In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents 40 profiles of some of the most prominent Jewish Canadians throughout our history.
Born to a Scottish father and Irish mother in a working-class neighbourhood in Montreal, Maureen Forrester started her music career performing in church and radio choirs. She went on to become one of this country’s most prominent Jewish entertainers and, indeed, one of the most celebrated Canadian opera singers of all time.
It may seem an unlikely tale – almost as improbable as the fact that she dropped out of school at age 13 and went on to receive 29 honorary doctorates and serve as chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University – but Forrester discovered her musical talents early in life, taking a job as a secretary at age 16 to finance her singing lessons, and was able to exploit them with unparalleled success. By the time she was 21, in 1953, she began her professional career with her symphony debut in Montreal. It was a career that, at its height, saw her performing upwards of 120 times per year, all around the world.
Despite being best known as an operatic contralto, Forrester started out as a concert singer. In 1970, despite protestations from a colleague who said Forrester did not have the skills to perform in an opera, conductor Mario Bernardi hired her to perform in a production of Hansel and Gretel that aired on CBC Television. Forrester never looked back.
She also never lost touch with her humble beginnings and never let the fame go to her head. In the mid-1970s, for example, Forrester agreed to a pro bono appearance in a production of Werther, alongside Paul Frey, a young University of Toronto student. Frey, who was in awe of his larger-than-life co-star, did not feel it was right for him to take the final bow, despite playing the title role. When she got wind of this, Forrester solicited the stage manager to hold on to Frey until after she went on stage, so he could have the final bow.
“As she came back offstage, passing a red-faced Frey, propelled out by the stage manager for his proper final bow, Maureen muttered to him, ‘The name of the opera is Werther, after all!’ Stuart Hamilton, who was working with Forrester at the time, told the Globe and Mail in 2010. “She was utterly generous in that way.”
Forrester was also a strong advocate for the arts and Canadian artists, having championed and premièred pieces from a wide range of Canadian composers throughout the years. She also chaired the Canada Council for the Arts from 1983 to 1988, and famously stared down the Pierre Trudeau government in 1984, after it tabled legislation that would have made her arm’s-length organization – along with the CBC and the National Arts Centre – more “accountable” to the government of the day. After Forrester told the president of the Treasury Board that she would step down if the legislation passed as is, the offending passages were promptly dropped from the bill.
“Maureen had saved a principle basic to the independence of the arts,” former Canada Council director Timothy Porteous told the Globe in 2011.
In 1957, Forrester converted to Judaism, in order to marry Toronto violinist Eugene Kash. And although their marriage ended in 1974, Forrester kept the faith and raised their five children in a Jewish household.
“My father and mother fell in love soon after they met. Their life together was like a tale from a romantic movie,” Linda Kash told The CJN in 2013. “However, my father’s family would have been against the marriage if she did not convert to Judaism. She was concerned about being Jewish enough to raise us as Jews, and we know everything about our heritage.”
Forrester was named a companion of the Order of Canada in 1967 and an officer of the National Order of Quebec in 2003. In 1990, she was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2000.
Forrester passed away at age 79 in 2010.