A voice, a fiddle, an oratoress: the life and career of Lesia Zubrack

Photo courtesy of the Bill Smiley Archives Singer Lesia Zubrack was born in Saskatoon, but moved to Prince Albert at the age of two. Her father operated the drug store on Central Avenue seen here in this photo.

Fred Payton
Prince Albert Historical Society

We were sitting around the table, discussing potential topics for our new programme “Coffee and Conversation”. I expect that it was inevitable that the name Jon Vickers came up. Prince Albertans will be familiar with the name, if not from their knowledge of his operatic career, then due to the fact a school in Prince Albert was named for him and other members of his family, including his father William, a local educator.
Jon Vickers was a Canadian tenor who brought a colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity to everything he sang, including legendary portrayals of Wagner’s Tristan, Verdi’s Otello, Beethoven’s Florestan and Britten’s Peter Grimes.
Vickers also inspired another Prince Albertan, Peter McGillivray, a Canadian operatic baritone and winner of the 2003 CBC/Radio-Canada Young Performers Competition. Peter’s father, Angus McGilivray, was at one time the pastor of the local St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, the same church which Vickers attended as a boy. 
However, the name which I had in mind was that of Lesia Zubrack. Born in Saskatoon, Ms. Zubrack moved to Prince Albert with her family in 1933 at the age of two years. It was in this community that, from an early age, she demonstrated her immense musical talent. Already reciting poetry and performing Ukrainian folk songs, she played harmonica and sang on CKBI radio at the age of five. Her soprano voice captured the attention of a talent scout from the United States when she was sixteen years old, but rather than signing the contract proposed, she furthered her education in the Music Department at the University of Saskatchewan, performing in musical operettas such as Lehar’s The Merry Widow. Her academic prowess and musical ability resulted in Zubrack winning a scholarship offered by the College of Music and, at age seventeen, she was accepted into the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, studying under the noted voice teacher, George Lambert.
In 1955, Zubrack won three national singing competitions. In addition to winning the Opportunity Knocks competition, she won the Singing Stars of Tomorrow competition, and the French language network’s Future Etoiles. The Prince Albert Daily Herald printed stories with respect to these latter two competitions, headlining the first “Best Female Singer: Lesia Zubrack Wins Award” and the second “Lesia Wins Another First”. It also ran an editorial on April 5th, 1955, headlined “Congratulations, Miss Zubrak (sp)”.
In the editorial, they noted the “heartwarming news” of her victory, and congratulated her that on “her climb to fame, Miss Zubrak (sp) has not forgotten her hometown”, indicating that “she’s stood steadfastly by Prince Albert”.
Later than year, her home community welcomed Jon Vickers in recital on April 15th and then Lesia Zubrack in the autumn at a concert for which she was noted to have won high praise.
Zubrack later joined the singing cast of Ivan Romanoff’s CBC radio show “Songs of My People”. She merged her creative skills as a musician and writer in 1958 when she became a script writer, researcher, performer, arranger, and administrator for Romanoff’s television series “Rhapsody”. That creative partnership subsequently developed into a personal partnership when the two of them married on Christmas Day, 1961.
Zubrack’s career continued throughout the 1960s until the 1980s, not only as a producer of concerts at the Ontario Place Forum, but as a performer and a writer, penning a radio documentary on the life of Taras Shevchenko, a documentary which she also produced.
As her health declined, Zubrack returned to the city which she had always called home. She died locally in May, 2013.
Somehow, the bit of poetry written about her in the 1945/46 copy of the PACI yearbook, Cynosure, strikes me as a fitting epitaph for Lesia Zubrack.

A voice, a fiddle, an oratoress
Roll them in one and there’s little Less.

As we approach the end of the calendar year, a couple of notes for my readers. First of all, we will be opening over the school holidays and providing some programming for the young and young at heart. On December 21, between 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., we will be providing a session on making felt ornaments. During the same hours, on December 22, we will be doing vintage decoupage, and on December 23 we will be making Christmas ornaments using popsicle sticks. You can drop in, make your craft, and leave whenever it is convenient for you
On December 28 through December 30, we will be highlighting some of the vintage games children used to enjoy, including crokinole, and pick up sticks. Also on December 29, we will have the next installment of “Coffee and Conversation” with a discussion on Christmas in the Downtown.
For more information, and to register for free for “Coffee and Conversation”, please call the Historical Museum at 306-764-2992. You can also check us out on our Facebook page.
Still looking for a few Christmas gifts? Drop by the Historical Museum to see what we have in stock. There are books, jigsaw puzzles, decorated mugs, and numerous other items from which to choose.
And if you are looking to make a charitable donation, we provide receipts for any donation over $20.00. You might make a contribution to our operating fund, our endowment fund, or make a contribution in the name of someone for whom you just don’t know what would be an appropriate gift.
Enjoy your holidays, and stay safe everyone!