St. John’s chorister fills her life with song
Everyone has a story to tell
Were it not for her sons coming to Canada in the early 1970s, Olivia Beard might still be living in Edinburgh, Scotland, and St. John's Catholic Church Choir would not be as good as it is.
“There were no jobs for young men in Scotland at that time,” Beard recalled. “When they turned 18 they left for Canada.”
Beard herself was extended an offer to join them – her husband was already there working with her brother – but as she said, she had no desire to come to Canada. “Once all my sons were there though, I had to come.”
The move to Toronto in 1971 marked the third major upheaval in her life.
Olivia Beard was born in 1915 in India. Her father was in the British army during the period when India was still ruled by Britain. She was educated at an exclusive private school in the Himalayas that took only 100 students. Her favourite subject was music, and she took piano lessons privately.
“I have a Licentiate from Trinity College, London in piano,” Beard said. She took the exam while still living in India. After completing that, she said that as a present, her mother offered her a chance to take singing lessons. “Because I had already a background in the piano, and could sing, this was easy for me.” Beard completed a Licentiate from London's Royal Academy in Voice in three years.
“Oddly enough, even though I was trained as a soprano,” she recalled with a chuckle, “there were no spots for sopranos in the choirs I tried out for. I ended up learning to sing alto.”
Beard taught music in India to the children of the British, and in Convent schools, sang on the radio, and performed in musicals. She recalled a time when she was invited to perform in Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance.
“I was asked to fill in for a singer, just three days before the performance,” she said. “I told them I didn't know the role. They asked if I could read music, and I told them I could. So they handed me the vocal part, and a basket, and told me to put the music in the basket and carry the basket as part of my character. I read the music right out of that basket.”
Beard married her husband, William, also from the family of a British soldier, in India when she was 27. When Indian independence took hold, Beard and her new family left and moved to Edinburgh, Scotland. There the couple raised their four sons and four daughters. When everyone left the Highlands for the New World, Olivia reluctantly followed.
Anxious to carry on with her musical career, Beard joined the choir of St. John's Catholic Church on Kingston Road, eventually taking on the role of Choirmaster. Later she auditioned for and was accepted into the Metropolitan United Church Choir, under the direction of Melville Cook. As she explained, the Metropolitan U.C. Choir was a concert choir that performed oratorios, not the Sunday service-style choir at St. John's, so she was able to be in both. Cook retired in 1986, and not really liking the new directions under his replacement, Olivia decided, after a 12-year career, it was time for her to retire from the Metropolitan U.C. Choir as well.
A bizarre accident in 1989 curtailed what might have been a long career as a music teacher. Beard developed a pronounced swelling on the side of her neck which led her to seek medical attention. During what should have been a simple incision to relieve the swelling, a major facial nerve was cut, and Beard was left severely disfigured.
“Even my left eye is not as well as it should be,” she said.
She very quickly realized that her disfigurement would make it very difficult to keep young children's focus on music, so she had to abandon that plan. She has kept her spirits though and has continued up to this year as a member of St. John's Choir. There was a special concert held in honour of her retirement on June 14.
“My arthritis is getting so bad in my legs that I can't climb the steps up into the choir loft anymore,” she said.
At 97 Olivia Beard may be slowing down a bit, but she still gets visits from her family to the house on Bingham Avenue that she has lived in since moving to Canada. She has 20 grandchildren, and was recently at the christening for one of her nine great-grandchildren.
“I'm a matriarch!,” she proudly exclaimed.
One of her daughters still lives in Scotland, while another moved to Australia.
“I won't go there,” she said, “because of the snakes.”
“My children have always said I'd live to be 100,” Beard said. I don't doubt that she will.
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