Lois Marshall

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Lois Catherine Marshall, gifted with a lovely voice and a very wide range, was Canada's leading soprano, then, with Maureen Forrester, one of its two best mezzo-sopranos. She was stricken by polio when…
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Artist Biography by

Lois Catherine Marshall, gifted with a lovely voice and a very wide range, was Canada's leading soprano, then, with Maureen Forrester, one of its two best mezzo-sopranos.

She was stricken by polio when she was two years old, and survived with permanent partial paralysis of her legs. Her recovery and rehabilitation primarily took place at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. To pass time and keep up her spirits she sang. Soon she was lifting the spirits of other children, as the nurses and doctors brought them to listen to her. "Maybe that's where I get the idea that people liked to listen to me," she mused in an interview late in her life. "One way or another, I've been performing all of my life," she added. "As a patient in the hospital, it was still performing for people -- who were forcing me to do it at the time -- but still I think I liked doing it." She began studying with Weldon Kilburn (who would become her husband in 1968) and Emmy Hein, then entered the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music.

In 1947, she was asked by Sir Ernest MacMillan to sing in his Holy Week presentation of J.S. Bach's Passion According to St. Matthew, which earned her wide recognition. This spread after 1950 when she won the York Knitting Mills Singing Stars of Tomorrow competition (now called the CBC Singing Stars of Tomorrow). This made her famous throughout Canada. She went on to receive the prestigious Naumberg Award in 1952, winning a New York recital.

She was given an opportunity to perform with the CBC Opera Company in 1952, but during her career did little operatic work on account of her relative immobility. Her debut was as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute, a role possessing some of the highest notes in any opera. She had an evenly produced three-octave range of unique personal coloration and special warmth. As an operatic lyric soprano she did appear in La bohème as Mimì, as Tosca (both in Boston), and as Ellen Orford in Britten's Peter Grimes in a CBC Television production.

However, she became internationally famous as an oratorio, concert, and recital singer. Canadian newspapers expressed a great deal of pride when Arturo Toscanini selected her to sing in his performance and recording of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in 1953, a performance that launched her world-wide fame.

She attracted the attention of England's most illustrious conductor of the day, Sir Thomas Beecham, who engaged her to sing Mozart's Exsultate Jubilate in her London debut in 1956, with his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He also cast her in his concert productions of Handel's Solomon and Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio, and recorded both performances under his baton.

She embarked on numerous recital and concert tours that took her to the Netherlands, Germany, England, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and the U.S.S.R. (which she toured six times).

In 1965, she joined the early music organization the Bach Aria Group, and traveled extensively with them. In the early 1970s she formed a singing and touring partnership with mezzo-soprano Forrester. In the late 1970s, her voice lowered, making her an excellent mezzo. She continued to sing for several years and joined the Faculty of Music at Toronto. In 1968 she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.

She died of cancer, and an anonymous challenge grant resulted in raising a $2-million endowment for the Lois Marshall Chair in Voice Studies at the University of Toronto.