Mary Louise Fallis, CM, soprano, teacher, comedian, writer (born 22 April 1948 in Toronto, ON). Mary Lou Fallis has performed internationally in dramatic opera and as a classical singer but is best known for her comedic theatre works. Her role in Primadonna, a satirical take on the life of an opera diva, established her as a leading musical comedienne in the tradition of Victor Borge and Anna Russell. She has also hosted a number of CBC Radio and TV series, and was made a Member of the Order of Canada for “her contributions, as a performer and broadcaster, in making classical music more accessible to Canadians across the country.”
Early Years and Education
Fallis grew up in a musical family. She was first taught voice and piano by her grandmother, choral conductor Jennie Bouck, and sang with her mother in Elmer Iseler’s Festival Singers of Toronto. She attended the Royal Conservatory of Music on a scholarship and made her operatic debut at age 15 in a CBC TV production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. As a young woman she sang in the St George's Youth Choir under Lloyd Bradshaw, with the Festival Singers of Canada and in other choral groups. She studied with Irene Jessner (1966–70) and Maureen Forrester (1970–72) at the University of Toronto, where she earned a Bachelor of Music degree and a master’s degree in Performance and Literature. She also studied privately with Bernard Diamant beginning in 1971.
Opera and Classical Singing
After winning the CBC Talent Festival in 1973 and the Metropolitan Opera Regional Auditions in 1974, Fallis went on to perform a number of operatic roles, mainly as a lyric coloratura: Gabrielle in La Vie parisienne and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos at the 1974 and 1975 Stratford Festivals respectively; Flora in The Turn of the Screw with the National Arts Centre Orchestra; Papagena in The Magic Flute at Ottawa’s Festival Canada in 1975; and the title role in Lakmé with Stuart Hamilton’s Opera in Concert in 1985. She also performed Bach's Magnificat with Tafelmusik, and appeared as Polly Peachum in The Beggar's Opera in Edmonton.
Fallis has sung with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on many occasions (e.g., in the Canadian premiere of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in 1983), and with other orchestras throughout Canada. She also appeared regularly at summer festivals and performed in recital as a founding member of the Arioso Trio, as a member of Camerata (with whom she recorded), and with the Aldeburgh Connection. She sang in the first complete performance and on the recording of R. Murray Schafer’s Loving (1978), and was accompanied by Monica Gaylord on a recording of John Weinzweig's Private Collection (1982) for Centrediscs (CMC CD-0582).
After entertaining friends at parties by slipping into the character of an over-the-top opera diva,
Fallis (with actor and opera singer Heath Lamberts as director) developed the character into Primadonna, a satirical one-woman concert theatre piece for the 1982 Stratford Summer Music Festival. The success of the show, which garnered an ACTRA award, took Fallis’ career in a new direction. With Duncan McIntosh she then developed Emma, Queen of Song, based on Dame Emma Albani’s career, for the 1984 Shaw Festival, where her accompanist was Carl Morey. The show was also broadcast on CBC Radio. Fallis and McIntosh’s next effort, Mrs. Bach, a comedy in which Fallis plays J.S. Bach’s wife as the host of a talk show in 1747, debuted at the 1985 Edmonton TriBach Festival.
On tour throughout North America, she performed Primadonna and The Mrs. Bach Show in locations as diverse as Expo 86 in Vancouver, Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, Whitehorse, YT, the federal penitentiary for women in Kingston, ON, and New York's Radio City Music Hall. In 1989 she was invited to present her shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (with Bruce Ubukata as accompanist). In 1990 she returned to Great Britain for a three-month tour that included a second engagement in Edinburgh and performances at the Wexford Opera Festival, the Belfast International Festival, and the Covent Garden International Festival.
In 1991, for the bicentennial of Mozart’s death, Fallis created Ms. Mozart for Toronto's Glory of Mozart festival. She went on to perform the one-woman show, in which Mozart’s talented sister gripes about being overshadowed by her genius brother, with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. She also developed recital programs based on publications of the Canadian Musical Heritage Society that showcased her interest in Canadian musical Victoriana.
A cache of early Canadian recordings that Fallis and McGill University researchers unearthed in an English airplane hangar in the mid-1970s formed the basis for her next show, Primadonna on a Moose, which Fallis debuted at the National Arts Centre and took on tour through Western Canada. She also released a recording of the shows’ songs — which include such titles as “Take Your Girl Out to the Rink” and “Oh What a Difference Since the Hydro Came” — through her own record label, Opening Day Records. Many of the recordings found in England were donated to the Canadian Music Centre in Toronto.
Later comic creations include Primadonna's First Farewell Tour (Canadian Stage, 2002), Primadonna Does Shakespeare (Stratford Summer Music Festival, 2002), Primadonna Does More With Less (Guelph Spring Festival, 2005) and Primadonna Choralis (Chorus Niagara, 2006) — all with Peter Tiefenbach as accompanist. She also appeared in The Drowsy Chaperone at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre in 2001.
Radio and Television
Fallis has been a frequent contributor to CBC Radio and TV programs about classical music and the arts. She hosted the arts journal series Showcase (1988–89). In 1998, the TV program The Fifth Estate aired an episode profiling her career. Her “Primadonna’s Diary” was a popular segment on the CBC Radio Two program Take Five from 1999 to 2003. Fallis was a judge on the Gemini Award-winning Bravo! TV series Bathroom Divas: So You Want to be an Opera Star? (2006–7), which she produced, and also hosted CBC Radio’s This is My Music (2013).
Teaching and Personal Life
Fallis taught privately and at York University (1972–73), the Royal Hamilton College of Music (1973–74), Queen's University (1978–80) and the University of Western Ontario (1998–2008). She married double-bassist Peter Madgett in 1972.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
Toronto Arts and Letters Club Award, Toronto Arts and Letters Club (1996)
Honorary Licentiate Diploma, Conservatory Canada (2006)
Best General/Human Interest Series (Bathroom Divas: So You Want to be an Opera Star?), Gemini Awards (2007)
Member, Order of Canada (2011)
Honorary Degree, LLD, University of Windsor (2013)
Honorary Degree, D.Mus., Carleton University (2014)