Elizabeth Mawson, wbo portrayed Marilla in Anne of Green Gables, dies at 81

Doug Gallant
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One of the finest voices ever to grace the stage of the Charlottetown Festival has been silenced.
Elizabeth Mawson, who became synonymous with the role of Marilla Cuthbert in the festival's production of Anne of Green Gables, died Saturday in Toronto at the age of 81.
Mawson's performance as the matriarch of Green Gables who takes a red-haired orphan named Anne Shirley into her home and into her heart, was a highlight of the festival for close to 30 years.
Word of Mawson's passing was cause for great sadness among those in the theatrical community who admired and respected her work as an actress and cherished her friendship.
"Dressing room B will be very empty now," said Glenda Landry, who shared a dressing room with Mawson for 10 years. "I've been sitting in her chair since she left. Even though she was no longer there I could still feel her in the room. I knew that wherever she was she was still singing. One of the saddest things about her passing for me is that we will never hear her sing again, never hear that wonderful voice."
Landry, who spent part of Sunday looking through scrapbooks filled with photographs of Mawson's years at the festival, said she treasures her memories of Mawson.
"We had many happy moments at the festival,' Landry said. "Every night before we went on we would sing harmonies to warm up. And we would all hold hands during the overture."
One of her favourite images of Mawson dates to the late 1960s and depicts Mawson enjoying herself on the beaches of her beloved P.E.I., dressed in a bathing suit she made herself and a favourite straw hat.
Jack McAndrew, a former executive director of Confederation Centre, said Mawson's death will be felt by all who knew her.
"She was such an incredibly gracious person," McAndrew recalled. "She will be remembered for her kindness and generosity. And I know it's not a particularly fashionable term in some circles but she was very much a lady. She had a gentility about her, a warmth of spirit and an inherent sense of values."
McAndrew noted that Mawson always served as the den mother for new people coming into the Charlottetown Festival company, making them feel welcome and showing them the ropes.
He recalled auditioning Mawson for the role of Marilla and discussing her audition with then festival artistic director Alan Lund.
"I remember saying to Alan that Liz would change the nature of the show because she was such a strong singer," McAndrew said. "And she changed the nature of Marilla. She brought a softness to the role that wasn't there when Barbara Hamilton played Marilla before her."
He said Mawson carried the continuity of Anne of Green Gables from season to season because so many people changed around her.
"She became the anchor for Anne."
Denise Fergusson, who played Rachel Lynde in Anne of Green Gables for several seasons, said although she and others were aware of the state of Mawson's health, her death was still devastating.
"Being onstage with Liz Mawson while she sang 'The Words' ranks up there with the finest moments of my long career in the theatre," Fergusson said. "I shall always be grateful to have shared 10 seasons with her, onstage and offstage. There are many great musical theatre artists in this country, but to me, Liz Mawson was royalty - she was the Queen. Her death does not silence her voice as she lives on in the memory of so many of us who had the privilege of working with her or sitting in the darkened auditorium."
Janet MacEwen, who has played the role of Marilla Cuthbert at the festival for the past two seasons, was among many others to mourn Mawson's passing.
She spoke fondly of her association with Mawson many years ago.
"I had, and have enormous respect for this woman," MacEwan said. "The strength, and kindness she offered me when I was
just a teenager working front of house at Confederation Centre continues to
be a tremendous inspiration to me."
MacEwen recalls coming into Charlottetown in the late 1970's on her nights off just to stand at the back of the theatre and listen to Mawson sing 'The Words'.
"For me, she was and is, the definitive Marilla Cuthbert and I hear her voice, her inflections, in my head even after all these years."
Former executive director Curtis Barlow once said this of Mawson.
"As one of Canada's foremost musical theatre and opera performers, Mawson brings to the role of Marilla an interpretation which is matchless in all of Canada," Barlow said. "She is an artist of impeccable confidence, timing, and sensitivity, and her singing voice is staggering in its strength and richness. As a senior Canadian performing artist, she inspires others with her discipline, her commitment to The Charlottetown Festival, and her passion for her profession."
In addition to the role of Marilla Mawson played many other roles at the festival, including those of Queen Mary in Windsor and Maggie in Johnny Belinda.
David MacKenzie, the current executive director of Confederation Centre, said Mawson's death was a huge blow to the Canadian theatre community and the Charlottetown Festival in particular.
"We are saddened by her loss but so very thankful for her contribution to the festival over 35 years. As a group we have not yet had time to reflect on her contribution and how her contribution should be recognized but will be doing so Monday."
Mawson, a gifted mezzo-soprano, was born in Burlington Ont. on Valentine's Day, 1927.
While studying voice in the late 1940s and 1950s she sang soubrette roles in Gilbert & Sullivan and other operetta productions staged by the Toronto Light Opera Association, CBC radio and TV, and the Eaton Operatic Society.
In 1954 she became a soloist at St Andrew's United Church, Toronto, a position she continued to hold into the 1990s.
Mawson appeared in 1957 with the Opera Festival Association of Toronto as Hanna in The Merry Widow and also that year sang Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel.
After the association had become the Canadian Opera Company she sang Martha in Faust and Flora in La Traviata (1966) and was Miss Todd in its Prologue to the Performing Arts presentations of Menotti's The Old Maid and the Thief.
She also sang at the Stratford Festival, appearing as Hebe in H.M.S. Pinafore in 1960 and Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro in 1964 and 1965.
She appeared with the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Toronto in several of its productions between 1968 and 1975.
Mawson joined the Charlottetown Festival company in 1968 and remained with the company until 2003.
She first appeared as Marilla Cuthbert in 1971.
During her tenure at the festival she developed a special relationship with P.E.I.
She once described P.E.I. as the most incredible thing in her life.
"Actually, this is the biggest thing in my life. I feel that I'm really more myself (here.)," Mawson said in a 2000 interview. "You know, how you become another person when you are home and you have your children, your family, your bills to pay and everything else. But, on P.E.I., I'm set free."
In honor of her contribution to the Charlottetown Festival Confederation Centre renamed its rehearsal hall the Elizabeth Mawson Rehearsal Hall several years ago.
No details were available Sunday on Mawson's final arrangements.

Organizations: Confederation Centre, Toronto Light Opera Association, CBC Eaton Operatic Society United Church Opera Festival Association of Toronto Canadian Opera Company Performing Arts Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Toronto

Geographic location: Green Gables, Charlottetown, Toronto Canada Windsor Burlington Carousel Faust

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