His languid, bemused voice rolled out of thousands of radios on Saturday afternoons, as he posed another question about some nugget of opera lore. Many Canadians knew Stuart Hamilton only as host of the intermission quiz on CBC Radio's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, but he was also and primarily an expert vocal coach, who honed the talents of many of Canada's top classical singers.
Mr. Hamilton, who died of cancer in Toronto on Jan. 1 at the age of 87, coached and toured with two of this country's greatest vocalists: Lois Marshall (whom he described as "profoundly spiritual") and Maureen Forrester ("all instinct"). He also nurtured many younger singers, including Ben Heppner and Isabel Bayrakdarian, through private coaching, as founding director of Opera in Concert and as first music director of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble.
He took music very seriously, himself less so. In his memoir Opening Windows, he recalled with amusement that the citation for his Order of Canada, which he received in 1984, included the words, "You have presented a lot of unknown operas" — a reference to his sometimes obscure choices as director of Opera in Concert. The Toronto-based company, now known as Voicebox, continues to perform unstaged versions of complete operas, 42 seasons after its first shows.
Mr. Hamilton was passionate about the music of Claude Debussy and the feeling of good leather clothing. He managed to get both into his memoir's cover photo, which shows him gripping the score for Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande while wearing a black biker jacket. He was an amusing storyteller and a shrewd reader of personalities who had a knack for saying the right words to a singer experiencing difficulties.
"He was really insightful into your state of mind, which can be complicated for a singer," said soprano Nathalie Paulin, who worked with him numerous times. "He had a wonderful way of freeing things up."
Being musical was a necessity of life for Mr. Hamilton, and he regarded it as a natural right for everyone else. His sister Patricia Hamilton, a well-known actress, recalled his response when she commented that a singer whose coaching session she had overheard should perhaps find something else to do with her time.
"He looked me up and down and said, 'She has every right to sing,'" Ms. Hamilton remembered. "'If you could see her face when she's singing, you would know she's getting enormous pleasure from it.'"
Stuart Hamilton was born in Regina on Sept. 28, 1929, to Florence (née Stuart) and James Shire Hamilton. By his own account, music and performance became the centre of his life at the age of 5, when he saw and heard Shirley Temple sing on the screen of his local cinema. "My life was transformed," he wrote in Opening Windows. He began piano lessons, sometimes accompanying his sister Dorothy, a gifted young singer.
His early absorption in music, show business and the piano made him indifferent to other studies, and desperate to get out of Regina. He left in 1947 for Toronto, where he studied piano with Alberto Guerrero, in whose studio he met and became friends with the young Glenn Gould.
Mr. Hamilton found a kindred spirit in Mr. Guerrero, who shared his love of Debussy and his poetic approach to music. But his teacher also told him that his hands were the worst for a pianist he had ever seen. Mr. Hamilton struggled on to gain some standing as a concert soloist, and eventually gave two well-reviewed recitals in New York. He also performed in Broadway-style shows, and studied the art of the accompanist and vocal coach with singer Emmy Hein and keyboardist Greta Kraus.
A coach is not a teacher of the technical side of singing, though Mr. Hamilton came to know a good deal about that. His real métier was to guide a singer toward the best possible interpretation of a given piece.
"It's psychological," Ms. Paulin said. "You always felt like a million bucks singing for Stuart. He had firm opinions, and he might not like everything you did, but he knew how to make you realize what you could do better."
At the keyboard, his major concern was following the voice and capturing the feeling of the music. He was much less concerned with technical perfection, though always keenly aware of his deficits as a pianist.
"I've always said that I could do anything as long as it didn't have to be right," he wrote in his memoir. "As a pianist, I was never famous for my right notes." He accepted his shortcoming, but as his responsibilities lightened toward the end of his life, he resumed piano lessons.
Mr. Hamilton was a devoted collaborator, but by his own account, not a team player. Opera in Concert, which allowed him the freedom to choose all his own repertoire and singers, suited him better than his short-lived berth at the COC, where he was one part of a larger machine.
"With Opera in Concert, he gave us all the coachings for free," said Janet Stubbs, another of "his" singers. "He was very generous that way. It was such a contribution, because you were not only learning the role, you were developing as a musician."
"I've been passionately in love with all my singers," Mr. Hamilton declared in his book. His social world revolved around them, though he was also fond of the family hearth. He was never close to his parents, but very close to his sisters. He lived for several years as an adult with Patricia and her husband, in a big house that served as "a temporary dorm for everyone in the family," he wrote. He spent his last 40 years sharing an apartment in downtown Toronto with Dorothy.
He never doubted or hid his sexual identity, even as a young man in the heteronormative 1950s. "I've never had the nerve to pretend I wasn't gay," he wrote in Opening Windows.
One thing he missed out on was a serious love relationship. "I was never secure enough in my belief in my musical background to risk spending what emotional energy I had in having a relationship," he wrote. He found fulfilment in his work, and in that, was far from being a disappointed man.
"I don't know anybody who loved their work as much as Stuart," his sister Patricia said. The program for his final concert, at the age of 85, included a dedication: "This recital is in celebration of the gift that music is in our lives."
Mr. Hamilton was diagnosed with prostate cancer 10 years ago. "When we got to the point where the doctors had done everything they could," Patricia recalled, "Stu gave a little speech, saying, 'I feel like I've had a very happy and productive life. I don't feel like I've been cheated in any way by what's happening now.'"
Mr. Hamilton leaves his sisters, Dorothy Marshall and Patricia Hamilton, and several nieces and nephews.