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.

Caesar has curves

Caesar has curves

The program for Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s performance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is out: two Mitridate arias, one Sesto, one Cherubino and Judith from the oratorio La Betulia liberata [MORE].  Not to be missed.

Meanwhile, NML who’s on the Naive roster, continues to produce stunning recordings. Her latest is the French rep CD, Ne me refuse pas:

1. Jules Massenet: Ne me refuse pas (Hérodiade, 1881)
2. Luigi Cherubini: Ah! nos peines seront communes (Néris, Médée, 1797)
3. Fromental Halévy: Sous leur sceptre… Humble fille des champs (Odette, Charles VI, 1843)
4. Hector Berlioz: Heureux enfants… (Roméo et Juliette, 1839)
5. André Wormser: Qu’Apollon soit loué… Ombre d’Agamemnon (Clytemnestre, 1875)
6. Ambroise Thomas: Connais-tu le pays? (Mignon, 1866)
7. Werther, Werther! Qui m’aurait dit la place… (Charlotte, Werther, 1892)
8. Georges Bizet: L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Carmen, 1875)
9. Hector Berlioz: Je vais mourir (Didon, Les Troyens, 1863)
10. Camille Saint-Saëns: Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix (Dalila, Samson et Dalila, 1877)

There is a surprise track at the end, Offenbach’s ‘Fille de tambour major’. You can sample her outstanding ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’, they play it as the first number in this wide-ranging interview with NML on Passion Classique. Go to the December 8 show and do a quick free signup, it is worth it: you’ll discover what a great musicological mind she has, what generous spirit. [Wait for her take on the Tristan und Isolde Liebestod, which she chose as one of her favourite piece of music of all time.]

She was also recently a guest at CBC Radio’s SATO. Hear it for the music — they played two other pieces from this CD. She was interviewed in English, and it was fine [giggles abound, as usual, and her toddler joins the conversation near the end] but more basic than MNL in French. MNL should be heard in French to get the full NML experience.

Naxos actually has a better price than Amazon for this CD, so order away.

MNL’s Cesare could have been painted by Botero. With Ingrid Perruche as Cleopatra at the Opéra national de Lorraine, Nancy, 2007.

October planner

October planner

Enjoy heaven, La Stupenda Diva

For us earthlings, listening tips for the rest of October:

Tonight, 8:oo EST: Vivavoce plays
Wolfgang Amadeus MozartDie Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio)
Edita Gruberova [Konstanze], Kathleen Battle [Blonde], Gösta Winbergh [Belmonte], Vienna State Opera Concert Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Georg Solti (conductor) Listen here

(thanks to THẢ DIỀU for the Vivavoce info)

16 October — The Opera Exchange: Death in Venice gets new life in Toronto
9:30-10:30 Stephen Ralls and Steuart Bedford “Personal Reflections on the Premiere”
10:30-11:15 Lloyd Whitesell, Schulich School of Music, McGill University “Notes of Unbelonging”
11:15-11:45 Coffee break
11:45-1:00 Linda Hutcheon, Michael Hutcheon, Kimberly Canton, Amelia DeFalco, Katherine Larson, and Helmut Reichenbächer, with Lawrence Williford (tenor) “Britten’s Last Years and Late Style”
Tickets can also be purchased at the door

If you’re not there or decide to leave early, you can catch

October 16, 1:00 p. m. — CBC Saturday Afternoon at the Opera plays Carlo, Re d’Allemagna by Alessandro Scarlatti. Stavanger Sinfoniorkester (Norway), Fabio Biondi, violin & conductor. Voices: Romina Basso, contralto [King Lotario I, Emperor of Germany] / Roberta Invernizzi, soprano [Princess Giuditta, Empress Dowager] / Marina de Liso, mezzo-soprano [Princess Gildippe, her daughter] / Marianne B. Kielland, mezzo-soprano [Prince Adalgiso, Lotario’s son] / Carlo Vincentio Allemano, tenor [Berardo, a knight]. To listen online, click here (select Eastern Time).

16 October, 7:30 p. m.Death in Venice opens at the COC

20 21 October, 8:00 p.m. — Wolfgang Amadeus MozartIdomeneo on Vivavoce
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor) [Idomeneo],  Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) [Idamante],  Sylvia McNair [Ilia], Hillevi Martinpelto [Elettra], The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner (conductor). Listen here. This is one of (many, granted) von Otter’s best roles.

29 October, 8:00 p. m. — Wolfgang Amadeus MozartLe nozze di Figaro on Vivavoce
Thomas Hampson (baritone) [Count Almaviva], Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano) [Countess Almaviva], Dawn Upshaw (soprano) [Susanna], Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass) [Figaro], Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) [Cherubino], Tatiana Troyanos [Marcellina], The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra,  James Levine (conductor) An all-star cast. If you don’t already own the CD, listen here

30 October, 7:30 p. m. Opera Atelier opens Acis and Galatea. Description, cast, tickets here. WholeNote did a profile of OA’s Artistic Directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, which is worth checking out.

31 October, 10 a. m., Varsity Cinema at Manulife, 55 Bloor WGeneral Manager of the Met Peter Gelb will be talking about The Met: Live in HD and how broadcasting is changing opera.  To purchase tickets and get more info: click.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux and the importance of Baroque décolletage

Marie-Nicole Lemieux and the importance of Baroque décolletage

Not only is Marie-Nicole Lemieux one of the most interesting contraltos singing today…

…she also has a rare gift of understanding the art of the Baroque top.  Evidence:

Marie-Nicole Lemieux

Marie-Nicole LemieuxAncestry:

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, 1615-1617
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, 1615-1617

Guido Reni: Death of Cleopatra (1595-1598)
Guido Reni: Death of Cleopatra (1595-1598)
La Strozzi
'The Viola da Gamba Player' (detail), possibly Barbara Strozzi. Painted by Bernardo Strozzi c. 1630-1640