the piano and either sing it from there or try it again.

BD:    And the audience forgives you?

MF:    Yes, of course they forgive you!  If you know how to laugh at yourself, the audience will forgive you.  But making mistakes is something else!  When I first went to China in ’78 I did some teaching.  Then I went back in ’82, and the government said External Affairs are sponsoring this with the Toronto Symphony, and it would lovely if I would do a Chinese encore.  Well, Chinese is a high language and I’ve got a low voice, but I said to send me a one-verse slow lullaby and I’ll try.  And I asked them to send me somebody to speak the sounds; somebody who speaks Mandarin Chinese so I could hear it.  So I sort of learned it.  It was a three-verse song, sounding kind of folksy-like, but I had no translation.

BD:    So you didn’t know what you were singing???

MF:    I just memorized sounds.  We performed in an enormous palace with about 5,000 people.  It was a conference hall or something.  So we do the Mahler Knaben Wunderhorn songs and got great applause.  Then a woman off-stage with a microphone announces that I will sing Nanniwan, and there was huge applause.  It’s a popular song and I was worried it was going to be terrible!  So I start, and the audience gave me a thumbs-up.  It seemed OK, so thank goodness, the first verse is fine!  Then during the second verse they were nudging each other and kind of smiling.  Finally, in the third verse the people seemed to be somewhat embarrassed, like I must be swearing.  But there was great applause and I go back stage.  My interpreter asked me if I knew what I was saying, and I said,
Not a word.  So he told me, “The first verse says Nanniwan is a very beautiful place.  It’s very green, with flower baskets everywhere and the sheep are grazing in the green fields.  You sang it in a lovely way!  The second verse was more than perfect.  Before Nanniwan there was nothing there.  It was dusty, empty, no people at all.”  So I asked him to tell me about the third verse!  He told me, Then came revolution and the regiment 359 came and brought in the workers so they could learn from Nanniwan.  Now there are green flower baskets.  I asked him what I actually said, and he replied, You said, Then came regiment 359 and brought in the workers to learn from Nanniwan because it’s empty, barren and no big bull dog!  [Gales of laughter]  Well, instead of being a disaster, everywhere we went in China – if we’d go to the zoo, people would come up to me and touch me and say, Oh, Nanniwan!  This was very early on when China just started to open up, and contrary to what the rest of the world thought, they found out that the best way to communicate is by television.  All the news is on television.  It takes too long to deliver newspapers, so every fourth family had a little television.  There wasn’t much on, mind you, in those days.  Now there is, but there wasn’t then.  Anyhow, about two years later, Deng Xiaoping [leader of China 1978-1992, after the death of Mao] came to Canada.  I’m the chairman of the Arts Council in Canada, and there was a big dinner of a thousand people.  There was a little quiet cocktail party before, and since I was the Governor Official, they invited me to come.  So I’m standing with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who had appointed me to my job, and we were talking.  The door opens and there was Deng Xiaoping.  He looks around and he makes a beeline for me.  I thought it was for Pierre, but he comes to me and says, Oh, Nanniwan!  You are very famous in China!  [More laughter]  I turned to Pierre and I said, Yes, by your mistakes shall you be known!  So he invited me to come back to China for six months to do some teaching and sing.  I told him six months was a long time, but when I finish my Canada Council term I’ll come for two.  It’s so changed there now.  They have great hotels and I’m sad, in a way, because when it first opened up, the pupils were incredible.  They were like sponges.  Everything you taught them, by the next day they had memorized it.  I had one girl, named Liang Ning, who came to sing for me in Toronto.  She was so wonderful.  She just won two big prizes.  She’s very pretty and tall and slim, and she sang the Cenerentola aria with all the coloratura.  It was so fabulous, she’s going to really give everybody a run for their money. 

BD:    She’s technically very good.  Is she musically very good?

MF:    Oh, very musical.  When I went to this class in Beijing, there was a young man singing for me, a lovely tenor who was very shy, absolutely crimson when he’d sing.  I stopped him at one point to correct something, and I said,
Your teacher studied with Weissenborn in Berlin.  Later a woman came up and asked how I knew that.  I told her it was because I studied a little while in Berlin with that man, and I know that’s the Fischer-Dieskau sound.  I know that way of singing.  I know it from this technique.  Singers hear techniques and they know who people have studied with. 

BD:    Are there many ways of singing correctly?

MF:    Yes, and singing in different languages has a different technique.  The Czech language is a different sound, whereas Italian sounds nice because it’s an easy, rather lazy language.

BD:    It’s all vowels. 

MF:    It’s all vowels, yes.  I like singing in German because of all the consonants.  It helps the diction without having to work too hard because it pushes out the sound for you. 

BD:    What about English?

MF:    English is not an easy language to sing in because it’s a ‘hot potato’ language.  Many of the vowels are rather down on the lower jaw rather than up in the mask.  But it’s a nice language.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

MF:    Of course!  I do a lot of modern music in Canada, especially Canadian composers, and commission various works.  Lots of music sent to me that isn’t for me.  It’s not that it isn’t good, it just wouldn’t suit my voice, so I pass it on to somebody else.  But we do have some wonderful composers and it’s very exciting.  I find that the avant-garde composers who are going up with [demonstrating strange vocal sounds] ‘ee-ah’ and ‘er, er, er, er, er
sort of sounds are all coming back to melodic lines.  If you’re using the human voice, it has two capacities – it can make a sound, but also it can deliver a text, so you have to allow that text to emerge.

BD:    Is this the advice you have for composers coming up?

MF:    Yes.  Treat the voice like a beautiful stringed instrument.  Let it blow a horn or something, but don’t use it as a static thing.

BD:    But don’t treat it instrumentally?

MF:    No, but give the voice a way that you can develop a beautiful musical line, not stop and start all the time. 

BD:    You’ve mentioned some students that you have.  Are there a lot of great voices coming along that will take the place of the great voices we have today?

MF:    There’s always great voices.  Maybe some of the young people today get into the professional world too soon for their technique.  If somebody says you’d make a great this or a great that, they’re usually not quite ready.  Then you don’t hear from them after a while because their technique isn’t solid enough to sustain a career. 

BD:    So it’s all about getting good advice?

MF:    Yes. 

BD:    Is it difficult for singers to get today to get good advice?

MF:    Yes, because suddenly somebody comes along and says you’d be great as Salome!  Well, to sing Salome when you’re still in your late twenties is too soon to sustain the acting on the stage.  Then there is the drying up.  You get dry on that stage, so most of the Salomes hide little straws with water all over the stage so [makes the sound of a slurp].  I want to develop something that you can have on stage when you’ve been sitting there a long time, that you keep in the palm of your hand with a couple of drops so you can go [slurps again]. 

BD:    Are you coming back to Chicago?

MF:    Not in this next year, no.  I used to do about 170 performances a year, but when I took over the Council, that absorbs forty per cent of my year.  I’m finished at the end of the year, and I can’t wait.  I enjoyed it.  It was wonderful to put back into the country what I’ve taken out, and to make life easier for the oncoming.  But it’s filing the government for money all the time and opening every show, and opening every gallery, because we fund all the arts.

BD:    Is that the way it should be done?

forrester MF:    Oh yes, oh, yes!  You have to have government subsidy.  It’s absolutely necessary.  You would want people to be proud of what they’re producing.  You’ve got to give it a chance to get from A to B, let alone to Z at the end.  I feel there are people that go after grants even when they’re self-sufficient, and they shouldn’t because the younger generation needs it.  But even a senior artist who is well known may want to take a year off to do an enormous sculpture.  So he applies for a sustaining grant, and he gets it.  It’s wonderful to be able to do that, or for an instrument maker to do a little trip to the west coast to choose the wood because it’s only in the west coast that they have wood wide enough to do the belly of a double bass.  It has to be one piece.  So it’s wonderful.  It’s very enlightening for me to see how the money is allocated.  It’s all done by a peers system.  Singers are assisted by singers, and so on.

BD:    Couldn’t that be dangerous?

MF:    No, no, because it’s a rotating; never the same people.  I’m sure there is at times a little favoritism, but in general it’s very fair and very even.  And it has to be passed by the twenty-one member board from all across Canada, and with the Chairman and the Vice-Chairman.  But my job is really being responsible.  We’re responsible to the government for how we spend our ninety-four million dollars a year, and we do a very good job.  We sustain young theater companies who may have only fifty people in the audience every night.  But they do provocative new plays, and it’s a testing ground for play writers as well as actors. 

BD:    So the cultural climate in Canada is very healthy?

MF:    I think so.  Our symphonies are all improving – the Montreal, certainly, the Toronto; Vancouver is out of its problems – it was almost going to go bankrupt.  Vancouver, BC is a very beautiful part of Canada.  It’s mountains.  You can go off at lunchtime and ski for an hour and a half, and go back to the office.  It’s that kind of a place; and in the summer everybody has boats, so instead of coming to board meetings, perhaps board members will have business people to take around.  They don’t take their culture as seriously as a Chicago or Montreal type of world.

BD:    What about the Northwest Territories?

MF:    I just did a tour of six Inuit centers, which was for me so enlightening.  It was absolutely wonderful and the people were so great.  The Canada Council doesn’t fund the Inuit; they’re funded by Indian and Arctic Affairs.  But I went out there and I just want to say their work, their carving and weaving, is so beautiful.  I went to say,
“Look, we love you.  We want you to continue because you are our pride and joy.  It means a lot when you go up and say that to an Inuit.  I want an Inuit and an Indian on the board of the Canada Council because when somebody comes to Canada, they always buy Eskimo art and they buy Indian art because it’s so stunning.  It would make us realize that even though we don’t fund them, how difficult it is for the rest of the artists of the country to be funded.  They need to feel part of the patchwork of the country, and have a say about things.  So I’m working on that.  Hopefully it’s going to happen in the next year.  I won’t be chairman then.

BD:    Will you still be on the Council though?

MF:    No, no.  It’s a five-year post and they asked me if I wanted to renew it and I said no.  I think five years is enough because no matter how much money we give out, you are sad to say,
I’m sorry you didn’t get your grant, but apply next year.  The money must have run out, and that’s it.  But you get tired of saying that because you want to do it for so many.

BD:    You want to give it to everybody?

MF:    You want to give it to everybody, yes.  My career was made by wonderful men, who owned the Montreal Star.  I was a kid who had six months of high school, and I’d been working since I was thirteen.  I had this voice developed, and my mother was a church singer and wanted me to sing, but it got to a point where I was going to have to give up my part-time job because I was getting little jobs and couldn’t sustain myself.  So he wrote a little story in his newspaper and had me investigated.  He called me in and said,
You can have as much money as you want to stop singing and study.  I said, No, I’m not at that stage.  I won all those little ladies’ club concerts, but they’re up in Regina, Saskatchewan.  The fee for me to take my accompanist, pay his fee, his hotel bill, mine and have a dress made, PR pictures and everything means I’m always in debt.  I’m always overdraft on my account, and the bête noire of my bank manager.  It doesn’t change much in your life and no it doesn’t really matter how much money!  Anyway, for two years he allowed me to accept every engagement that came along, and I think he spent something like $18,000 in the early ‘50s.  Imagine what it would cost now!  The other thing I tell young people who have a career is that you’re booked three or four years in advance.  You think, boy, that’s a pretty good fee so you go out and buy a mink coat!  But then when you’ve got to do that engagement in four years, the airline fees are double, the hotels are double, gowns are double, everything is double.  So it wasn’t such a great fee!  So you have to have a little intuition that tells you the smarts as well.  You have to say to a manager you can’t do that engagement because you’re not going to end up with anything.  It’s going to cost too much money to do it.  Sometimes if it’s in a small commune they’ll get an airfare for you.  So they go to the airlines and ask for a donation to their concert society by giving them the tickets.  So it works out and then you go.  You can’t be out of pocket if you want to do the engagement.

BD:    Sounds like a fun way to live, though.

MF:    It never changes; it gets worse as it goes along.  But I wouldn’t change it.  I’ve had an absolutely stunning life and have been all around the world, made friends, made money and it’s just wonderful memories.

BD:    I hope it continues for a long time.

MF:    It better.  I’ve got to keep up my income tax!  [Huge laugh]

:    Thank you for being an artist.

MF:    Oh, aren’t you nice!  Thank you so much.


© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at her hotel in Chicago on November 21, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1990, 1992, 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.