Lois Marshall was internationally regarded as one of the great sopranos of our time. And while she was blessed with a superb natural voice, it was the deeply emotional, personal, heartfelt dimension of her singing that was so distinctive.
Her strength of character was borne out of adversity. At the age of two, she was struck down with polio which crippled her legs. Although her disability prevented her from achieving international recognition on the opera stage (she did sing some opera, most notably with the CBC Opera Company in the 1940s and 50s), she enjoyed an illustrious career as a concert, oratorio and Lieder singer. At the age of 22, she was engaged by Sir Ernest MacMillan to sing the soprano solos in his annual presentation of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Six years later, Arturo Toscanini selected her to appear with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. In 1956 she made her London debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham in a performance of Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate. Later that year, Miss Marshall also sang in Beecham’s productions of Handel’s Solomon and Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio.
As a recitalist, Lois Marshall was acclaimed for her numerous international tours which took her to Australia, England, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the US and the USSR (which she toured six times). In the mid-1970s Miss Marshall began to sing as a mezzo-soprano. This closing phase of her active singing career resulted in a number of memorable Lieder recitals with distinguished pianists such as William Aide, Anton Kuerti and Greta Kraus.
Although her discography is extensive, many of the earlier recordings fail to do justice to her splendid, ringing, nuanced voice. In recent years, CBC Records has issued three CDs featuring this prodigious talent: Lois Marshall: Arias by Handel, Haydn & Mozart; Franz Schubert: Winterreise (with Anton Kuerti); and Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin (with Greta Kraus).
Two days after Lois Marshall’s death on February 19, 1997, I was honoured to present a two-hour tribute to her on the English-language CBC Stereo Network. I was amazed at the depth of emotion expressed by people across the country. They all commented on her uniquely beautiful voice, but even more on the passionate commitment she brought to every performance.
My fondest memory of her is the first time I heard her sing a live concert. Lois Marshall was in Winnipeg to sing Handel’s Messiah in the Civic Auditorium. Her delivery of the two main soprano arias, “Rejoice Greatly” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, will be forever etched in my memory as some of the most beautiful singing I have ever heard. Her performance that December night in 1962 inspired me and confirmed my decision to pursue a career in music.
We grieve Lois Marshall’s unexpected passing, but we celebrate the memory of a great singer and splendid human being.
Dr. Howard Dyck was the Conductor and Artistic Director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Philharmonic Choir and Chamber Singers, and the Consort Caritatis Choir and Orchestra. He was also Programme Host of “Choral Concert” and “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” heard on CBC Stereo.
Originally published in La Scena Vocale, March/April 1997.