Unrelenting researcher: ESD employee sparks book idea

by Patricia Barrett

Evergreen School Division’s career development consultant turned a passion for research into an idea for a book about two Canadian singers who carved out major musical careers in the Canadian West at the turn of the 20th century.

Gail Kreutzer, who has been with the division for over 30 years, was a member of the Winnipeg Humane Society board when she came across a brief citation to the animal shelter’s founder in a book called Aunt Winnie, written by famed Canadian biographer Elspeth Cameron.

That sliver of information led Kreutzer down a three-year research path that ended in A Tale of Two Divas: the curious Adventures of Jean Forsyth and Edith J. Miller in Canada’s Edwardian West, which was released earlier this year with Cameron as writer and Kreutzer as primary researcher.

Although she works full time, Kreutzer spent countless evenings, weekends and holidays deeply immersed in the silent world of archives and libraries. She also purchased online subscriptions to historic newspaper and magazine collections.

She said she was unable to stop researching because the story she began to uncover — that the shelter’s founder was a celebrated singer — was “so intriguing.”

“I’d come home [from work] and I could’t stop doing it,” said Kreutzer, who does some teaching at Riverton Collegiate. “Then I’d go to bed and think, ‘I wish I could have found a lead on that,’ and your mind is going like crazy, and you think, ‘I never thought of this angle. Tomorrow I’m going to go and do that.’ It’s funny how you find these different angles … and it opens up a whole new path.”

Covering the period 1893 to about 1933, the book details the musical training and careers of Jean Forsyth, soprano and founder of the Winnipeg Humane Society, and Edith Miller, contralto and international singing star, both of whom started their careers in Manitoba church choirs.

The book takes the reader through the burgeoning music scene in Winnipeg and Edmonton and the fashionable entertainments – teas, musicales and balls – in which ladies of high society partook. The two singers began working together in 1894 when they were hired as vocal teachers for the newly established Winnipeg Conservatory of Music.

In some chapters, Cameron creates a compelling fictional narrative (based on factual documents Kreutzer obtained) of significant events in the singers’ lives. Her novelistic ingenuity brings the characters, their manners and their thoughts to life.

“It really gives you a picture of cultural life during that time,” said Kreutzer. “A lot of things have been written about Western Canada during that period of tim in the early years, but nothing has focused on the cultural day-t0-day life.”

Given Cameron’s extensive writing experience (biographies on Canadian literary and cultural icons), Kreutzer tasked her with the job of writing the book.

“I had said to her, ‘I think you should write another book,'” said Kreutzer. “I was trying to convince her to write this book. I kept sending her packages and packages of material because I just couldn’t believe all this stuff I was finding. I thought this woman’s [Forsyth] story deserves to be told.”

Cameron initially resisted. In the Acknowledgements at the back of the book, she reveals her reluctance to pursue the story. She wrote: “I emailed back a lukewarm response because I thought of Aunt Winnie as my last book.”

Kreutzer was undeterred.

“I kept sending her stuff because I thought if anybody could write this, it was her.”

Kreutzer herself is no stranger to the written word but had not tackled a book.

“I’ve done articles in local magazines like H2O and the Winnipeg Humane Society’s newsletter, and I did a tribute to Jean Forsyth on their website,” she said. “I also co-hosted a radio show on CJOB called All About Animals.”

In the face of Kreutzer’s persistence, and stacks of documents about Jean Forsyth that would arrive at her St. Catharine’s (Ont.) home, Cameron finally relented.

The two women developed a working relationship almost exclusively by email. As the documents continued to flow in, Cameron found a number of references to contralto Edith Miller and tasked Kreutzer with additional research. The way Cameron structured the book was impressive, said Kreutzer.

“She would take these snippets … put them in dated order and get a story out of it. How she put them together just blew me away; it gave me a better appreciation for her as a talented author.”

Kreutzer continued to dig up letters, concert reviews and photographs, all of which form the backbone of the book’s 52 chapters.

“I didn’t know what it’s like when you write a novel, but I know with this, it was an eye-opener as to how long – and I don’t mean long, painful – but it was three years of research and back and forth. Three solid years. One of those years was myself doing research even before she decided to take on the project.”

Kreutzer even braved endless reels of microfilm in the Legislative Library. If anyone has ever taken that on, he/she knows it’s almost like running a marathon.

“I would sit there for eight hours sometimes and I’d get nauseous after a while,” laughed Kreutzer.

Through her research, Kreutzer discovered a distinct evolution in the places where musical entertainment was traditionally offered.

“When Jean first moved to Winnipeg, she was recruited here by Grace Methodist church, and all the serious  music that was offered at that time was through a church. And you’ll see a transformation: it moved from church to hall eventually.”

Forsyth and Miller eventually tour together across Western Canada, and formed a company with two male singers. Forsyth then moved to Edmonton, where she founded a popular tea room. Miller found success as an opera singer at Covent Garden in London (England) and sang at a series of celebratory concerts marking the Coronation of George V in 1910. She eventually married a baronet and retired from singing.

If it hadn’t been for Kreutzer’s research zeal, the story of two remarkable, independent women establishing a musical niche in Canada’s West may not have been told.

In the Acknowledgements, Cameron wrote: “This book owes its existence to Gail Kreutzer.”