Maureen Forrester: Contralto celebrated for her interpretations of Mahler

The contralto Maureen Forrester gained worldwide fame as a recitalist and concert singer during the early part of her long career. Noted particularly for her magnificent interpretations of Mahler's songs and other vocal music, she also sang Brahms, Dvorák and Bach with equal facility, while her rich, opulent voice, always under perfect control, was agile enough for Handel's most florid music. She came to opera relatively late, but from the mid-1960s onward, while continuing her concert and recital tours, she also took one or two operatic engagements a year, mostly in North America.

Forrester was born in 1930 in Montreal, where she studied with Sally Martin, Frank Rowe and, from 1950 onward, the Dutch baritone Bernard Diamant. She made her recital debut in 1953 with the pianist John Newmark, her accompanist and coach for many years.

In 1956 she gave the first performance of Harry Somers' Five Songs for Dark Voice at Stratford, Ontario; she would go on to promote music by many other Canadian composers, including Raymond Murray Schafer, whose Adieu Robert Schumann she sang in 1978 in Ottawa.

Working with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter in 1957-58, she sang and recorded Mahler's Third Symphony (the Resurrection) and The Song of the Earth. The honour of singing Mahler with Walter led to engagements with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Münch and the Boston Symphony and Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.

Forrester made her opera debut as Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice in 1962 in Toronto. This was followed by Marcellina in Mozart's Le nozze de Figaro at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa and, in 1966, concert performances of Handel's Serse and Ariodante, in which she sang Xerxes and Bertarido respectively, at Carnegie Hall in New York. The operatic side of her career was now beginning seriously. She sang La Cieca, the heroine's blind mother, in Ponchielli's La Gioconda in San Francisco in 1967 and Cornelia in Handel's Giulio Cesare in Buenos Aires the following year. After trying out the Witch in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel on CBC TV in 1970, she sang 11 performances of Gluck's Orfeo in Tel Aviv and other venues in Israel.

Forrester tackled Wagner in 1971, singing Fricka in Die Walküre in Toronto, followed by Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Caramoor Festival. At first she had surprised audiences with her dramatic ability, but by 1973 they had come to expect it and her Arnalta, the heroine's old nurse in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea in Washington was predictably a riot.

After Madame Flora, the protagonist of Menotti's The Medium at Stratford, Ontario in 1974, she sang Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde at Montreal in 1975. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut the same year, as Erda in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung in a complete cycle of Wagner's Ring, and returned the following year for Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, commuting to Toronto during rehearsals to sing Charlotte in Massenet's Werther.

The year 1976 was unusually busy for Forrester, who also sang Dalila in Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila at Dallas, as well as the old Countess in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades in Ottawa. The Countess became one of her favourite roles, and she sang it throughout her career. Eschewing all sentimentality, Forrester made her an unpleasant character, only softening for the little aria remembered from Grétry's Richard, Coeur de Lion, which she sang in a tiny, beautifully projected thread of tone.

The following year she sang Mistress Quickly in Verdi's Falstaff at Santa Fe. In 1978 she toured China with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis. Among the most popular items was Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn song-cycle.

Forrester made another enjoyable new role her own in 1979, Madame de la Haltière, the wicked stepmother in Massenet's Cendrillon in Ottawa, repeating it in San Francisco in 1982 and for New York City Opera in 1983. She took on another elderly battleaxe in the Marquise de Birkenfeld in Donizetti's La fille du régiment, which she sang in Ottawa in 1980, Dallas in 1983 and Montreal in 1993.

After the Witch in Hansel and Gretel for a little light relief at San Diego in 1984, Forrester tackled the most villainous old character of all, Klytemnestra in Strauss' Elektra: this was recorded at a concert performance at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris in 1984 and is truly hair-raising in its malevolent intensity. She repeated it on stage in Pittsburgh in 1989.

Forrester's final three elderly ladies included two dragons with a genial publican between them: Madame de Croissy, the old Prioress in Dialogues des Carmélites, which she first sang in Toronto in 1986; Auntie, the proprietress of The Bear in Britten's Peter Grimes at Philadelphia; and the Mother in Charpentier's Louise, which she sang in Geneva.

An excellent teacher and a strong advocate of Canadian music and musicians, Forrester was awarded around 30 honorary degrees; she chaired the Canada Council from 1983-1988 and was Chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University from 1986 to 1990.

Elizabeth Forbes

Maureen Kathleen Stuart Forrester, singer: born Montreal, Canada 25 July 1930; married Eugene Kash 1957 (divorced 1974; one son, four daughters); died Toronto 16 June 2010.