Catch the noted Canadian contralto, Maureen Forrester, if you can. If you are in luck, you will land her en route from China to Israel, with the luxury, for her, of a three-day stopover in Washington.
"I just finished a two-week visit to China," the handome blond singer began. "Peking, Shanghai, and Canton. Just before I was ready to leave Canada for these concerts, they sent word that I had to sing one song in Chinese. 'CHINESE!!!' I said. 'Look, I sing in over 20 languages, including Czech, Russian, and Lithuanian. But Chinese?'
"'Okay,' I told them. 'Send me a slow, one-verse lullaby. And along with it, send a tape of the words pronounced correctly, slowly. I will learn it and sing it phonetically.' So what do they send me? A fast, three-verse revolutionary song!"
However, Maureen Forrester did not become one of the world's finest singers of Bach, Handel, and Mahler, to name only a few, by avoiding tough assignments. "As I listened to the tape," she contined, "I could tell that the person pronouncing the words did not know how to do it so that a singer could sing them. But when I got to China, they gave me a very good interpreter. And she taught me how to sing the words.
"The song was about this town - Wee-Han. . . ." At least that's the way it sounded as Forrester brought the name out, nasally. "And Wee-Han, it said in the first verse, was a poor place, run down, the people not happy. But, in the second verse, the revolution comes and changes everything.
"And in the third verse, the song says" - here Forrester's face is covered by a huge grin - "the revolution has changed everything. Everything is lovely: Grass is green, people are happy. So I sing this song, and in the first verse the audience looks pleased. And the second verse you can see they know what is coming. But when I sing the third verse, they suddenly look down and cover their faces!
"So after the concert. I ask my interpreter what went wrong. And she told me. 'You mispronounced a word, so that you said that after the revolution, everything was terrible, and the town was all dead and the people miserable!"
"But," Forrester concluded, "it made me famous. You see, every concert, even every rehearsal in China goes out on television and half the people in the country see you. So after that, they would see me on the street or in the lobby of the hotel, or the elevator, and smile.
"And after that, even at concerts where I was not supposed to be singing, I had to sing two or three songs, and always the encore in Chinese!"
Forrester was in Washington to sing the contralto solos in the B Minor Mass of Bach, for the National Symphony's Bach Festival. But shortly before she arrived, she got word that she was also expected to sing the "Laudamus Te," a solo that is marked in the score for second soprano. When I asked her if she vocalized regularly, Forrester said, "No. Not regularly. I sing about 120 times a year, which is too much." (You will note that that means she sings on an average once every three days, throughout the year.)
"But since I was going to sing the 'Laudamus Te' I will practice it before the performance. I have sung it before. Richter wants me to do it, and he likes the ornamented notes sung as turns rather than trills." With a laugh, Forrester said, "I am glad he wants it that way. Trills make you sound so nervous!"
As Forrester talked about vocalizing the opening phrase, something else she said about the problems of singing took on a new meaning.
"You must take the long phrase - say Handel's 'O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?' and send it at first way out to the back of the hall and then pull it in toward you - like a man fishing. Do you fish? (The question came unexpectedly, and one had to admit rarely doing so.) The hardest part of the phrase comes at the end, but by then you have it right here - " and she touched the front of her lips.
"I love to teach," the great singer went on. "Some day I will end up teaching. I tell my students now that they are out of their minds not to sing in choirs or choruses. I learned half of what I know in them. If you cannot blend your voice with others singing around you, how are you going to blend it with the orchestra?"
Those words placed Forrester in flat disagreement with many voice teachers. But she should know. "We are lucky in Canada - we grow up singing in oratorio, Bach and Handel. I think singers, when they graudate from a music school or conservatory, whatever, should know 40 oratorios, three operas from cover to cover, and six song recitals. So often they come up with their humdinger graduate recital. ONE program! You ask them to sing something else, and they say they have sung all they know!
"I sang for a long time before I went to a teacher. And my teacher then said to me, 'Okay, for four months, I don't want you to sing a single aria or song - just scales.' I'm a fast learner, however. I did it in one month. When I am paying for the lessons, I move!
"My teacher started me at the middle of the voice, not the high notes, and then built the voice from the middle out, in both directions." Now Forrester was talking the great classic line of vocal authority.
"Too often these days singers are not told anything about the diaphragm and breathing. They pinch in the tone here" - her hand made a quick gesture across the bridge of the nose - "which makes a tremendous sound inside the head. But they have cut off half the voice on the outside.
"Low voices have it easier than high voices," Forrester went on. "It takes the sopranos and tenors more tension, more energy to keep those high notes up there. But for a lower voice to sing a high soft note takes more tension than for a high voice because we start from lower down."
What about agility, coloratura technique, I asked this singer, whose Handel has shown that she can stand and deliver brilliant, rapid-fire runs that match any by Beverly Sills or Marilyn Horne?
"Yes," she said, as if the one word answered the implications of the question. "I can do it, but that's not really my bag. It comes from the scales and the Bach and Handel. If I do an ornament, I do it the way it suits me. You have to do some things in order to find out if they are right for you.
"For instance, I have sung Brangaene (in Wagner's 'Tristan'). I have sung it four or five times, and I knew at the end of the fifth time that it is tiring. It is the essitura." (Tha is the echnical term for the average range of a role or song.) "That is when you know whether or not a role is for you. That is why some singers" - Forrester named several - "have gotten into trouble with their voices. They insist on singing soprano roles, and they were the most glorious mezzos!"
"Now I have my own opera company called Comus. We are doing operas that can be done with chamber orchestra. We just filmed "The Medium' (by Menotti). We are going to do lots of operas in English, operas by Purcell and Britten. One of the things I want with this company is for young singers to get into opera without going into 'Tosca', right off the bat - something that gives them a chance to stretch their voices gradually."
There was more talk, talk about Forrester's four daughters and one son, the farm she sort of sideslipped into in Canada, her going to teach singing for a couple of weeks for Isaac Stern at the school he helps in Israel. And about singing for audiences in smaller, provincial towns.
"I have just come back from singing 14 concerts in 17 days in the estern Canadian provinces. I talk to the audiences. I never sing junk music. A group of Handel and Purcell at the start.
"I like to give audiences cycles. They get tired of clapping every two or three minutes after each short song. But I talk to them. I sing Schulmann's Frauenliebe and Leben' and I tell them, 'Imagine its your daughter with that ring on her finger!" Then they know what you are singing about, and when I sing, they look at the rings on their fingers."
Forrester had a perfect Handel story for her close. "I have such good friends in Washington," she said, and one of them in the organist of a church here in [WORD ILLEGIBLE]So the last time I was here he [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to come on Sunday morning [WORD ILLEGIBLE] something. So I did. The only thing I had with me that I could sing there was the Handel. 'Thanks Be to Thee.' After church, one of the ladies from the congregation came up so nicely and said to me. 'You have a very sweet voice. You are new in the choir, aren't you? I hope you will come back.'"
So have thousands of others reacted around the world.