Canadian soprano Clarice Carson sang 63 performances with the Metropolitan Opera in New York during the 1960s and '70s, including at least one that featured a maelstrom of uncertainty, if not high comedy.
One of her most successful roles at the Met was that of Musetta in Puccini's La bohème. On the evening of her debut in the role, on Dec. 5, 1968, Nicolai Gedda, the tenor scheduled to sing Rodolfo, cancelled due to illness. Luciano Pavarotti then stepped in, but after the first two acts he, too, became ill, only to be replaced in Acts III and IV by Barry Morell. The next two shows of the three-performance run were sung by Sandor Konya and Richard Tucker.
With a flu decimating the rank and file at that time, one can only imagine the stress level that evening. But The New York Times review that followed had nothing but praise for Ms. Carson, who died of kidney failure on May 2.
"The real revelation that evening," the Times wrote, "was a new Musetta, Clarice Carson, who until now has sung only inconspicuous parts. Her voice is very large and lush and it propels itself throughout the theatre with thrilling effect. Dramatically she is the best Musetta in years. Flashy and terribly funny in Act II, wounded and outraged in Act III, frightened and desperate in Act IV. It was a masterful piece of work and I think that we will be hearing a lot more from Ms. Carson."
One couldn't buy such a heady endorsement.
Clarice Katz was born on Dec. 23, 1929, and raised in Montreal, the daughter of Polish émigrés who worked in the garment industry. Although her parents wanted her to become a bookkeeper, Clarice was determined from a young age to become a singer. With that goal in mind, she began professional vocal studies with Pauline Donalda, a Canadian who enjoyed a relatively short but significant career abroad. After her retirement from the stage, Ms. Donalda eventually returned to Canada to set up a vocal studio in Montreal in 1937. Ms. Donalda must have been a going concern in Montreal at that time, for in addition to her vocal studio, she established the Opera Guild of Montreal in 1941 – an ambitious organization that was instrumental in launching Ms. Katz's early career. She was to become Ms. Donalda's most famous student.
Clarice Katz married her first husband – William (Bill) Ornstein – when she was just 18. Together, they had two children, Neil and Melanie, but the marriage ended with an amicable divorce. (A second marriage, to Philon Ktsanes, a Greek-American tenor and vocal coach, was short-lived.)
The soprano began using the mellifluous "Clarice Carson" as her local stage name (she eventually adopted it as her legal name). Ms. Carson made her public debut on the Sarah Fischer Concerts series in Montreal in 1956, at the age of 26. This prestigious series featured established and emerging Canadian talent. Ms. Carson's operatic debut was to follow three years later, with Ms. Donalda's Opera Guild of Montreal, as the Lady-in-waiting in Verdi's Macbeth (1959), followed by Micaela in Bizet's Carmen (1960), and Siebel in Gounod's Faust (1963). With that, more offers started to roll in.
Her first major contract was with the New York City Opera's 1965-66 national tour, making her company debut as the Countess in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. The following season, 1966-67, she accepted a contract with the short-lived Metropolitan Opera National Company, appearing as the Countess in Mozart's Figaro, Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata, and the Female Chorus in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia. After that, she spent three seasons (1967 to 1970) at the Met, where she made her house debut as the First Lady in Mozart's The Magic Flute.
Ms. Carson had a large, bright sounding voice – perfect for cutting through a Straussian or Wagnerian orchestra. As her career progressed, so did her repertoire, moving from Mozart (The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni) to Richard Strauss (Salome) and Wagner (The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin, Tannhauser).
In a recent telephone conversation from her home in Vancouver, the much-admired Canadian mezzo-soprano, Judith Forst (who was at the Met around the time that Ms. Carson was) recalled her colleague as being "larger than life – a big presence with a big, big personality. And what a voice!"
In 1972, The Globe and Mail's John Kraglund wrote of her performance with the Canadian Opera Company, "the big, expressive voice of Clarice Carson, as Tosca, would be an asset with any company. Her interpretation of Vissi d'arte was not only beautifully sung but intensely moving."
Ms. Carson's talents earned her an international audience. Apart from Canada and the United States, she performed in major opera houses throughout Europe and South America. She also sang opposite many of the great tenors of her generation, including Franco Corelli, Placido Domingo, Mr. Gedda, Ermanno Mauro, Mr. Pavarotti, Léopold Simoneau and Jon Vickers. The list of conductors with whom she worked is equally stellar, including Mario Bernardi, Franz-Paul Decker, Herbert von Karajan, James Levine, Zubin Mehta and Eugene Ormandy.
Critics panned her final stage performances, however, in a Chicago production of The Flying Dutchman in November/December of 1983. She was 54, a time that most sopranos begin to think seriously about retirement. Moreover, she confided in her close friend and former manager Ann Summers, "I'm lonely on the road."
Once her singing career had ended, she tried her hand at teaching, but as she told various people, "I hated it!" Shortly thereafter, she decided to leave New York and to move to Toronto to be with her family and her three grandchildren. Until her death earlier this month, at the age of 85, she had lived in Toronto for 27 years.
After retiring in 1986, she served as an active board member of the International Resource Centre for Performing Artists (IRCPA), where she mentored many young singers. All of Ms. Carson's scores, personal correspondence, tapes, recordings and program booklets documenting her career have been given to the IRCPA for a new reference facility planned to open in 2017.
Although fun to be with and generous-hearted, she had an inner diva and was no pushover. "She didn't mince words," says her close friend Joseph So. "She always said exactly what was on her mind, and she would shoot from the hip."
"She was also a fashionista," Ms. Summers says. "She loved clothes. She loved wearing period costumes on stage. And she loved to dress her friends and colleagues and give them advice. She had a real knack for it."
This love for things sartorial offered Ms. Carson a second career. She opened a shop on Eglinton Avenue West in Toronto called Carson-Palmer: Fashion Alternatives, which rented formal wear to women who did not want to purchase high-end gowns. This included dresses for weddings, formals, proms and, of course, for recitals and concerts.
Ms. Carson's immediate family is a closely knit one. In a recent interview, her daughter, Melanie Ornstein, an obstetrician and gynecologist, said, "She was extremely intelligent. She always believed that you should be able to take care of yourself. She was certainly a feminist from a very early age. She was very generous. She loved a good party. She liked to eat. She loved to drink great wine. She had a terrific sense of humour. She always had an anecdote to share. She had a very interesting life and she was able to share that with people – she was just a very wonderful, wonderful person."
Ms. Carson's singing gave a generation of voice enthusiasts much pleasure, however no studio recordings exist to provide a permanent record of her artistry. Recordings of her live performances can be found, but are often of inferior sound quality. And although Ms. Carson never achieved superstardom, her light continues to shine brightly in the hearts and minds of those who heard her perform.
In 1998, Ms. Carson was inducted into Montreal Opera's Hall of Fame at Place des Arts in Montreal; in 2013 she was honoured with a commemorative plaque by the National Opera America Center in New York.
Clarice Carson leaves her son, Neil Ornstein, an employment lawyer; daughter, Dr. Ornstein; and three grandchildren, Erin, Ben and Rachel.