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Celebrated Canadian opera star Maureen Forrester has died.

With family at her bedside, the 79-year-old quietly slipped away, said her daughter Gina Dineen on Wednesday night.

Forrester was 20th-century Canada's incarnation of the prototypical 19th-century diva. She sang incomparably, gave generously of her rare musical gifts and her worldly goods, and lived life "in the large."

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She was born in 1930 in a French-speaking neighbourhood of Montreal to musical working-class parents of Scots-Irish descent. She was the youngest of four children. She left high school at 13 and took a job as a secretary to finance her singing lessons, assisted by funds from the Montreal Social Club. Her voice teachers were Sally Martin, English tenor Frank Rowe, and finally, at age 20, her most important teacher, the Dutch baritone Bernard Diamant, who was teaching at Montreal's École Vincent d'Indy and McGill University. She began her long association with the noted German-born Montreal pianist-accompanist-coach John Newmark in 1953, when she was 23, and with Newmark she toured the world.

In 1957, she married the Toronto violinist Eugene Kash. Their five children grew to adulthood in the shadow and brightness of their mother's ever-burgeoning fame.

Forrester established her unique persona early. On one hand she took pleasure in washing her own floors. On the other, she loved to live and laugh and spend money on beautiful things. In the wake of her marriage, which ended in 1974, she had some grandes affaires. Her singing career was major from the outset, stretching across five continents. In her prime she sang as many as 120 concerts a year.

She was a big woman, magnificent on the platform (always gorgeously gowned and coiffed) and charismatic on the operatic stage. She was always supremely present for her audience; your eye couldn't leave her and, when she sang, neither could your ear. Her voice, arguably an opulent and capacious mezzo-soprano, officially a contralto, was famous in Mahler, ideal in Brahms and Dvorak, supple and agile in Bach and Handel, intimate in the most delicate lied and mélodie, simple or rude or funny in folksong or operetta.

Her embodiment of earth-mother, reigning queen and good sport made her the shining model of what Canadians want a diva to be. And her some 30 honorary degrees from Canadian universities (she was even chancellor Wilfrid Laurier University from 1986 to 1990) and her many other honours attested to her unique and powerful numen for Canadians. Her service from 1983 to 1988 as chair of the Canada Council left no doubt that her wisdom in the arts was valued. Her personal advocacy of Canadian music went well beyond lip service: she premiered and championed major vocal pieces by a wide range of Canadian composers.

An authentic celebrity, she touched the Canadian nerve as no other singer of her time had done.

Conductor Mario Bernardi turned on the car radio one day when he was out shopping: "I heard music of Mahler, so utterly idiomatic and magical I pulled over, parked, and listened raptly to the end. It was Maureen. The conductor was Bruno Walter. Simply fabulous. Later on, she sang in my own first Song of the Earth, and for me her input was perfection."

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Bernardi worked often with Forrester. With her and his National Arts Centre Orchestra he premiered and recorded major vocal works of Somers ( Five Songs for Dark Voice, in 1970) and Schafer ( Adieu Robert Schumann, in 1978). He also engaged her for many of his operatic productions. "Hermann Geiger-Torel told me I was mad to ask Maureen to sing opera," Bernardi said, "insisting she was a recitalist and concert singer with no stage skills. But I hired her to sing the Witch in Norman Campbell's CBC-TV production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel in 1970, and she had a ball. I asked her to sing Marcellina in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, tempting her with the aria Mozart wrote for a better-then-average Marcellina, and she astonished the doubters. She went on to many more important operatic roles. For me, at the National Arts Centre, she was marvelous, musically and dramatically, as the Countess in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades [1976 and 1979 at Festival Ottawa] and as the Stepmother in Massenet's Cendrillon [1979 and 1983]. Her instincts were unfailing and on top of that, she knew how to work."

After her late entry into opera, Forrester never looked back, singing a wide range of the juiciest mezzo roles. In Wagner, she sang Erda (Metropolitan debut, 1975) and Brangaene; in Verdi, Ulrica and Mistress Ford; in Strauss, Herodias and Klytemnestra; in Poulenc, the Old Prioress; in Massenet, Cendrillon's nasty stepmother; in Menotti, the title role in The Medium. For her La Scala debut, in 1990, she repeated her Countess in The Queen of Spades.

Sir Andrew Davis, music director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and conductor laureate of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, called from Chicago. "It was an absolute joy for me to work with Maureen Forrester," he said. "she was one of the world's great Mahler singers. She was just 28, you know, a very young woman, when Bruno Walter, Mahler's personal friend and close collaborator, chose her to record, with the New York Philharmonic, Mahler's Resurrection Symphony and then his Song of the Earth.

"It was as if Maureen were born to sing this music. She was immediately in demand by the conductors of the other top American orchestras: Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia, Charles Muench in Boston, Fritz Reiner in Chicago. Everything about her voice and her style was right for Mahler: singular beauty of sound, intensity of musical focus, and a haunting darkness of feeling. She could fill the softest pianissimo with an eerie carrying power. She could weave a spell better than anyone. I did my own first Mahler Second and Mahler Third with Maureen some years later.

"When we [the Toronto Symphony Orchestra] toured in China in 1978, the Chinese were just getting used to hearing western music, which for so long had been forbidden. Maureen sang several of Mahler's Knabben Wunderhorn songs and made an enormous hit with them. She also sang a little song in Chinese – Nani Wan – which said something like 'before Mao tse Tung the countryside was a desert, but after he came the desert burst into flower'. On one occasion Maureen inadvertently reversed a couple of words, so that the countryside was blossoming before Mao, and became a desert afterwards. The crowd was enchanted and roared with laughter, and Maureen, who realized she'd done something astonishing but wasn't quite sure what, her Chinese being quite skimpy, just bowed deeply, with her broadest smile, and swept off in her big dress to wild applause. They adored her. She could do no wrong. Or course, we all adored her. She had such energy, she was so much fun, and under it all she was an absolutely formidable musician."

Soprano Mary Lou Fallis, whose own early career as a gifted coloratura took her to the Metropolitan and who is enjoying a second career (Diva on a Moose, etc.) as the funniest vocal satirist since Anna Russell, studied with Maureen Forrester for a year in the early 1970s. "I loved that year and I loved her," said Fallis, "and I learned a lot. She said at the very outset, 'I can't be your best friend or your mother, but I can help you vocally and I can identify with your aims.' She was extremely practical. She took you on from where you already were. She treated me like a singer, never talked down, never patronized. She'd say 'Those few bars are a problem. Let's work on them,' and we would. She had a very strong work ethic. She'd say 'You can do it if you want. It depends on your intent.' She was extremely intelligent but she wasn't an intellectual. She was a throwback to a more basic type of artist. She applied her phenomenal gifts not analytically but directly, intuitively and with tremendous energy. This was a woman who had five kids and knew how to change a dirty diaper. She also knew how to sing, how to respond to a song and how to convey her response straight to a listener."

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Stuart Hamilton, the founder of Opera in Concert, and quizmaster for CBC Radio's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, became Forrester's Canadian coach and accompanist in 1971 when she returned to Canada from Philadelphia (she had moved to Philadelphia in 1966 to serve as chair of the voice department at the Philadelphia Music Academy). Mr. Hamilton worked with her on all her operatic roles of the 1970s and early '80s. When he himself wanted to program Massenet's Werther for Opera in Concert in 1976, Ms Forrester said she'd love to sing the leading female role of Charlotte. Hamilton replied, "I'd love it too, Maureen, but let's face it, we couldn't possibly afford your fee." To which she answered, "Never mind the fee, just get me a decent tenor to sing Werther." As it happened, Hamilton was able to engage the 34-year-old Paul Frey, not yet launched on his stellar, international career as a heldentenor. Forrester, who at the time was singing Ulrica at the Metropolitan, commuted daily between New York and Toronto for the Werther rehearsals. "The performance was fantastic," said Hamilton, "and when they were to go on for their bows Paul Frey, though his was the title role, refused to be the climactic last on the platform because, he said, 'I'm singing with Maureen Forrester, who after all is a star.' Maureen quietly asked the stage manager, a very large, strong man, to wrap his arms around Frey and restrain him while Maureen skipped out for the second-last 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!' She was utterly generous in that way," said Hamilton.

Hamilton accompanied her on numerous tours of Canada in the 1970s and '80s. "And you know," he said, "in the smallest town with the smallest audience and the worst piano, she gave as much as if she were singing for Bruno Walter. In one place the piano was a truly decrepit old grand. After the first song, Maureen said, 'We're terribly sorry the piano has laryngitis, but we'll do our best.' The audience hooted with laughter and we fought on."

Forrester became almost as famous for her good nature as for her art. "But," says Hamilton, "being jolly was her way of protecting herself. Inside that extrovert exterior she was a temperamental, high-strung, preoccupied woman. She had to be to achieve what she did. She could learn the most difficult material – and get it right – in just a couple of days, not because she had some amazing facility but because her concentration was so intense, so focused. She could touch a delicate song or a major role swiftly, right on the quick, and histrionically she was the most brilliant singer I have known. Publicly, she would play it down, laugh it off, seem to refuse to take it or herself seriously. But make no mistake. Maureen's private self, her core as an artist, was her own business and that business was deeply, fiercely, ruthlessly occupied with her art. You never really got close to Maureen."

This trenchant comment was echoed from a slightly different point of view by Frances Heinsheimer Wainright, a veteran Montreal CBC radio music-producer, who said, "The closest you ever got to Maureen Forrester was when she was singing and you were in the audience."

The last years of this phenomenal artist's life were tragically darkened by a decline of her once-so-vigorous mental powers. She died on June 16, 2010, in Toronto after suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

She is survived by her four daughters, Paula Burton, Gina Dineen, Linda Kash and Susan Whaley, and her son Daniel Kash, and their children.

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Special to The Globe and Mail

With a report from Sarah Boesveld

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