Storied Growth: When Ruby Mercer Agreed to Edit a Magazine about the Canadian Opera Scene, There Wasn't Much of a Scene to Report on. over the Next Half Century, the Growth of the Magazine She Founded Chronicled an Astonishing Evolution of Opera in Canada and Canadians in Opera around the World

By Morey, Carl | Opera Canada, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Storied Growth: When Ruby Mercer Agreed to Edit a Magazine about the Canadian Opera Scene, There Wasn't Much of a Scene to Report on. over the Next Half Century, the Growth of the Magazine She Founded Chronicled an Astonishing Evolution of Opera in Canada and Canadians in Opera around the World


Morey, Carl, Opera Canada


Fifty years ago, Floyd Chalmers, President of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Opera Association in Toronto, and Herman Geiger-Torel, the General Director, approached Ruby Mercer to edit a magazine about opera in Canada. Because Ruby was a newcomer to Toronto and to Canada, she asked Torel to tell her about opera in Canada; he reportedly replied, "What opera?" Ruby never met a challenge from which she retreated, and the invitation to build a magazine on a subject that hardly existed was too good to resist.

Ruby Mercer came to Canada from the United States with a varied and brightly colored background. As a soprano, she sang with the Montreal Opera Company in 1933, won the prestigious Naumberg Award in New York in 1935, sang at the Metropolitan Opera in 1937, and later would appear at Vancouver's Theatre Under the Stars. She appeared in three Broadway shows and on radio and television. The ebullient and gregarious Ruby had a radio program about opera in New York City for many years, and she came to know everybody in the opera world. In 1958, she married Toronto businessman Geza For, left at least some of the bright lights behind and settled in Toronto, where she remained for the rest of her long life. She had already set about knowing everyone in operatic Canada to add to her international circle, when, in 1959, she was asked to edit an opera magazine.

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If Torel's reply to Ruby--"What opera?"--was partly facetious, it was certainly not defeatist. He devoted his own career to building opera in Toronto, and as head of the still fledgling Canadian Opera Company he was in charge of the longest-running regular producer of opera in Canada, although it had only begun professional productions in 1950. The closest rival was Pauline Donalda's Opera Guild, which, since 1942, had been producing a single annual opera in Montreal, whereas the COC had a "season" of three operas and sent out a touring company across the country. Ruby joined the pioneers and established a magazine that recorded the growth of opera in Canada at the same time that it encouraged and participated in that growth.

There was a modest but ambitious precedent to a national journal. Since 1955, the Women's Committee of the Toronto company had been publishing annually a sort of newsletter called Opera that appeared twice a year and that was allied to the company's productions: synopses, notes on the performers and a few bits of news from elsewhere in Canada. When Opera in Canada appeared in February-March 1960 and billed itself as Volume I, Number 1, it was an act of self-confidence, pluck and purpose combined with a large dollop of wishful thinking. Today, at the half-century mark, Opera Canada (the "in" was dropped with the 15th issue in September 1963) has easily fulfilled its first editor's ambitions and has provided an ongoing response to that question, "What opera?"

Towards the end of 1959, the Canadian Opera Guild was founded by the indefatigable Vida Peene (opera in Canada owes much to its women) with the idea that branches of the Guild would develop throughout the country and encourage the development of opera in their own communities. In fact, the Guild became mainly an Ontario organization with local branches that encouraged opera in their own communities but whose chief interest was directed towards the COC. But in its first conception it was an ideal supporter of a national magazine, and until 1966, Opera in Canada, or Opera Canada as it was soon called, was the journal of the Canadian Opera Guild and was available only through membership in the Guild.

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In 1960, the term "opera in Canada" was almost an oxymoron. It took some imagination to assemble even the modest four-page newsletter, 8 1/2 by 11 inches, that was Volume I, Number 1 of Opera in Canada. Modest it may have been, but it established both a mood and format that continue to the present day. …

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Storied Growth: When Ruby Mercer Agreed to Edit a Magazine about the Canadian Opera Scene, There Wasn't Much of a Scene to Report on. over the Next Half Century, the Growth of the Magazine She Founded Chronicled an Astonishing Evolution of Opera in Canada and Canadians in Opera around the World
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