Queer Archeology: Who Was Sarah Fischer?

Queer Archeology: Who Was Sarah Fischer?

Due to some work on a small but sweet project with an Ontario summer music festival, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the late Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester (pictured above). There is plenty of good MF music on YT (sample some Mahler, Purcell, Bach and Handel), and her discography spans several Amazon pages. But it’s the memoir Out of Character (with Marci McDonald, McClelland & Stewart, 1986) that grabbed me — brave and frank, usually not the case with the diva memoir genre. Also, of course, well stocked with gossip, slant and unreliability.

Let’s take page 59. On it, we may or may not be witnessing Mighty Mo meeting her very first lesbian. We can’t be sure. We’re given the commentary, not the evidence. It’s a minor episode in this memoir consistently devoid of queer people. By the end of this remarkable tome, you realize that that was it — the only encounter with the queer. And was it really? We can’t be sure.

Have a listen.

I had noticed in reading reviews that whenever the critics mentioned somebody as up-and-coming, she had invariably won a Sarah Fischer Scholarship. Sarah Fischer, a one-time soprano who had enjoyed a brief fling on the world stage, was an incredibly theatrical woman. She looked like Helena Rubinstein with her flowing capes and her hair swept back severely into a bun. By the time I heard of her she was retired and liked to give young talent a break with competitions which she held in the Ritz Carlton ballroom. The programs featured her profile printed on cover.

I entered one of them […] and to my shock I won. […] Preparing for [the two concerts] presented me with a problem I had never anticipated. Sarah Fischer started phoning me all the time, always late at night, on some pretext about the performance. I began to get a little nervous about her. I didn’t know anything about females liking females at the time, but my instincts told me she was interested in more than my voice. Finally I had my father answer the phone one night. “My daughter is a very young and we have rules in this house,” he told her. “Nobody gets calls this late unless it’s an emergency… You can call at a decent hour or not at all.” After that, the weeks left leading up to my prizewinner’s concert, Sarah Fischer was good as gold.”

Now. Isn’t this story good as gold? Could have been written by the authors of The Killing of Sister George. A predatory old lesbo after an innocent young thing. Luckily the father puts everything right.

So of course I immediately send a search party after Sarah Fischer.

I was happy to discover that the Canadian heritage institutions aren’t as flippant about Sarah Fischer as our beloved contralto. A couple of recordings survive! There is a six-page online biography at the Library and Archives Canada, the SF page in the Canadian Encyclopedia, and this treasure collection of photographs on the Jewish Montreal Public Library Archives. Not surprisingly, not a word about the ‘female-liking-female’ business — she was married to a man, natch — but mentions of very special friendships and mentors, yes. A ‘lifelong friendship’ with another singer Emma Albani (p2, LAC bio), and a particularly ardent fan, the wealthy “Mrs. Bracket Bishop of Chicago” (p3) are fine but meagre findings. “She left her personal papers to the National Archives of Canada,” says the Canadian Encyclopedia. I see where my next trip is going to be; the capital, in search of letters or diaries that may turn out to be the earliest record of a glorious opera dyke ancestress.

Sarah (Eugénie, ‘Nini’) Fischer. Born Paris 23 Feb 1896, naturalized Canadian 1912, died Montreal 3 May 1975.

8 thoughts on “Queer Archeology: Who Was Sarah Fischer?

  1. wow, i astonished how blatantly one can express homophobic opinions back in the days. of course now my interest is peaked with Sarah Fischer… off i go searching for her bio and relationship to her “lady” friends… (though i should be off to bed really…)

  2. Isn’t Mo funny? And by the memoir time, she must have realized that in the opera, she’s bound to be surrounded by queers of all persuasions at all times. Yet still this memory is told in this way. It is hilarious.

  3. I love the sound of The Ladies’ Morning Musical Club – 1892, with males not included until 1969!
    I’ve been comparing her Blow the Wind Southerly to Kathleen Ferrier.

  4. OK, I think I’ve listened to all the available clips of this and … I agree. I think this Purcell has a texture, especially in the orchestration ( more prominent keyboard parts) that others lack and her voice alone leaves the counter tenors standing. Nice find.

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