Belfast Telegraph

Belfast soprano Heather Harper who became a global star without adopting airs of a diva dies at 88

Obituary

Heather Harper performing with the RTE Symphony Orchestra during the Queen's Festival in Belfast in 1978
Heather Harper performing with the RTE Symphony Orchestra during the Queen's Festival in Belfast in 1978
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Heather Harper, who has died aged 88, was one of the greatest sopranos of her generation who never forgot her Belfast roots.

She was the daughter of an Ulster lawyer, Hugh Harper and his wife Mary, and received her early music training in Belfast.

Her mother's family owned the famous Robb's store in Castle Place.

Heather was one of four children and two of her siblings also became professional musicians.

Her sister Alison was a cellist with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Her brother Ian was principal horn with the Royal Philharmonic, English Chamber, and Royal Opera House Orchestras.

Heather was a committed supporter of the Ulster Orchestra and appeared with the ensemble during its debut appearance at the Henry Wood BBC Proms in 1985 under the direction of then principal conductor, Scotsman Bryden Thomson.

She also gave the world premiere of Malcolm Williamson's song-cycle Next Year in Jerusalem and received much critical acclaim.

The other soloist on that occasion was the internationally-acclaimed Ulster concert pianist Barry Douglas.

Stratton Mills, the first chairman of the enlarged Ulster Orchestra in 1980, knew Heather well.

He said: "We were neighbours on Belfast's Circular Road and I remember in our early teens riding bikes with her in their enormous garden and attending splendid parties.

"When the Ulster Orchestra became independent in 1980 I asked her for help and she was always very supportive.

"The local audiences were always keen to hear the local Belfast girl who had become such an international star.

"I particularly remember her singing the Strauss' Four Last Songs in the Ulster Hall. It was magical."

Heather initially studied piano, violin and viola at the Trinity School of Music in London but branched out as a singer and gained an audition with the BBC as a mezzo-soprano.

She quickly made a huge impression in British music circles and elsewhere as an outstanding soprano, with her Glyndebourne debut in 1957.

Five years later she made her name internationally when she stepped in at short notice to replace Russian Galina Vishnevskaya, who had been detained by the Soviet authorities, in the first performance of Benjamin Britten' s War Requiem.

She performed superbly alongside such international soloists as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peters Pears in Coventry Cathedral, and from then on her international reputation was very much secure.

She sang throughout the world in all the major classics ranging from Verdi's Macbeth to works by Bizet, Wagner, Ravel, Mozart and many others.

She worked with all the great conductors including Solti, Klemperer, and Bohm, and she appeared in all the great opera houses, including those in New York and London.

Heather was also a favourite in Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, where she eventually met her second husband Eduardo Benarroch, a scientist and later music critic, who fell in love with her while she performed on stage.

Eduardo became her business manager and survives her.

Heather's first marriage to Leonard Buck ended in divorce in 1972.

She also lived in London for quite a few years and would frequently return to visit her native Belfast.

Despite her world-wide success as a singer, she had none of the airs and graces often associated with successful performers in the operatic world.

She never lost her Ulster common sense and stood no nonsense from world-class conductors who on occasions tried to impose their views on how she should perform.

She retired from her singing career in 1994.

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