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Book review: Stuart Hamilton memoir like a Saturday afternoon chat with a seasoned raconteur

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To anyone familiar with Stuart Hamilton, the longtime Canadian intermission quiz panelist on CBC radio’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, his breezy, witty voice comes through loud and clear in his newly published memoir, Opening Windows: Confessions of a Canadian Vocal Coach.

Born near Regina in 1929 and based in Toronto since 1948, Hamilton has had a remarkable six-decade career as one of the country’s top vocal coaches.

He was the dutiful accompanist to Maureen Forrester during her numerous cross-country recital tours. He was at Lois Marshall’s side for her farewell tour in 1982. And he introduced Isabel Bayrakdarian to New York City at Carnegie Hall in 1997, helping kickstart the career of one of Canada’s latest generation of opera stars.

Hamilton has also enriched Toronto’s classical vocal community in many different ways, including founding Opera in Concert.

The memoir touches on all of this, and so much more, but in a gentle, largely self-deprecating way, interspersed with funny anecdotes and a dash or two of gossip.

The operative word is touches; one won’t find deep insights into a life in music, thoughtful analysis of what makes a great singer, nor any perspective on Canadian or Toronto’s musical history.

Rather, this, like Hamilton’s much-missed weekly visits via the radio, is an entertaining way to spend a few short hours with a doer.

There are belly-laugh-meets-terror moments (almost always at Hamilton’s expense), such as when he turned pages for Arpad Sandor for an Elisabeth Schwarzkopf recital at Eaton Auditorium and, at one point in the second half, the pages went flying to the stage floor.

There are moments that left me stupefied, such as when Hamilton talks himself into conducting a run of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore in Buffalo without ever having conducted an orchestra before.

Hamilton beats time through the overture, and discovers that the players didn’t all stop together.

“How do I get you guys to stop?” I asked.
They stared at one another. The cellist, a smartass kind of guy, said, “Well, you make the sign to stop.”
“How do you do that?”

Needless to say, the ensuing live broadcast on ABC was less than a stunning success. In the ensuing mess, Hamilton concludes, “this is what convinced me that I was not interested in conducting.”

I can’t think of a better illustration of this man’s character: bold, fearless and insouciant to the point of recklessness. But he is no less endearing for it.

Hamilton has no time for the people or composers he doesn’t care for, so he ignores them. Those he is devoted to get the full tractor-beam power of his love and attention.

Despite his blatant discretion, there is the occasional revelation, such as another confirmation that Glenn Gould had a more than healthy heterosexual libido.

Most significantly — and not nearly as boring as it may sound — is the ongoing lesson that nothing prepares a performer properly than plain, old hard work.

My review copy of the book was badly bound, with both missing and repeated pages, so if you’re picking up a hardback copy, make sure everything is there. The publisher, Toronto’s Dundurn, also has eBook versions available for download.

You’ll find all the details as well as sample pages from the opening of the memoir here.


Here is Hamilton at work with the great Lois Marshall, at her Toronto farewell recital at the end of 1982:

John Terauds

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