A Canadian Nightingale gets to sing again in new book by Ottawa author

Ottawa researcher Jane Cooper loves history and is always digging into the past.

Her natural curiosity has taken her into many different projects but none quite like her investigation of the life story of Bertha Crawford, the Canadian Nightingale.

Crawford was a soprano of some note in Toronto in the early years of the 20th century where she made her name as a singer in demand for church events or at special gatherings of organizations such as the temperance society in places such as Massey Hall.

But Bertha had bigger ambitions. She wanted to study and sing opera and in those years, that meant travelling to Europe, which she did.

Bertha eventually found her niche in the music world in Poland and Russia where she was a regular performer in places such as the legendary Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia.

But after her death, knowledge of her has diminished, partly because she worked mostly overseas.

Cooper, who, in her day job, is a researcher with the Conference Board of Canada, was doing some personal research on letters written by her great aunt when she stumbled across a mention of Bertha Crawford in a letter from 1924.

“I was editing my great aunt’s letters. She had worked in Poland and I was looking up all the people mentioned in those letters. She mentioned seeing Bertha sing.”

That’s when Jane fired up Google and found out about Bertha.

“I thought her story was unusual and interesting. She was a very successful musician and she was forgotten because she was caught in strange paradox.

“She was famous in Poland and the Poles (since the Second World War) have chosen to remember their own national heroes. Meanwhile in Canada she wasn’t all that famous.” She was a minor celebrity.

“She was singing for all kinds of groups. The Temperance Society would fill Massey Hall and several thousand people would see her perform. She toured Canada twice and then she wanted to take it to the next level. That meant going to Europe.

“She wanted to be an opera singer and part of tragedy of her life was there was no opera company in Canada at the time.”

The story of the Canadian artist who has to leave home to find success and career fulfillment is so familiar it’s almost a cliche, but that’s what Bertha did in the years before the First World War.

Jane Cooper.

Jane says she didn’t start out thinking she would tackle such a big a project, but she was tempted by it because she wanted to try to write something more substantial.

“I was interested in seeing if I could write a biography. I had done other historical writing but on a smaller scale. I was looking for a bigger project. I wanted to test myself.

“I saw a description of her online and noticed her connection to Poland and Russia and thought ‘If you do this you’ll have to go to Russia. Wouldn’t that be fun?’ It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with no border.”

Bertha’s story was helped along when the Canadian met a Polish baronness who became a patron of sorts and introduced her to Warsaw. The Baronness Zofia Alexandra Kosinska was a special discovery for Cooper.

“In the beginning, the Baronness was supporting Bertha but after the Germans took Warsaw and they went to Russia, Bertha’s singing looked after the Baronness.

“Bertha toured across Russia during the First World War from Odessa to Finland and from Moscow to Vladivostock.

“She stayed through the Russian Revolution. She was in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) until June 1918 waiting to get back to Warsaw.”

By August, while Canadian soldiers were battling the Germans on the Western Front, Bertha was lying in the Polish capital under German protection.

“She didn’t tell the people in Canada that,” Cooper said.

Crawford’s career continued after the war. She would come home to Canada regularly but she always returned. Over time her star started to fade and by the 1930s, she was back home, without much money or work. Sadly she died in Toronto in 1937 of pneumonia.

Cooper started her research in 2011 and kept at it until she produced a manuscript. When she tried to get a publisher, she says she was told the story, while interesting, couldn’t be marketed.

She was determined though and decided to self-publish. A successful kickstarter campaign raised the funds and she turned to the self-publishing firm Friesen Press, where readers can obtain the book.

The book, entitled The Canadian Nightingale: Bertha Crawford and the Dream of the Prima Donna will be launched Jan. 21 with a reading by Cooper and a concert of music that Bertha Crawford would have sung. There is mention of a recording, but Cooper has not been able to find a copy. Crawford also was on the radio a lot in the early days, but there is no recording of that either.

Still, Cooper felt that a concert was necessary.

”I went looking for singers. I thought if I’m going to do a book launch about a singer, I needed someone to sing.”

The performance has been organized by Cara Gilbertson-Boese and Joanne Moorcroft and will also feature sopranos Ania Hejnar, Leandra Dahm and Taryn Redmond, along with the Harmonia Choir directed by Kurt Ala-Kantti. The concert will be at 2 p.m. at at the Church of St John the Evangelist, 154 Somerset St. W.

Tickets are available online at eventbrite.ca at The Leading Note or at the door … $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and students.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.