Heather Harper obituary

One of the great sopranos of her generation who was particularly associated with Benjamin Britten
Heather Harper leaving after a performance at Covent Garden, London, in 1967.
Heather Harper leaving after a performance at Covent Garden, London, in 1967. Photograph: ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

The soprano Heather Harper, who has died aged 88, was one of the best loved and most respected singers of her generation. She graced the concert and opera stages of the world in roles that ranged from Ellen Orford in Britten’s Peter Grimes – where her sympathy for the character drew a near-definitive portrayal – to the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier.

She came to international prominence in 1962 when she stepped in at 10 days’ notice to replace Galina Vishnevskaya, who had been detained by the Soviet authorities, in the first performance of Britten’s War Requiem alongside Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Pears in Coventry Cathedral. Despite her confident performance, which contributed significantly to the work’s immediate success, it was nearly 30 years before she had the opportunity to record it, under Richard Hickox.

She was frequently invited to the Aldeburgh festival, singing and recording several roles in Britten operas – she created Mrs Coyle in the television opera Owen Wingrave (1970) and was acclaimed for her Governess in The Turn of the Screw for the English Opera Group (1972). In fact so regular a visitor was she to the festival that she bought a house there, without ever wishing to become part of the composer’s inner circle.

She appeared at the Bayreuth festival as Elsa in Lohengrin (1967-68), conducted by Rudolf Kempe, one of her favourite conductors, being described by one critic as a “shining, beautiful heroine”, well suited to the role. Because of the indisposition of Sándor Kónya, she sang opposite five different Lohengrins, guiding them through the production.

On the concert platform she was a regular and highly regarded participant in oratorios by Handel and Haydn, the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, Britten’s Les Illuminations and Our Hunting Fathers, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, the Delius Requiem and works by Vaughan Williams and others. In 1972 she was the soprano soloist in the premiere of Tippett’s Third Symphony.

Born in Belfast, Heather was the daughter of Hugh, a lawyer, and his wife, Mary (nee Robb), who were keen amateur musicians and encouraged all four of their children to play the piano from the age of four. Two of her siblings also went on to become professional musicians: her sister, Alison, who was a cellist with the City of Birming- ham Symphony Orchestra, and her brother, Ian, who was principal horn with the Royal Philharmonic and English Chamber orchestras, and that of the Royal Opera House.

Heather Harper rehearsing in the early 1960s.
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Heather Harper rehearsing in the early 1960s. Photograph: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Heather won a piano scholarship to the Trinity School of Music in London and also studied violin and viola there. When the opportunity to take up singing presented itself, she won a second scholarship a year later.

She then became a member of the Ambrosian Singers while studying with Helene Isepp, whom she credited as having formed her as a singer. At this time she also joined the BBC Chorus (now the BBC Singers) and the George Mitchell Singers, with whom she enjoyed performing close harmony arrangements. It was characteristic of her resourcefulness and determination that there being no places for soprano at the time, she had auditioned successfully for the BBC as a mezzo-soprano.

In the early days, however, her bright, flexible coloratura was essentially that of a soprano, though one with more variety of tone colour than that of the minimal-vibrato early music sopranos of the generation shortly to spring up.

In Rejoice Greatly from Messiah, for example, she exhibited a suitably joyous radiance as well as a virtuoso command of the semiquaver runs. In later years, as the development of her voice equipped her for roles in Wagner and Strauss operas, she accepted less work in the Baroque and coloratura repertoires.

Her career was launched when Isepp recommended her to Jack Westrup for his Oxford University Opera Club production of Verdi’s Macbeth in 1954. Her performances in the role of Lady Macbeth were critically acclaimed and led to an invitation to sing Violetta in La Traviata in a TV production in 1956 as well as Mimì in La Bohème. After that she appeared frequently on TV, the high point being Owen Wingrave.

In 1960 came the first British staged performance of Schoen- berg’s Erwartung with the New Opera Company. To the role of the Solitary Woman in that production she brought a lyric rather than the conventional dramatic soprano quality, interpreting the part as a personal tragedy that the audience was allowed to witness, as opposed to a stridently projected melodrama.

Her Glyndebourne debut came as the First Lady in The Magic Flute (1957) – returning there as Anne Trulove in The Rake’s Progress in 1963 – and her Covent Garden debut as Helena in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962). In 1965 she was appointed CBE. She returned to the Royal Opera in such roles as Micaela (Carmen), Gutrune (Götterdämmerung), Eva (Die Meistersinger), Antonia (Les Contes d’Hoffmann) and as Blanche in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.

It was a matter for regret, not least to Harper herself, that she was never invited to sing the Marschallin in London, a role for which she was ideally suited both vocally and temperamentally. She did, however, sing it with great success at the Metropolitan, New York, in Toronto and Amsterdam. She was also a favourite at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

To Ravel’s Shéhérazade, recorded with Boulez, she brought a lithe, sensual tone, while her radiant, molto legato delivery was ideal for the soaring phrases of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Her empathy for Strauss’s long lines held her in good stead also in such roles as the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariadne, Chrysothemis and Arabella.

Technically self-confident and with a sharp intellect, she was forthright with colleagues and could be merciless with pupils. Unafraid of tyrannical maestros, she gave as good as she got with the likes of Karl Böhm or Georg Solti. As a composer, Otto Klemperer dedicated a series of lieder to her.

Her first husband, Leonard Buck, her student contemporary, managed her business affairs. They divorced in 1972. The following year she married the Argentinian scientist and later music critic Eduardo Benarroch, who survives her.

Heather Mary Harper, soprano, born 8 May 1930; died 22 April 2019