Monday December 7 2020
The Britten Pears Archive was delighted to receive in September the papers of Belfast-born soprano Heather Harper. We are pleased to be able to continue adding to our archives during the current pandemic but receiving a substantial new collection at this time was not an easy matter. I arranged to meet the depositor in a Majestic Wine car park in North West London and thankfully arrived at the appointed time. We then moved boxes from the boot of one car to another in a socially distanced fashion. It was a shame not to be able to shake hands, or to chat with the depositor for any length of time, but we look forward to meeting again at The Red House in easier times.
We are very pleased to add Harper’s papers to those held in our collections of other female singers associated with Britten and Pears: those of Nancy Evans, Joan Cross, Rae Woodland and Norma Procter, singers Harper worked with either on stage or teaching at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies (now the artist development programme at our other site at Snape Maltings).
A definite highlight of the collection is Harper’s own published score of War Requiem. Famously she sang in the 1962 premiere, stepping in to replace Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya with just 10 days’ notice. Inside the front cover Harper has listed the first 60 performances she gave of the work following the Coventry Cathedral premiere including first performances in Italy, France and Switzerland as well as performances in Australia. The first page is signed by Britten ‘From a grateful composer, with love’.
Further annotated scores in the collection include Britten’s Quatre Chansons Françaises written as a 14 year old boy in 1928 but not performed in public until 1980 by Harper at the Aldeburgh Festival.
Another Britten related highlight is a page of music manuscript for Peter Grimes given to Harper to celebrate her part in the 1969 film version of the opera, made by the BBC and filmed in Snape Malting Concert Hall. The manuscript is signed by the composer and his accompanying letter praises Harper’s ‘simply superb Ellen’.
Harper took part in other BBC TV operas throughout her career and we find out about some of these, as well as other significant operatic moments, in her wonderful scrapbook. She pasted a wealth of material into this scrapbook – programmes, flyers, press reviews, telegrams and photographs – creating a colourful record of the start of her singing career. The scrapbook begins in 1954 when she sang Lady Macbeth in Oxford University’s Opera Club’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth, an opera which had only recently been revived at Glyndebourne. Next, press reviews report on Harper’s lead role as Violetta in BBC TV’s production of La Traviata in 1955. In the same year Harper sang Euridice in the first ever performance of Haydn’s Orfeo ed Euridice in the UK – 164 years after it was composed – at the St Pancras Festival. Then in 1956 Harper created the role of Luisita in Arthur Benjamin’s Mañana – BBC TV’s first TV opera commission.
Numerous programmes in the collection record her successful career, singing around the world, both in the concert hall and on the operatic stage, up until her retirement in 1991, performing with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors and in the major houses, including Bayreuth, Sydney, Glyndebourne and Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. The opera programmes include one for her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1977 as Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro conducted by Steuart Bedford. Also, for the premiere of Michael Tippett’s The Ice Break at London’s Royal Opera House in 1977 produced by Sam Wanamaker with Harper creating the role of Nadia.
There are many programmes for her performances at the ROH, throughout the 1970s – singing many a lead role in Strauss operas – and up until 1981 when she gave her farewell performance reviving her role as Ellen Orford.
The collection includes numerous programmes for Harper’s appearances at the BBC Proms from her first in 1956 up until 1994 when she came out of retirement to sing at the Henry Wood Proms 100th anniversary concerts. One notable performance was the premiere of Malcolm Williamson’s Next Year in Jerusalem at the 1985 Proms.
Harper’s photographs deposited with us include production photographs showing her on stage in many major roles as well as wonderful portraits taken by leading portrait photographers of the time including Clive Barda, Lotte Meitner-Graf, Mayotte Magnus and Angus McBean.
Award certificates in the collection illustrate her successful recording career including those for Best Mahler Recording from the Gustav Mahler Society two years running (Symphony no.8 with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1972 and Das Klagende Lied with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam in 1973) as well as for a 1979 Grammy Award for the Royal Opera House recording of Peter Grimes.
We look forward to cataloguing this wealth of material and making it available to researchers and visitors to The Red House.