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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 8 May 2007

Judith Forst : Evergreen

by Joseph So / May 30, 2007

In a world full of musical meteors that shine brightly only to quickly vanish without a trace, mezzo soprano Judith Forst’s career is remarkable in its longevity. Now in her early sixties and in the fifth decade of her career, teh demand for her continues at the world’s major opera houses. In the last twelve months alone, Forst has made a belated La Scala debut as Kabanicha in Janacek’s Katya Kabanova, she has sung Herodias to Deborah Voigt’s Salome at the Chicago Lyric Opera, and Kostelnicka opposite the incandescent Karita Mattila’s Jenufa at the Met. The vast majority of singers of her generation are taking it easy, singing little, teaching, or retired altogether. But not Judy, as her friends and associates call her – at 63, Judith Forst is still going strong, maintaining a full schedule, with projects planned three or four years into the future.

Recently reached at her Vancouver home, Forst laughed when asked the secret of her longevity. “One has to be adaptable, to be prepared to change and to continue studying,” she explained. “I have been very fortunate to find new repertoire. I began with all the lyric mezzo things, all the pants roles. Then I moved into Strauss and bel canto. The next step was in roles like Croissy, Klytemnestra and Herodias, where I am now. And, fortunately, the Czech repertoire opened up – Kostelnicka and Kabanicha are wonderful singing and acting roles.”

As someone who has seen her numerous times over a thirty-year period – in roles ranging from Carmen and Octavian in the early days, to Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos in the ‘80s, her magnificent Jane Seymour opposite Joan Sutherland’s Anna Bolena, to the more recent triumphs as an unforgettable Kostelnicka and Jocasta in Toronto and a searingly intense Madame de Croissy with the Vancouver Opera – I can honestly say a Judith Forst performance always makes for a special evening.

Despite such a long career, her voice still sounds fresh, a testament to her solid technique and musical intelligence. Forst has always been supremely sensible in balancing her career and personal life. In the ‘70s, with a flourishing career at the Met, Forst chose to move back to Vancouver to raise her children and be with her husband, Graham, a professor of interdisciplinary studies.

“I have always put my family first,” she says. “ I firmly believe that, without the support of my husband, my career would never have gone the way it did. Now, of course, my children are grown, and it is my grandchildren who take priority. My son has two little ones, so I don’t care to be away all the time.” She carefully manages her schedule so she won’t be away during important family events, and she always allows for enough time off between engagements. “Some people do very well running from engagement to engagement, almost like running from the dressing room to the stage one second before the line comes – that wouldn’t do for me!” she excalims. “I have to be in my place beforehand and be very calm in order to go out there.”

Because of her wealth of experience, Forst is often asked to teach, but with her busy schedule, she has not been able to find the time. “I don’t have any students of my own. Young singers have to have consistency – you’ve got to be with them when they are forming their technique. With my travelling and working, I can’t be there every week. So I occasionally go to UBC and do a masterclass, or work with a student in conjunction with their teacher.”

During her formative years, Forst had the good fortune of being a member of the then newly formed Vancouver Opera Ensemble. “I was chosen by Irving Guttman. We had intensive sessions with Robert Keyes, a coach from Covent Garden, who happened to be a specialist in bel canto and a great friend of Richard Bonynge. He taught me to think about roles like Rosina, so when I came to do it, I knew how to prepare.”

Judith Forst is in Montreal this month as a jury member for the Montreal International Vocal Competition. “You know I never did one ?” She goes on to explain, “I did the Met Auditions, but in those days, it wasn’t really a competition like it is today. We were given money and a position, equal to any artist.” However, she agrees that current competitions and their prize money are very useful, considering how much more expensive studying and coaching are today. In her words, “I tell kids: ‘anytime you can get up there and sing, do it! But you must not think that if you don’t win, you are not good. You sing to the best of your ability, but don’t think you are going to win every time. It gets you out there for people to hear you, and more importantly, it gives you the strength and courage to sing in front of people. You can’t just do it in your living room – your voice responds completely
differently when you are under the gun, when the chips are down.’ ”

As a jury member, what does she look for in a singer? “That depends on the competition,” she answers. “Some look for a finished product, others look for raw talent. Naturally this is about singing, so I am looking for a voice. I look for a stage presence that makes me look at the singer as someone who stands out. I look at their face and body, and they are telling me what they are singing about. I don’t want generic faces or singers just copying what the teacher says. They have to communicate… I have to be moved and engaged by them.”

To Forst, one of the most important qualities in any singer is to always be prepared. “When you are given an assignment, really prepare it well,” she says “Never arrive with things half done or not learned.” Another important thing to remember is to keep studying. “You are never finished,” Forst says emphatically. “Every year goes by, and your instrument changes as your body changes. You always have to work hard and never stop studying.” n

The Montreal International Music Competition takes place from May 22 to June 1st with 33 semi-finalists, divided as 19 women and 14 men. Out of the 11 participating countries, Canada will be sending 15 candidates. Follow the competition at www.concoursmontreal.ca with live webcasts. Also visit www.scena.org for LSM/TMS’s coverage.

(c) La Scena Musicale