Esther Ghan Firestone | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Esther Ghan Firestone

Esther Ghan Firestone (née Cohen), soprano, cantor, choral conductor (born 9 April 1925 in Winnipeg, MB; died 28 May 2015 in Toronto, ON).

Esther Ghan Firestone (née Cohen), soprano, cantor, choral conductor (born 9 April 1925 in Winnipeg, MB; died 28 May 2015 in Toronto, ON). Esther Ghan Firestone was the first woman cantor in Canada. She held positions at Toronto’s Beth-El Synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, and Congregation Habonim. Also a noted operatic soprano, she performed with the CBC Opera and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and on CBC Radio.


After training as a pianist in Winnipeg and giving several recitals in Manitoba, she began voice studies in 1944 in Toronto with Nina de Gedeonoff and at the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music) with Emmy Heim.

Career Highlights

In 1948, she won second prize in an international scholarship contest sponsored by Carnegie Hall. She made her CBC Radio debut on Canadian Cavalcade, sang on Starlight Moods and other CBC series (1949–51), and gave her first Toronto recital in 1950 at the Eaton Auditorium, accompanied by her uncle, Sherman Ghan (1910–52), a blind Russian-born violinist and accordionist who composed some of the songs on the program. (It was he who advised her to adopt her mother’s maiden name, Ghan, as her stage name.)

She made her operatic debut in 1951 as Musetta in La Bohème with the CBC Opera and starred in CBC Radio's Stardust (1957–60). Her extensive concert career included performances with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1950, 1951), the Buffalo Philharmonic (1969, 1970) and the Canadian National Exhibition Bandshell concerts (1970).

The only woman cantor known to have been active in Canada from 1950, she held positions in Toronto at Beth-El Synagogue (mid-1950s to mid-1960s), at Temple Emanu-El (1977), and at Congregation Habonim (1985–2015). She was a member of Kol Nashim, a sextet of female lay cantors formed in 1987. She also conducted the YMHA Choral Group, the Toronto Hadassah Women's Choir (1967–74), and in the 1980's, the JCC Singers, who recorded folk songs in 1984. She was also co-founder and conductor of the Habonim Youth Choir.

In 1950, she married actor and former RCAF flight trainer Paul Firestone, with whom she had six children. In 1971 and 1973, with three of her children, she recorded Let's Sing English Songs, a collection of 52 songs for distribution in Japan by the Tokyo Kodomo Club.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

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