I was born singing…. I cried for six months. My mother could have killed me but the doctor said, 'Let her scream, she'll be a singer'
This was how opera diva Sarah Fischer described her beginnings in an interview with The Montreal Star in 1972. For over 20 years, Sarah Fischer was celebrated in Canada, London, and especially Paris for her extraordinary vocal talent. After retiring from the stage, Fischer settled in Canada and with unflagging vitality became a teacher and advocate of Canadian musicians.
Sarah Fischer, interviewed by Roger Dauphin on the radio show "Média-Trésor", Montréal, 1972 [MP3, running time: 38 min. 15 sec. Bilingual interview]
Childhood and education
Born in Paris on February 23, 1896, Sarah Fischer came to Canada in 1909 with her mother Dora and sister to live with her father, Jacob Fischer, a hat manufacturer who had immigrated earlier. While still in her early teens, she worked as an operator for the Bell Telephone Company in Montréal. Fischer worked during the day, and in the evenings she studied solfège with Professor Jacques Goulet. She progressed well in her studies and in 1917, began voice lessons with Céline Marier, a Canadian singer who had studied in Paris with Romain Bussine. In the same year, she received a silver medal for her studies in solfège, and received a diploma from l'Académie de musique du Québec.
Fischer's most significant achievement in 1917 was winning the prestigious Strathcona Scholarship (also known as the McGill Scholarship), which provided funds for three years' tuition at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London plus a grant of fifty guineas (about $120 CA) a year. Founded by Lord Strathcona (originally Donald Smith), famous for building Canada's first transcontinental railway and for his generous support of the arts, the Strathcona Scholarship program assisted the careers of numerous prestigious Canadian artists such as sopranos Pauline Donalda, Beatrice La Palme and Éva Gauthier.
Fischer performed selections from Hamlet for the competition, and was chosen out of 17 competitors. She recalled the day of the competition in an interview:
"I worked all day at the switchboard before I sang for the scholarship committee. It was late in the afternoon and I was the last contestant. I didn't think I had a chance".
Fischer could not take advantage of the scholarship immediately because passports were not issued to women during the First World War. Fortunately, she had numerous opportunities to perform in Montréal, and sang with l'Association d'art lyrique where she studied drama with stage directors Albert Roberval and his wife Jeanne Maubourg.
On November 19, 1918, she made her operatic debut in Montréal as Micaëla in Bizet's Carmen at the Monument-National, and was described as "stunning … full of grace and bloom of youth" (Lamontagne, 1918). She continued performing in both Montréal and Québec, adding to her repertoire the roles of Colette in Messager's La basoche, Philine in Mignon, and in 1919, the leading role in Délibes' Lakmé.
In 1919, Fischer travelled to New York and made eight recordings on the Pathé label. The recordings included arias from Lakmé and Carmen, "Solvejg's Song" by Henzen and "Quand tu pleureras" by Marcel Chrétien.
By 1919, conditions in England were peaceful enough for Fischer to secure a passport and set sail for the RCM. Soon after her arrival, she called on Canadian opera star Emma Albani, who had settled in London, and a lifelong friendship ensued. Albani often attended Fischer's performances with her husband Ernest Gye and with Fischer's father when he visited her in England.
Fischer also sang in Albani's salon at 61 Tregunter Road, in Earl's Court, where Albani frequently entertained distinguished musicians. Fischer recalled their relationship in an interview:
"Emma Albani was a great friend of mine. She was not my original teacher, I studied with her later. But, when I arrived in London with my Strathcona scholarship I didn't know what to do next. I knew her reputation, so I went to her for advice and she became my friend. She told me that (Cecilia M.) Hutchinson at the Royal College of Music was the person who could best bring out the qualities of my voice."
Fischer took Albani's advice and began taking voice lessons with Hutchinson. While still a student at the Royal College of Music, she made her London debut in 1922 at the Old Vic as the Countess in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. That same year, she sang the role of Micaëla in Carmen at the Old Vic, and debuted at Covent Garden in the role of Pamina in Mozart's The Magic Flute.
On January 8, 1923, Fischer sang the role of Pamina again, as a part of the British Broadcasting Company's (BBC's) first radio broadcast of opera from Covent Garden an historic event in opera performance. Around this time, she made several more recordings in 1923 with HMV (London), which featured Elizabethan love songs by Dowland, Bartlet and Campion.
During her third year of studies at the RCM, Fischer joined the newly formed British National Opera Company and appeared as Eva in Wagner's Die Meistersinger. After she completed her final year at the RCM, she travelled to Rome and continued her studies for another year with Vincenzo Lombardi, who also had taught the legendary Enrico Caruso and Canadian tenor Edward Johnson.
A few months later, in November, Sarah Fischer's career took a significant turn when she joined the prestigious Opéra-Comique in Paris. At the time, Fischer had been vacationing in Paris, and through a friend was invited to hear an audition that M. Mason of the Opéra-Comique was conducting. Sitting in the audience, Fischer listened as a singer auditioned and M. Mason accompanied. When the auditioning singer lost his place in the music, Fischer sang a few notes to help him out. M. Mason liked what he heard and asked her to audition for the Opéra-Comique. After her audition, M. Mason invited her to join his company and Fischer accepted.
She debuted at the Opéra-Comique on November 20, 1925, performing for the first time what would become one of her most celebrated roles: Mélisande from Debussy's Pelleas et Mélisande. Fischer learned this challenging role in only ten days, and it became one of her favourites to sing:
"For the voice I preferred Mozartian roles; for acting, Carmen;" she explained in an interview, "for poetry, Mélisande every time. When I die I want to be buried in her dress with the score of Pelleas and Mélisande for my pillow. It is always at my bedside."
As a member of the Opéra-Comique for 15 years, Fischer sang 30 leading operatic roles including Charlotte in Werther, the title role in Mignon, and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. While in Paris, she also had other prestigious engagements. In 1927, she was engaged by director Bruno Walter to sing in a series of Mozart operas at the International Mozart Festival at the Odéon Theatre. She appeared in the roles of Pamina from The Magic Flute and Dorabella from Cosi Fan Tutte.
Her operatic career also took her to Algiers, Brussels (1926), and the Opera in Monte Carlo (1927) where she sang the title role in Thomas's Mignon. In 1936, she sang the principal soprano role in the world premiere of Albert Coates' opera The Pickwick Papers.
In addition to performances on the operatic stage, Fischer was a celebrated recitalist, and gave numerous concerts in London, Paris, Rome, Vienna and Berlin. She was admired for her interpretations of music by French composers Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, Albert Roussel, Darius Milhaud and Jacques Ibert, and often performed their music with the composers accompanying her at the piano.
Her recitals met with great critical success, evidenced in the following review after a recital at Wigmore Hall in London:
From grave to gay; from the delightful whimsicality of the Miller's song in "Le Roy d'Yvetot" by Jaques [sic] Ibert to the flowing periods of a Beaudelaire poem taken from "Les Fleurs du Mal," she ranged with astonishing mastery, perfect diction and profound insight. Two poems by Charles Vildrac set to music by Jaques [sic] Ibert…. were given their first public performance in London. … A charming thing by Poulenc, "Deux Airs Chantés," not previously performed here, was equally well received.
During her career, Fischer toured Canada on several occasions. She made her first trip to Canada in 1927, where she gave recitals at Windsor Hall, the Montreal Ladies Morning Musical Club, and at Rideau Hall for the opening of the Parliament State Dinner.
In December 1929 Sarah Fischer married English pianist Herbert Carrick, and he joined his wife on her second trip to Canada as her accompanist. They performed in Montréal, Québec, Toronto and Ottawa, and then in New York, Washington and at the Mana-Zucca music club in Miami.
An English writer reported on Fischer's success in Miami, and the effect her performance had on one wealthy patron:
The voice of Mrs. Herbert Carrick, wife of the noted pianist, whose Worcester home is at 20 Hancock street, so charmed Mrs. Bracket Bishop of Chicago, during a recital at the Nona-zucca [sic] club, Miami, that it won for her a 500 year old jewelled head-dress of gold in lotus leaf design, set with rubies and turkuoise [sic] ….Mrs. Bishop is a connoisseur of rare and precious stones.
Before the concert, Fischer and her husband had been introduced to Bishop and shown her collection of jewels. Fischer's husband described what happened next:
We wanted that head-dress the moment we saw it…but it was too valuable for us to consider buying…. Then came the night of the concert, a special Spanish program. Mrs. Carrick was never in better voice. Among her admirers in the audience was Mrs. Bishop…. The next morning at 9 o'clock Mrs. Carrick received a phone call to meet Mrs. Bishop. And then it was that she received the greatest surprise of her career. Mrs. Bishop, entranced by my wife's singing, presented her with the head-dress.
Sarah Fischer wore the head-dress in May 1930 when she created three roles at the Liege Opera House in Belgium.
In July 1934, Sarah Fischer ventured into the world of television, and made history with the BBC when she appeared in the role of Carmen in the world's premiere performance of an opera on television. A writer from the Daily Telegraph described the event as follows:
The BBC will to-day make its first attempt to broadcast a full-size opera Carmen in the space of half-an-hour. This feat of compression … will occur in the television period from 11 to 11:30 this morning, when a cast of three Sarah Fischer, the Canadian operatic soprano, Heddle Nash, the concert and stage tenor, and Elsa Brunelleschi, the Spanish dancer will give a "colourable representation" of the complete opera.
About this occasion, Sarah Fischer recalled,
….we were then only able to synchronize two or at the utmost three artists on the screen at the same time…faces were not clearly defined as there were no "close-ups"…the make up was green for the lips, red when black was needed, and yellow for white….a chosen artist would not only have to be an accomplished musician and most reliable, as the conductor was not visible, she would also have to have a sound stage technique for the same reason, as the stage setting was no higher or broader than a large mantle shelf. This special schooling required knowledge of how high to raise the arms, or where to place a limb, for the height of the knee had to fit in with the position of the tenor playing Don Jose when kneeling at Carmen's feet with his head in her lap at the end of his aria "The Flower Song."
By the beginning of the Second World War, Fischer was at the peak of her career. She spoke four languages fluently, had performed in the major opera houses and concert halls in Europe, and her repertoire consisted of 22 leading operatic roles. Due to the war and the blackout, however, large music organizations in London such as Covent Garden had closed down. Undeterred, Sarah Fischer tried her hand at arts administration by organizing a new concert series at Wigmore Hall that she named the "Sarah Fischer 12 O'Clock Concert Series". Featuring Fischer and other London-based Canadian artists, these noon-hour concerts provided music for London commuters from a variety of backgrounds. The British press described Sarah Fischer one of the people who kept music alive in London during the Blitz.
Return to Canada
There was little work for singers in Europe during the war, and Sarah Fischer began to think about returning to Canada. Her mother had passed away much earlier, in 1922, and her father was ill and needed care. Furthermore, she knew that there would be many opportunities for her to develop the music scene in Montréal.
Thus, in 1940, Fischer settled in Montréal, established herself as a professor of voice and opened a studio. Shortly after returning to Montréal, she founded the Sarah Fischer Concerts, a series that would endure until her death 35 years later. The Sarah Fischer Concerts series, with its four concerts per season, promoted established Canadian musicians and presented new Canadian talent.
Working out of her apartment, Fischer ran all aspects of the concerts: contracting performers, preparing programs, and running publicity and ticket sales. In an interview she explained her motivation for the Sarah Fischer Concerts:
"I give talent a public hearing. It is important for those who want to be heard. I mix amateurs with professionals that's how I got my start when (pianist) Myra Hess in London put me on with professionals."
In all, Fischer made possible the debut of over 650 musicians.
Many acclaimed Canadian singers, instrumentalists and composers, including contralto Maureen Forrester (who debuted as a soprano), composer Violet Archer, and pianists Robert Silverman and André Laplante, made their debuts at these concerts. Fischer also performed at her concerts until February 25, 1942, when she sang in public for the last time in a recital that featured excerpts from Pelleas et Mélisande.
In 1946, Fischer instituted the Sarah Fischer Scholarships in memory of Dame Emma Albani, which were awarded annually to three musicians: a singer, a pianist and a string or wind instrumentalist. As well, Fischer offered $100 scholarships to her students. She explained, "I'm thanking Canada for my scholarship 55 years ago which sent me to London and opened the musical world to me" (Allegro, 1965).
Fischer also expressed her love of nurturing talent through teaching: "I give lessons two or three days a week. I never look at the clock. It may be one hour or two. I am carried away by the pleasure of teaching good pupils" (Allegro, 1965). She taught with a tuning fork, and her students studied solfège and sight singing.
Sarah Fischer received a number of honours throughout her life. In 1928, she was elected an Honorary Associate of the Royal College of Music (ARCM). In 1967, all of her costumes from past opera performances were displayed at the Hospitality Pavilion at Montréal's Expo 67, and her recordings were reissued on a private compliation, called Sarah Fischer, for release in Canada. One year later, she received an award from the Concert Society of Jewish Peoples' Schools and the Peretz Schools, an annual prize given to an outstanding artist.
Sarah Fischer demonstrated her love for the art form of opera through her commitment to performance and teaching. Through her concert series and scholarship programs, Sarah Fischer contributed significantly to promoting Canadian musicians, paving the way for new talent and leaving an indelible mark on classical music in Canada.
Selected recordings available
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- Cummings, A.C. "Canadian artiste's recital is acclaimed by musical London". Evening Citizen's London news bureau, Southam Publishing Company. Unidentified newspaper clipping, Sarah Fischer Collection. Library and Archives Canada. MG30 D207, vol. 63-72
- Fletcher, Guy. "Interpreter of Debussy". Reference library, CBC Toronto. AMICUS 23937642
- Heller, Zelda. "Linking the past with the future". Unidentified newspaper clipping, Sarah Fischer Collection. Library and Archives Canada. MG30 D207, vol. 63-72
- Lamontagne, C.-O. Le Canada musical. December 7, 1918. Cited in "Fischer, Sarah". Encyclopedia of music in Canada. Edited by Helmut Kallmann et al. 2nd ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. xxxii, 1524 p. AMICUS 12048560.
- "Madame Sarah Fischer". Allegro. 1965. AMICUS 9706447
- McLean, Eric. "Grand tradition : great Canadian musical figures of the past". Opera Canada. Vol. 35, no. 3 (Fall 1994). AMICUS 1645716
- Potvin, Gilles. "Singing and voice teaching". Encyclopedia of music in Canada. Edited by Helmut Kallmann et al. 2nd ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. xxxii, 1524 p. AMICUS 12048560.
- Potvin, Gilles. "Fischer, Sarah". Encyclopedia of music in Canada. Edited by Helmut Kallmann et al. 2nd ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. xxxii, 1524 p. AMICUS 12048560.
- Sarah Fischer fonds. Library and Archives Canada. MIKAN 102325
- Seligson, Lou. "Sarah Fischer welds past, present by music world". The Montreal Star. November 10, 1972. AMICUS 14992171
- Siskind, Jacob. "Centennial projects of interest / recordings of historical merit", June 1967 Unidentified newspaper clipping, Sarah Fischer Collection. Library and Archives Canada. MG30 D207, vol. 63-72
- "Vocal ability wins woman here valuable headdress". Newspaper clipping from Worcester : radio station WTAG. 1930. Unidentified newspaper clipping, Sarah Fischer Collection. Library and Archives Canada. MG30 D207, vol. 63-72