An Appreciation of Ezra Schabas

by Lynn on December 24, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Ezra Schabas

Much has been written about the many accomplishments of Ezra Schabas since he passed away Oct. 12, 2020 at 96.

He was an educator, a musician, an author and an administrator, among other things. He was head of the Music and Opera Department of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto; the Principal of the Royal Conservatory of Music; an author of several books; a member of the Order of Canada, a devoted husband to his wife Ann and a proud father of his five accomplished children, and a doting grandfather and great grandfather.

I knew Ezra as my boss. I was his administrative assistant in the Performance and Opera Division of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto in the 1970s. I’d always worked in an educational institution to make my living and pay for my theatre tickets.

I knew nothing really about music when I applied for the job. I tried to hide that lapse and make some points when Ezra interviewed me.  I said that Sterling Beckwith (professor, choral master and head of music at York University) and John Beckwith (composer, pianist, administrator and  professor at the University of Toronto) were related. Ezra was aghast. “No, no, no, no.” He was mortified at the blunder. (I made a mental note to try and keep the bluffing to a minimum in future). He got a pained look of disappointment on his face. He shook his head in disbelief.  I’d blown it. He hired me.

Ezra was charming, irascible, efficient, impatient, funny, quick-witted, very, very smart, full of ideas, did not suffer or endure fools gladly or at all, was difficult and often a pain in the butt. I loved him. He made you try to do better than you thought possible. He challenged me and others. It could be frustrating but when you did hit the mark, what a feeling of accomplishment.

I never saw him let anyone leave his office with a problem to which he didn’t offer two solutions. “Alternatively,” seemed to be his favourite word. First he offered one solution then said, “alternatively, you could try this. “He never wanted to leave anyone with just a “no” answer to a request, etc. I have carried that philosophy with me in my own life. You want to help people with ideas and alternatives to solving a problem and not leave them floundering.

Impatient (yes). Irascible (sigh, yes). Short-tempered (sigh). But always full of remorse when he thought he had gone too far. As sometimes happened, he asked me to do something and I acted on it but the outcome was incorrect. He lost his temper. His head shook in disappointment. So did his jowls. His teeth sort of flashed in frustration (hard to explain; you had to be there). I remember the first time I disappointed him. It was in the morning.  His temper flashed momentarily. I got quiet and went about my work in the outer office. He got quiet in his office; the door was always open. I just wanted to keep out of his way—that’s how to handle such situations.  Then he came out and said, “Slotkin (I think he always called me that, perhaps because I referred to myself that way), wanna go with me to lunch? “  (Me): “Sure.” And all was good. Lunch was often at the Park Plaza Hotel roof restaurant. Classy.

Ezra had a terrific sense of humour. His laugh was short throaty sounds like the “put-put” of a car backfiring. The smile was quick. The reaction was wonderful if he found something you said to be funny.  I worked for him for years and then went to another department. He became the Principal of the Royal Conservatory of Music. Eventually I followed him there until he retired.

I would see Ezra and Ann at the theatre but more often at the opera when I started to go. He was always curious about how I was and how was the reviewing. Over time I didn’t keep in touch as often as I should. When I heard he and Ann moved into a retirement residence I called to see how he was. He was so glad to hear from me—loved that. He invited me and my friend Carolyn Spence (who also worked for Ezra for a time) to come to their place for lunch. We would eat in the dining room of the residence. It was terrific. We did that every month. Ezra and Ann were so appreciative of our company. Their children checked on them all the time, but these friendly lunches gave us all joy. Over time Ezra and Ann would be in wheel chairs.  I would call regularly to see how he was. “Ezra, how are you?” (Him): “Terrible!” Then we would laugh. I could imagine his head and jowls shaking. He was a fighter and lived life completely, but to experience old age gripping you harder and harder must have really pissed him off.  Ezra died on Thanksgiving Day; the irony is fitting.  I’m so grateful I knew him, learned from him, appreciated him and loved him to bits.  

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael Schabas December 24, 2020 at 1:37 pm

Lovely to read this thank you Lynn and best wishes

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2 Sara Schabas March 14, 2021 at 4:17 am

a beautiful tribute, thank you Lynn.
(Ezra’s opera-singing granddaughter, Sara.)

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