EVERYTHING ALWAYS COMES UP ROSES FOR MAUREEN
A bout the only thing Canadas Maureen Forrester hasn't got is worries. At 34 she's rated among the world's top contraltos, makes $2,000 a concert — and is doing 50 this season. She's a happy wife and motherly mother of five ... with only one unanswered question in mind: what would have happened if she had made it as a pop singer?
JAN PEERCE, the American tenor, is a man of exceptional vitality and endurance for his sixty years, but even he might have been tempted to return to his hotel room for an occasional restorative nap in the midst of an exhausting schedule of recording sessions last summer in Vienna. Instead, whenever possible he took time out from his own phonographic labors to visit a different studio in the same building and unobtrusively eavesdrop on the activities of another singer he warmly admires.
"It is a rare pleasure to see and hear such a performer in action,” Peerce said later. "This lady is a great pro. a delightful colleague and a glorious artist, and I love her dearly. Sleep? Who needs it? One hour listening to Maureen Forrester is more refreshing to the spirit than three hours of slumber.”
The object of these comradely hosannas is a tall, jolly, majestic Canadian housewife and mother, some of whose neighbors in Toronto's Forest Hill Village are only casually aware that the big buxom blonde they see playing with her children is the champion contralto of the world and one of the greatest singers of the century.
Twenty-one years after she dismayed her parents in Montreal by quitting school at thirteen because she felt she wasn't learning anything, she speaks four languages and sings fluently in nine. She gets paid two thousand dollars every time she gives a concert, and she is doing fifty of them this season. She could easily double the total of concerts if she wanted, but she prefers to shorten her absences from her family. One American critic has called her "Canada's greatest natural resource since gold was discovered in the Klondike.” Hermann Scherchen, a formidable German conductor, has said she is the only vocalist whose work reminds him of the long-ago splendors of the incomparable Caruso.
After one of her performances the New York Herald Tribune rhapsodized: “Miss Forrester has a contralto that one can only describe by comparing it to a stained-glass window with the midday sun pouring through it.”
In the opinion of James Grayson, founder-president of Westminster Records, the Canadian alto's dominance in her field is only partly the result of possessing “a perfect instrument.” He says it also stems from such extramusical qualities as warmth, womanliness and intuitive compassion—and that all of this is “clearly rooted in her own domestic security.” Her accompanist, Montreal pianist John Newmark, agrees. “Maureen,” he says, “is a fulfilled woman, and you can hear it in her singing. She is getting better all the time, and she improves each time she has another baby.”
The contralto has been happily married for ten years to Eugene Kash, a Toronto-born violinist and conductor of Russian-Polish descent. Their latest offspring, whom they are temporarily calling Opus Five, was born in December, just in time to let a resilient mother regain strength to sing in a performance of Pergolesi’s continued overleaf
IN MARRIAGE MAUREEN HAS A SHOWBUSINESS RARITY-TRANQUILITY
continued / Stabat Mater in New York’s Lincoln Center on December 27. The Kashes’ other children are nine-year-old Paula, six-year-old Gina, Daniel, who is five, and Linda, who will be four on January 17.
Miss Forrester, a woman of boundless health and vigor, habitually keeps singing until a couple of weeks before storktime and resumes her career about one week after the event. “When I married her,” Kash is fond of telling friends, “I got what I had always wanted—a cultivated peasant.” But she took the precaution to have a New York obstetrician “on call” when she made her last pre-stork appearance in a Bach cantata on November 8.
For six years the family has relied heavily on the services of a housekeeper-nurse named Charlotte Gyory, whom everyone calls “Tetta,” a tiny tireless pixie, four feet eight inches tall and weighing only seventy-one pounds. She has helped make the Kash domicile on Lonsmount Drive one of Toronto’s most multilingual habitats. Maureen speaks English, French, German and Italian. Her husband is fluent in all of those and in Yiddish, and speaks “a bit of Polish.” Tetta, who is sixty-nine, speaks German, Hungarian, Romanian, Italian and English. She doesn’t know French, so that is the “private” language the parental Kashes use at home.
The children have learned German from Tetta. Young Daniel can sing Frère Jacques in French, English and Japanese. He learned the Japanese version from a kindergarten teacher who had visited the Orient.
The tranquility of Maureen Forrester’s domestic environment may be lacking in the stuff of Freudian melodrama, but it offers a refreshing contrast to the broken homes and emotional cyclones afflicting many other notables in the hectic world of the performing arts.
The future queen of international contraltos was born in Montreal July 25, 1930, the youngest of four children of a Scotsman and an Irishwoman who had met a month after they arrived in Canada and married two years later. The baby was christened Maureen Katherine Stewart Forrester. Thomas Forrester was a skilled cabinetmaker whose main job was installing switchboard equipment for the Northern Electric Company. He had a pleasant light tenor voice, and his wife May had an excellent though untrained alto which old friends of the family recall as an earlier sound-alike for her famous daughter’s. Maureen can still shut her eyes and clearly hear the remembered harmonies of her mother and father singing at neighborhood parties a once-popular duet, Madam, will you walk? Madam, will you talk? Madam, will you walk and talk with me?
Maureen began to sing in infancy. She was only four when one of her grandfathers took her to a military hospital, lifted her to a table and urged her to do a solo for the sick and wounded soldiers. She responded with a song titled How’m / Doing, Heh Heh, Chee Chee, Diddle Dee Daw, which has since lain fallow in her vast repertoire.
The family budget was far from lavish, but prices were low during the Depression and the Forresters could afford to send Maureen to piano lessons
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“Lovely voice,” young Maureen was told, “but you don’t know how to sing”
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at five. She sang Teach Me to Pray at a Sunday-school rally when she was eight. Later she and her sister Jean used to harmonize in the kitchen while doing the dishes. Maureen and a girl friend would sit on the fenders of cars on summer evenings and blend their voices in Sierra Sue and The Isle Of Capri.
Her mother, who has been a widow since 1953, painfully recalls the consternation felt by her husband and herself when Maureen, good-natured but firm - willed, suddenly decided halfway through her second year at Sir William Dawson High School that she had seen enough of classrooms. They allowed her to quit, hoping she would soon change her mind and go back. The year was 1943, and the Hitler war was only half over. Many of the good teachers were away. Maureen says the boys in her grade were tough and raucous and often made a mockery of the curriculum. She felt she was getting nowhere.
Nowadays the renowned contralto ruefully admits she is not proud of having been a school dropout and says her own children “will finish their education, including university, if it takes them fifty years.” But her work and her travels have given her a liberal schooling in the arts and she is able to converse on a wide range of subjects with conductors, professors and other non-dropouts.
The teenager easily found a variety of low-paying jobs and soon was able to do most of the chores in an average office except take dictation. She learned to handle a typewriter and operate a switchboard.
By the time she was fifteen she was singing regularly in a church choir— as a soprano, not an alto. One day she heard of a vacancy for a pop vocalist with Johnny Holmes’ dance orchestra. She telephoned the Montreal bandleader, asked for an audition, and was heartbroken when he said no. She has often wondered what path her future might have taken if he had said yes. The great recitalist and specialist in German Heder has no intention of invading the popular field as a sideline, but she enjoys and admires the work of such pop headliners as Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.
When she was sixteen the soprano’s voice changed overnight to a throbbing contralto, much as a boy’s voice usually “breaks” at an earlier age.
Soon she was taking lessons from her first voice teacher, a hearty and hospitable old Scot, Mrs. Sally Martin, “very short and stout with curly white hair.” Mrs. Martin was convinced that all growing girls were perpetually hungry, so she would feed Maureen generously on tea and jam tarts before each lesson, blandly reversing the hallowed tradition that says good singing cannot be done on a full stomach.
“Those tarts have had a lifelong influence on her,” says husband Kash. “Today she is probably the only girl
in the business who can and does put away a steak before a concert. Maureen doesn’t believe in singing on an empty stomach.”
Her next teacher was an eightyyear-old Englishman, Frank Rowe, who could still sing an impressive Elijah. She worked with him from 1949 to 1951. By this time she had decided to become a professional singer, although she was vaguely aware that her voice hadn't yet matured. Meanwhile, she had competed in a Singing Stars Of Tomorrow competition over CBC radio from Toronto, and lost by one point to a soprano named June Kowalchuk, now a physician’s wife in Hamilton, Ont.
One of the major turning points in Maureen Forrester’s life occurred on the day in 1951 when she went to a recital by a newly arrived Dutch baritone named Bernard Diamant, who had begun teaching in Montreal. He was a tall rangy man in his early forties. “Hearing him,” Maureen remembers, “was an electrifying experience. The voice itself was not the most beautiful I had ever heard, but I had never heard anybody sing more beautifully.”
She promptly auditioned for Dia-
mant as a prospective pupil. Smiling, he told her bluntly: “You have a lovely voice, but you don’t know how to sing.” Instead of being offended, the young contralto was delighted. This was exactly what she had suspected all along, and the time had come to do something about it.
“We’ll have to start in from the middle and build your voice outward in both directions,” the Dutchman told her, “and it’s going to be a terrible amount of work. Have you the will power to stick with it?”
She had, and she did, and Diamant now recalls that she buckled down to her lessons with a tenacity that exhilarated him. Miss Forrester has had no other teacher since 1951, and still takes refresher lessons with Diamant whenever a technical problem arises —or whenever she wants to make sure she is not unwittingly slipping into bad vocal habits.
By 1952 she was partly earning her living as a singer, picking up small fees around Montreal and occasional out-of-town engagements. A musicloving Italian building contractor named James Franceschini was paying her forty-five dollars a week to open up the switchboard at 7 a.m. and do various chores around the
office for three hours. She enjoyed the experience and took advantage of the opportunity to learn Italian. A born mimic with a singer’s ear for tiny nuances of sound, she acquires languages quickly. She had learned French as a child in Montreal, and her German was to be perfected later through intensive study in Europe. The husky girl was working for Franceschini in the morning, taking vocal lessons in the afternoon, and singing in public in the evening, a regimen that might have crippled a less stalwart performer.
Once again, good luck smiled on her. Eric McLean, music critic of the Montreal Star, had spotted her talent even before she began studying with Diamant. One of his columns aroused the interest of McLean’s boss, publisher J. W. McConnell, a gruff tycoon in his eighties who never publicized his private philanthropies in aid of struggling artists and students. For two years McConnell financially sponsored Miss Forrester by underwriting all her traveling expenses to and from distant bookings in North America. She estimates this must have cost him between twenty and twenty-five thousand dollars.
The old publisher also hired Town Hall in New York for her now historic Manhattan recital debut in 1956. By that time she had auditioned successfully with two of the world's foremost conductors, Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter, and the word was around that a new girl, prodigiously gifted, was at the threshold waiting for her big break.
When the break arrived she was ready for it, seasoned by two years of singing on both sides of the Atlantic under the auspices of Les Jeunesses musicales du Canada. This experience included many recitals for “little kids in snowsuits,” who helped her to establish a quick rapport with any type of audience. She had also been heard and seen on dozens of CBC radio and television programs.
Looking back now, Maureen thankfully concedes that Fate has been singularly kind to her in several strategic aspects of her life.
She was born with good health and an amiable outlook on the world, the sort of temperament that used to be called “a pleasant disposition.” Her family background has always been harmonious. McConnell’s generosity and the day-by-day advice of teacher Diamant and accompanist Newmark have been stimulating forces in her career.
Perhaps most important of all has been her glowing partnership with her husband, whom she first saw sitting in the audience in an Ottawa highschool gymnasium where she was singing in February 1953. Eugene Kash at that time was conductor of the Ottawa Philharmonic Orchestra after several years of distinguished work as music director for the National Film Board.
Miss Forrester sturdily denies that she is superstitious but insists that she had something akin to a psychic premonition after a single glance at this
quizzical, curly - haired stranger. “There,” she told herself with secret certainty, “is the man I am going to marry.” She didn’t even have to seek him out: he approached her when the concert was over. They were married in London in the summer of 1954.
Although she makes light of it in conversation, Maureen’s wryly admiring husband is convinced that her Celtic forerunners must have included a couple of leprechauns. She is telepathic to the extent that she often knows exactly what other people are about to say. She has been known to ftnger an unopened letter and accurately foretell its contents. Mysteriously, on the night of a full moon she cannot sleep and is able to see in a dark room. Her Opus Five daughter, three weeks late, waited for birth until the moon was full, on December 18.
Among the unpredictable but fortunate incidents in her career was that, it just so happened, her Town Hall debut in 1956 was the only musical event of any importance in New York that day. The result was that all the newspapers were represented by their senior critics instead of by second-stringers. Their reviews were unanimously enthusiastic.
There were comparisons, none of them unfavorable, with such great altos of the past as Kathleen Ferrier, Sigrid Onegin, Kerstin Thorborg, Louise Homer, Schumann-Heink and Dame Clara Butt.
“Voices of this order,” wrote Howard Taubman in the New York Times. “make one feel that the fabled golden era is not gone forever.”
Miss Forrester has been triumphantly acclaimed not only in Canada and the United States, but throughout the British Isles and in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Holland. Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. She has had the coveted tribute of onstage ovations from the musicians in most of the world’s great orchestras. Pablo Casals chose her
among the world’s contraltos to sing, not once but often, the leading role in his new oratorio, El Pesebre (The Manger). The famed conductors who have kissed her hand in front of standing audiences range from Barbirolli to Walter, from Beecham to Szell, from Bernstein to Stokowski, from Karajan to Ormandy. So insistent is the demand for her services in New York that she is appearing there eleven times this season. And her recordings, several of which became
classics as soon as they were issued, have come out on the Canadian Hallmark label as well as on RCA Victor, Columbia, Westminster, Vanguard and Deutsche Grammophon.
Most famous singers never begin to teach until their own careers are finished or waning. Miss Forrester, on the contrary, already has six pupils who study with her as often as possible. She has no time to accommodate any more. “1 know most of the pitfalls by now,” she says, “and I love
passing on the fruits of my experience to others. Besides, a few good pupils help to keep teacher on her toes.”
Each lesson may run from thirty minutes to two hours and doesn’t end until Maureen feels certain the pupil has made a decisive forward step. Her own opinions are corrosive about the "rackets" and "charlatanism" that, she says, still infest the profession of vocal teaching. She charges twentyfive dollars a lesson, and from this she has to pay five dollars to an
“I do my homework. I expect others to do theirs”
accompanist, which means that the renowned alto has heen imparting her secrets for one hundredth of her regular concert fee.
Although she has become almost a legend among other singers for the sunniness of her temperament, she doesn't mind admitting she has occasional “mads.” She now walks away from any rehearsal that is being roadblocked by any singer who has come unprepared. ”1 do my homework, and I expect other people to do theirs." One day last year a curt parking official wouldn't let her leave her car in a full lot at Montreal’s Place des Arts and wouldn’t even listen while she told him she was one of the soloists in that day’s performance of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. Maureen furiously circled the block, managed to find a spot, and slammed every door with a bang on her way into the auditorium. She had to summon all her reserves of selfcontrol and artistic discipline to prepare herself in a few minutes for the pathos and sublimity of the music.
One of the cardinal tenets in her professional credo is that a singer must not allow herself to “wallow” in the emotions of any composition, no matter how deeply she may inwardly respond to it. Says Maureen briskly, "Let the audience do the weeping, if they feel like it. My job is to do the singing. If I choke up, it ruins my breathing.”
In one respect Miss Forrester has an old kinship with that wildly dissimilar troubadour, the late Al Jolson. Like the raucous old mammy-singer, she likes to “see the people” — by having enough lights turned on at her concerts to let her watch the faces of her listeners. “Otherwise,” she says, “there is no rapport, no flow-back of feeling between me and them. I hate to sing into a black void.”
She has this to say about her physical contours: “I know I ought to slim down a hit, but not as much as some people think. When I’m not pregnant I weigh between one hundred and seventy and one hundred and seventy-five pounds. I’d like to get it down to one-sixty, but no less than that. I’m a big girl, five foot nine in my bare feet, and I’ve got a lot of meat on my bones.” The words “Valkyrian” and “Junoesque” frequently appear in her press notices when critics mention her physical attributes. She holds herself with regal hearing on the platform, and her legs are trim and shapely.
Maureen says she loves good food, but rarely nibbles between meals. Tetta does most of the cooking at home, although Maureen often takes over and is known among her friends as a specialist in gourmet cuisine. Her concert agency, Columbia Artists Management Inc., in New York, has solemnly published Maureen Forrester’s well-tested personal recipes for “G e n 11 e m a n’s Casserole” and “Cheese-and-Onion Pie.”
Husband Kash is a lifelong specialist in the rare art of making music for children. The National Film Board in the early 1950s produced a docu-
mentary. Childrens Concert, about Kash’s widely acclaimed symphony concerts for young people while he was conductor of the Ottawa Philharmonic. In 1961 the NFB made Festival In Puerto Rico, starring his celebrated wife as a headliner at the Casals Festival. The Kashes are almost certainly the only married couple in Canada who have both had individual movies made about their careers.
Mother’s “other” voice
Kash was associate conductor of the Fairfield County Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut from 1961 to 1963. They are still trying to get rid of the attractive house they bought in Westport. In 1963 they moved to Toronto when Kash became academic administrator of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. He held that post for a year. Now he commutes each week to Montreal while conducting a busy season of Young People's Concerts of the Montreal Symphony in Place des Arts. His 1964-65 schedule includes a children’s concert in January with the Toronto Symphony.
In their own home, Eugene and Maureen surround their youngsters with good music but never try to force it upon them. As a result they are all musical of their own free will. They all sing, and Paula is taking piano lessons and says she later wants to play the harp. Maureen often sits at the piano with as many as three of her bairns perched around her, and she sings with them — in a casual,
small, ordinary voice only faintly resembling the stained-glass luminosities of Manhattan, Vienna and Moscow.
"They know my ‘other’ voice, as they call it,” she says, “and recognize it if it happens to come over the radio on a recording. But they don’t feel that’s Mommy. Usually one of them just says in a matter-of-fact way, ‘Hmmm. That’s Maureen Forrester.' ”
Her mother has an apartment in Montreal but often visits the Kashes in Toronto. Maureen’s sisters, Jean and Beryl, are both married and living in Montreal. Her brother Arnold works for an iron-ore company at Seven Islands, Que. All of them are fond of music but only Maureen, the family's pride and glory, has become professionally involved.
Although her upbringing was as a Protestant, the singer has adopted her husband’s Jewish religion and their children are being reared in that faith. The family worships regularly in Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple, a Reformed synagogue.
More than once she has opened a recital with a healing aria from Handel's Rodelinda, which begins with seven words she is able to deliver with more conviction than almost any other singer of our time: “Art thou troubled? Music will calm thee.”
She made a smiling remark in a recent speech to the Variety C lub of Toronto, hut she obviously wasn't joking when she said it and nobody laughed, although several eyes were misty:
“God gave me success young, because He knows I want to retire early.” ★