A Champion of New Canadian Music and Teacher Extraordinaire: Mary Morrison #tbt

In 2002, at the 3rd annual Opera Canada “Rubies” Gala, guest presenter Marilyn Horne presented Mary Morrison with the Opera Educator award for her outstanding achievements in the world of vocal pedagogy.

In fact, Morrison has taught at Universities across Canada for over 40 years. She was appointed at U of T in 1979, and has since supervised the vocal studies of many young singers who are among today’s stars of opera and the concert stage, including Barbara Hannigan, Measha Brüggergosman, Gregory Dahl, Tracy Dahl, Gordon Gietz, Shannon Mercer, Wendy Nielsen, Adrienne Pieczonka and John Tessier.

“Mary Morrison at the age of eight, with a cup she had just won for her singing in the Winnipeg Kiwanis Festival, 1934.” Image from book Music Makers – The Lives of Harry Freedman & Mary Morrison by Walter Pitman, The Dundurn Group, 2006.

Mary Morrison was born in Winnipeg in 1926. In 1944, she made her local radio debut, singing in the CBC’s ‘Sweethearts’ and ‘Prairie Schooner’ at the Manitoba Music Competition Festival. Morrison came to Toronto in 1945 to study voice, pursuing an Artist Diploma at the Royal Conservatory of Music Toronto (RCMT). Morrison was a part of what would become the University of Toronto’s opera school at the very beginning.

Morrison also debuted as Mimi in La Bohème with the Opera Festival (the early Canadian Opera Company) in 1950. Morrison went on to perform with the CBC Opera, in roles such as Micaëla in Carmen, Liù in Turandot, Lucie in Arthur Benjamin’s A Tale of Two Cities, the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro (radio and TV), and Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte. With the COC, she was Marguerite in Faust, Pamina in The Magic Flute, Marie in The Bartered Bride, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Felice in Wolf-Ferrari’s School for Fathers, and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. Below she is pictured in their production of La Bohème, as Mimi.

“Mary as Mimi in La Bohème.” Image from book Music Makers – The Lives of Harry Freedman & Mary Morrison by Walter Pitman, The Dundurn Group, 2006.

Morrison also made solo symphony appearances with the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, and the symphony orchestras of Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg.

Morrison’s advocacy of Canadian new music, and 20th-century music led to her being named an ambassador of the Canadian Music Centre in 2009, and being awarded the Canadian Music Citation for Outstanding Achievement in the Performance of Canadian Music in 1968.

She was a member (with flautist, Robert Aitken and pianist, Marion Ross) of the Lyric Arts Trio, which premiered numerous Canadian works, and Canadian premieres of US and European works.

[L-R] Robert Aitken, Mary Morrison, and Morrison’s husband composer Harry Freedman. Photo by André Leduc, courtesy of Canadian Music Centre.

Morrison worked with some of the world’s most renowned and prolific international composers of the 20th Century, including Luciano Berio, John Cage, George Crumb, Maxwell Davies, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, Igor Stravinsky, Toru Takemitsu and Iannis Xenakis.

Many new Canadian works were written specifically for her, by composers such as John Beckwith, Murray Schafer, Harry Somers, John Weinzweig and her late husband, Harry Freedman.

Notably as well, Morrison participated in the premiere of Louis Riel, an opera by the Canadian composer Harry Somers. Louis Riel was written for the 1967 Canadian centennial, and was produced by the Canadian Opera Company, with Victor Feldbrill conducting. Bernard Turgeon performed as Riel, and Morrison as his sister Sara. The opera was later adapted by Franz Kraemer for CBC TV, in 1969, for which Morrison reprised her role of Sara.

Mary Morrison (right) as Sara in
original COC production of Louis Riel with
Bernard Turgeon (centre) and Patricia Rideout (left)

Morrison was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1983, and was awarded a medal of service from the City of Toronto in 1985. In 2017, Morrison received an honorary degree with the University of Toronto, along with former student Barbara Hannigan. Summing up her philosophy of teaching she said “The key for me is to discover what will help students in their individual choices and the development of their full potential.”

Mary Morrison (centre) and Barbara Hannigan (left) receiving their honorary degrees at Convocation Hall, the University of Toronto

by Alexandra Brennan