Heather Harper, beloved soprano and Britten interpreter, dies at 88

Heather Harper, a Northern Irish-born soprano who was beloved for decades for her radiant voice and musical sensitivity in repertory ranging from Baroque to contemporary music, and who was a notable interpreter of the music of Benjamin Britten, died Sunday at her home in London. She was 88.

Heather Harper, beloved soprano and Britten interpreter, dies at 88

Her death was confirmed by her former husband, Eduardo Benarroch.

An unanticipated performance in 1962 brought Harper international attention when, on 10 days’ notice, she substituted for Galina Vishnevskaya in the premiere of Britten’s “War Requiem.” The work was written to dedicate the new Coventry Cathedral in England, the original 14th-century structure having been bombed into ruin during World War II.

As a gesture of reconciliation, Britten, a pacifist, had intended the soloists to be tenor Peter Pears (an Englishman), baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a German) and Vishnevskaya (a Russian). But the Soviet government refused to allow Vishnevskaya to travel to Coventry for the premiere. Harper, just turned 32, took her place and triumphed.

In a letter to a friend after the performance, Britten wrote that “dear Heather Harper did splendidly,” adding, “Weren’t the two chaps marvelous?”

In her earlier years, Harper’s plush sound, focused tone and technical agility made her ideal for lighter, lyric repertory. Yet the penetrating richness of her voice took her into weightier roles, like Richard Strauss’ “Arabella” and Wagner’s Elsa in “Lohengrin,” a part she sang at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany under conductor Rudolf Kempe, a favorite colleague.

Reviewing her performance of Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” at Carnegie Hall in 1969 with Kempe conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The New York Times critic Donal Henahan wrote that Harper’s reading was “an ennobling one, suffused with dignity and serenity” and “touched with autumnal sadness.”

Her voice, he added, “produced the Straussian outpourings effortlessly.”

Helena, the young Athenian lover in Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” was the role of Harper’s debut at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in 1962. Britten later chose her as Mrs. Coyle, the warmhearted tutor’s wife, for the premiere of his opera “Owen Wingrave,” written for television and first broadcast in 1971. She later recorded both operas with Britten conducting.

Her most notable Britten role was Ellen, the good-hearted schoolmistress in “Peter Grimes,” in an acclaimed 1969 BBC production with Pears in the title role, which he had created 24 years earlier. It was conducted by Britten and staged by Joan Cross.

Harper later performed and recorded the role with Jon Vickers, who brought smoldering intensity to his portrayal of Grimes, with Colin Davis conducting the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera.

Ellen was also one of two roles she sang at the Metropolitan Opera in 1977 during her only season with the company. Yet she also brought shimmering sound and tenderness to works like Handel’s “Messiah,” which she recorded in 1966 in a classic version with Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Heather Mary Harper was born May 8, 1930, in Belfast. Her father, Hugh, a lawyer, and her mother, Mary, were avid musical amateurs who encouraged their four children to play the piano and study music. Two others became professional musicians: Alison, a cellist who played with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Ian, who was principal horn with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

None of her siblings survive her. Harper’s first marriage, to Leonard Black, who managed her business affairs, ended in divorce in 1972. She married Benarroch, an Argentine scientist, the next year. He became a music critic after Harper retired and remained close with her even after their divorce. No immediate family members survive her.

With a piano scholarship in hand, Harper attended the Trinity School of Music in London, where she also studied violin and viola. While there she joined the Ambrosian Singers and studied voice with Helene Isepp, who encouraged her to focus on singing.

Harper’s stage debut in opera came in 1954 with the Oxford University Opera Club in an unlikely role: the fierce Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s “Macbeth,” a punishing part. From that point on her career progressed steadily, with appearances at Covent Garden, the Glyndebourne Festival and major houses in Amsterdam, Toronto, Buenos Aires and elsewhere.

Important British composer Michael Tippett chose Harper to sing the soprano solo part in the premiere of his sprawling Symphony No. 3 under Davis at Royal Festival Hall in 1972. He also had her create the role of Nadia, wife of an exiled Russian poet, in “The Ice Break,” which had its premiere at Covent Garden in 1977, with Davis conducting.

Harper, a woman of good cheer and dedication, became a favorite of tempestuous conductor George Solti, who brought her to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for several major performances during the late 1960s and 1970s, including Haydn’s “The Creation” and Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony.

She was a soloist in Solti’s milestone recording of Mahler’s epic Eighth Symphony, also with the Chicago Symphony, in Vienna; it won three Grammy Awards in 1972.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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