The soprano Heather Harper, who died at the age of 88 years, was a native of Belfast and was one of the most respected singers of her generation, gracing the stages of opera houses across the globe during a distinguished career.
She was the daughter of Hugh Harper, a solicitor, and his wife Mary, nee Robb, who were both
keen amateur musicians and was born on May 8, 1930.
The couple encouraged their four children to play the piano from the age of four years and two of Heather Harper’s siblings also went on to become professional musicians: her sister Alison, who was a cellist with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and her brother Ian, principal horn with the Royal Philharmonic and English Chamber orchestras, and that of the Royal Opera House in London.
Heather Harper was a pupil of Beatram Jones in Belfast and had no intention of being a singer,
planning instead to become a concert pianist, which is why she enrolled at Trinity College, London.
Heather studied piano through a scholarship to the Trinity College of Music and she subsequently won another scholarship to study voice, which would ultimately put her on the road to another career. She became a member of the Ambrosian Singers while studying with Helene Isepp (1899-1968), to whom she gave great credit as having formed her as a singer. She also joined the BBC Chorus (now the BBC Singers) and the George Mitchell Singers, with whom she enjoyed performing close harmony arrangements.
Initially singing as a mezzo-soprano, her professional debut came in 1954 singing Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth at the Oxford University Opera Club and this led to her being given the role of Violetta in a 1956 television production of La traviata.
She made her first professional singing appearance in her native city in December 1955 when she appeared in a recital organised in the Whitla Hall by the British Music Society.
At that time her father was retired and living in London and the 25 year-old soprano stayed with her uncle and aunt, Mr and Mrs John Martin of Myrtlefield Park during her visit.
The Belfast Telegraph described her in 1981 as “an outstanding singer and one of Ulster’s most
famous musical exports.” The same article also reflected that she was about to sing at the 87 th season of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, meaning that she would have sung at each Promenade concert over the past 25 years.
The News Letter of June 29, 1956, reported that “Three Ulster artists will have the distinction of taking part in the London Promenade Concerts in August. On August 8, Miss Heather Harper, of Belfast, will sing a recitative and aria by Haydn, and on the 16th Joan and Valerie Trimble (two pianos) will play the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G with the London Symphony Orchestra.”
In November 1956, referring to a concert performance, the News Letter reflected that “Heather
Harper, the Belfast-born soprano, is fast making name for herself as an operatic and concert singer on stage and television”.
Heather Harper would come to more international prominence in 1962 when she stepped in at just ten days’ notice to replace Galina Vishnevskava, who had been detained by the Soviet authorities, in the first performance of Britten’s War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral. Within two days she had the performance note perfect for rehearsal.
Further and acclaimed success followed with performances including A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
Arabella, Carmen, The Magic Flute, King Priam, Elektra, and The Ice Break. She was a member of the English Opera Group from 1956 to 1975, and was a regular guest at the Taetro Colon in Buenos Aires as well as performing at the Bayreuth Festival, Aldeburgh Festival, the San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, making her debut there in 1971.
She had an extensive concert career and in 1985 at the Belfast Last Night of the Proms gave the world premiere of Malcolm Williamson’s song cycle “Next Year in Jerusalem” to international critical acclaim.
Heather Harper retired from her singing career in 1994 and her final performance was at the BBC Proms.
She featured on a number of recordings over the decades from 1957 onwards and won two Grammy
Awards, one for Peter Grimes in 1979 and the second for Songs of Maurice Ravel in 1984. She was awarded the CBE in 1965.
She was married twice, the first to Leonard Buck, her student contemporary who managed her
business affairs, and secondly to the Argentinian scientist and subsequently music critic Eduardo Benarroch in 1973.
Benarroch, who survives her, first met her after travelling to see her in performance in Buenos Aires and the couple corresponded for two years before becoming man and wife.
Heather Harper once said in an interview: “My inspiration comes from the music. In a sense you have to interpret what is there already so there are definite limits. It’s a bit like reading the Bible, the words are already there, so it may be the emphasis that you give them that will change the style.
“In the end a good voice will always come through, depending on who has been able to hear you.
Luck also plays a part. If you are not heard by the right people, success will take a little longer, but you must go to where the work is and you must not be afraid of hard work,” she reflected.