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Time Machine: Preserving the Sonic History of Estonians in Canada

Back in March 2020, the life of Georg Ots was discussed in relation to opera history in Estonia and Canada. But among Estonian-Canadians, there is one particular cultural figure who needs to be mentioned with regard to opera—Irene Loosberg. Irene Louise Loosberg was born into a musical family on August 9th, 1922 in Tallinn. Here, she completed her secondary education at Elfriede Lenderi Eragümnaasium. As thousands of Estonians did, in 1944, she fled to Sweden. Then, in 1952, she and her family emigrated to Montréal, continuing to Toronto two years later. This was where she studied at The Royal Conservatory of Music, which led to her career in the Canadian Opera Company. As was elucidated in an Eesti Raadio interview with Irene and her husband Paul Loosberg in 2001, her voice not only enthralled those in Estonian diaspora communities, but on prominent stages in North America like Carnegie Hall.
Cover for Irene Loosberg's album, *Songs*. Photo: discogs.com

Back in March 2020, the life of Georg Ots was discussed in relation to opera history in Estonia and Canada. But among Estonian-Canadians, there is one particular cultural figure who needs to be mentioned with regard to opera—Irene Loosberg.

Irene Louise Loosberg was born into a musical family on August 9th, 1922 in Tallinn. Here, she completed her secondary education at Elfriede Lenderi Eragümnaasium. As thousands of Estonians did, in 1944, she fled to Sweden. Then, in 1952, she and her family emigrated to Montréal, continuing to Toronto two years later. This was where she studied at The Royal Conservatory of Music, which led to her career in the Canadian Opera Company. As was elucidated in an Eesti Raadio interview with Irene and her husband Paul Loosberg in 2001, her voice not only enthralled those in Estonian diaspora communities, but on prominent stages in North America like Carnegie Hall.

A recording of her singing the aria “O don fatale” (“Oh Fatal Gift”) from Verdi's Don Carlo in the 1960s shows her rich contralto voice, full of mystery, which gracefully glided from low to high notes. Singing the part of Princess Eboli, it's amazing how believably she could convey bitter envy giving way to sorrow and fear.

Among the many productions she was a part of, she portrayed Schwertleite in the Canadian Opera Company's 1962 production of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). Her singing in German is particularly enjoyable, for her characterful intonation and delivery of the language's consonant clusters.

Beyond the stage, she was a runner-up in the Canadian talent competition Opportunity Knocks, broadcast for ten years between 1947 and 1957. The show was open to composers, singers, and instrumentalists and showcased countless talented Canadian musicians. Loosberg also made an appearance on the CBC's radio show Songs of My People. The premise of the show, as explained in Ezra Schabas' book Jan Rubeš: A Man of Many Talents, was “…to perform music from different European countries, along with interesting explanatory comments.” Starting out in May 1953, it became “one of the longest running shows in CBC history.”

In these ways, through her singing Loosberg was an important representative of Estonian and broader Nordic culture to Canadian listeners. Imagine sitting at home by the radio and hearing her speak about her upbringing and presenting an Estonian song, or seeing her name on a concert program. She represented Estonians' commitment to culture in her new home.

Despite this, it is quite difficult for the general public to access recordings of her singing, to find and listen to her voice now that she is no longer alive.

Loosberg sang on various recordings, including one made by New Yorgi Eesti Naiskoor in 1965 and Valimik helisalvestusi kontsertidelt Massey Hall'is 1954-1969 (A selection of sound recordings from concerts at Massey Hall 1954-1969), which was put together by the Eesti Helisalvestuse Arhiiv (Estonian Sound Recording Archive) in 1988. In 1962, Merit Records (a label which published dozens of records of Estonian music from 1959 to 1977) released Loosberg's album Songs, where she was accompanied by pianist Salme Lohuaru. Her singing voice brought to life compositions by Johannes Brahms, Roger Quilter, Mart Saar, Robert Schumann, Jean Sibelius, and Eduard Tubin. The album finishes with Tubin's “Noor armastus” (“Young Love”), with lyrics by poet Gustav Suits.

Yet, copies of these recordings will defy even the most savvy cultural detective.

Digitization has helped to preserve culture and to retain artifacts that exemplify Estonia's culture imprint on North America. Digitization has given us convenience in accessing the sounds of the past. But there are still pieces of sonic history in physical formats that younger generations haven't had the chance to hear.

So if you're digging through crates in a record store or a basement out there and find Loosberg's music, or any Estonian diaspora music for that matter, do make sure to hold onto it, to preserve it for future listeners.

Written by Vincent Teetsov, Toronto


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