University of Toronto voice professor and former operatic soprano Lynn Blaser died on Saturday, following an eight-month battle with leukemia. She was probably in her late-60s.
Blaser, who sang with the Canadian Opera Company and many other Canadian opera and music presenters in the 1970s, had taught voice at the University of Toronto, her alma mater, since 1990 (she also had a BA in Psychology from York University).
In her youth the soprano sang with Ruby Mercer’s Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus (now the Canadian Children’s Opera Company) and, in adulthood, returned to work for many years with children as the voice coach at the Ontario Youth Choir. She was also in demand as a festival adjudicator and clinician.
Blaser was, in her prime, a popular symphonic and oratorio soloist.
Baritone Peter McGillivray, a former student of Blaser’s, posted this amazing tribute on Facebook today, where he has created an In Memoriam page (you’ll find it here):
This Saturday, the vocal community in Toronto lost one its beloved members, the soprano and vocal pedagogue, Lynn Blaser. Lynn succumbed to Leukaemia on Saturday.
She spent a very short time in palliative care after being admitted to Princess Margaret Hospital in late June. She had been diagnosed last year and they thought they had it licked until it reared its ugly head again this spring. I am told she was not in pain and was surrounded by family and dear friends including her dear husband of over 25 years, John. What follows is an unabashedly personal memorial. How can anything to do with the workings of the human voice not be so?
I would not be a successful full-time professional singer today without having been blessed by Lynn’s presence and wisdom. I had the absolute privilege of studying with Lynn after meeting her in her capacity as vocal coach for the Ontario Youth Choir of 1996 (Elmer Iseler was the conductor that year, he would pass away soon afterward)
I was studying History and Political Science at the time with an eye towards a law career. Trouble was I was so enthusiastic about singing in so many local and national choirs, I was starting to get distracted from my academic studies. Not only that, but I was starting to lose my voice from doing so much singing, as basso profundos (as I thought of myself) are much in demand on the choral scene in Toronto.
I approached Lynn about taking me on as a student, since she was the only vocal teacher I knew of other than Darryl Edwards who was still at Western University in London at the time.
It proved to be a fortuitous move. I would go on to work with Lynn for 5 years culminating in a huge win at the now-defunct but then-influential CBC Young Performer’s Competition and acceptance into both Juilliard and the COC Ensemble Studio.
I still remember the first lesson with Lynn. I had always taken the lowest bass parts in every choir I had ever sung with (Nathaniel Dett Chorale, Exultate, Orpheus, Hart House Chorus). I thought for sure that this was my path. So sure that the first aria I brought to Lynn to work on “Il lacerato spirito” from Simon Boccanegra — a concept that seems absolutely absurd to me now.
Lynn immediately confiscated the music and soon had me straightened out. She saw my potential as a high lyric baritone with flexible range right away and got to work. Lynn and I became very close as I moved across the street from University College to the Faculty of Music to begin two years of undergrad music followed by two years of Opera School.
She gave me a firm foundation in the principles of singing — good breath and support, impeccable languages and diction, musicality and attention to detail and nuance. Above all she taught me to infuse every note with the character and emotion you wish to convey, all the while keeping every it beautiful.
Singing teachers aren’t just mere technicians though. They are called to be psychologists and mentors as well. To pick you up off the floor in the face of setbacks, and to keep you grounded when you get puffed up with success. To imbue you with the confidence to perform and be at ease on stage, yet to still remind you that true wisdom is in knowing how little it is that you actually know about this art.
Lynn was an absolutely model professional, dedicated to building pedagogical skills among her colleagues through her involvement in NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing).
She had studied with the likes of Bernard Diamant, Patricia Kern, Daniel Ferro and my hero, Tito Gobbi. She travelled all across Canada many times over as a tireless examiner for the Royal Conservatory and as a much-in-demand music festival adjudicator.
She was an excellent pianist (which saved her students a fortune by not having to hire a professional pianist for weekly lessons). She also encouraged her students to go out and work hard to find other opinions and answers. She didn’t claim to have a monopoly on truth or the one true path as many teachers do.
She was an academic, who encouraged her students to actually study and not wait around to be spoonfed all the answers. I think I responded to this well because, like me, she had started her own studies in another field achieving a B.A. in Psychology from York University.
I spent a lot of time in the library, poring through scores and diction manuals, listening to singers and musical styles. She encouraged attending masterclasses and concerts across Toronto (not just the ones I was participating in, something I think a lot of young musicians don’t appreciate enough) and talking to both experienced performers and audience members who often bring a strangely much-neglected perspective to what we do as artists.
She encouraged me to be industrious, think critically, to be entrepreneurial and seek out opportunities to learn wherever they might be found.
She taught me how to be professional in work, in play and in performance and to treat my colleagues as I would be treated myself. (Oh how I dreaded the look on her face, should I stumble in to my lesson even a few minutes late!)
She was dedicated to her family as well, especially to her late father and to her husband John van Ogtrop, whom she often described as her best friend.
She was there to help me pick myself up after a breakup with much needed perspective and counsel. Though she never had children herself, I suspect she often thought of her vocal students in that way. I certainly considered her my “musical mom.”
When I won the CBC Competition, Both Lynn and my own mom were listening live and called each other that night to jump up and down with excitement (at least figuratively, Lynn had just had her hip replaced was still recovering from surgery).
This weekend I was performing Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir & Noel Edison to close the Festival of the Sound for 2013 in my new home of Parry Sound, Ont. Moments before we were about to take the stage before a sold-out audience, pianist Jim Bourne passed on the news that Lynn had succumbed to Leukemia the day before. A tough blow for a singer at anytime, but in particular before a technically-demanding performance.
My memory immediately hearkened back to nearly nine years ago, when I was about to sing my first professional Carmina with the Calgary Philharmonic. I had never sung so many high Gs (a baritone’s equivalent of a tenor’s high Cs) in public in my life and I was freaking out after a less-than-successful dress rehearsal. To make matters worse, someone had stolen my credit card that day and gone on a $2000 shopping spree through downtown Calgary. I was a mess. I called Lynn.
Don’t know why I didn’t call my own mom or other friends, or colleagues at the COC. But I called Lynn. She answered the phone late at night when no sane person would answer a phone call from an unfamiliar area code. I proceeded to unleash a stream of confused and befuddled drivel conveying what a horrible situation I was in. She paused, then calmly said, “Don’t swallow your tongue and remember to breathe. And have fun. Everything else will work itself out.” And it did. Especially the fun part.
We are often in danger of allowing the most extraordinary things in life became banal and routine. This applies to singers every bit as much as it applies to accountants, factory workers and burger flippers. Lynn always made me appreciate what extraordinary and wonderful things the human voice is capable of. She was a woman of faith, not just as an active church member, but as someone with a deep abiding faith in human potential.
She had her rough edges at times, but I think these often came forward because she could glimpse your potential and she wasn’t about to suffer you squandering your future through lack of appreciation. At all times, she taught us how fortunate we were to be able to train and develop our voices for this profession. To be able to do what one loves is an incredible blessing, but it also comes with a responsibility to share your gift and your joy with others. That is what I learned from Lynn.
Here is a short excerpt from an email from Lynn two years ago:
Thank you very much for the kind and generous gift of your new CD which arrived today. I look forward to listening to it. It’s a lovely selection of songs. I am very touched I am also delighted to read that you will be making it to the Met even sooner than I had ever anticipated. That’s marvellous and I know it will be a success. Best wishes to you and Jen and to your parents.
I hope I can live up to the full potential she saw in me when I first walked into her studio 15 years ago. It was and continues to be the best move I ever made.