The British soprano Heather Harper CBE, who excelled in works by Britten, Tippett and Strauss, has died at the age of 88.

Heather HarperHeather Harper (1930 – 2019)

Born in Belfast on May 8, 1930, Harper began her singing career as a mezzo in the Ambrosian and BBC choruses. After retraining as a soprano with noted pedagogues Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling, she made her debut as Lady Macbeth for the Oxford University Opera Club in 1954. These performances were critically acclaimed and led to an invitation to sing Violetta in a TV production of La Traviata in 1956 as well as Mimì in La Bohème. That same year saw Harper join the English Opera Group, with whom she would perform for the next two decades, with prominent engagements soon to follow – her Glyndebourne debut came in 1957, and her Covent Garden debut in 1962. She would appear annually with the company from 1963 to 1980, creating the roles of Nadia in Tippett’s The Ice Break and Mrs Coyle in Britten’s Owen Wingrave in her time there. Her final performances with the company was as Ellen Orford in 1981.

In addition to her regular appearances at Covent Garden, Harper performed with companies including San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, La Scala, Milan, the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, and at the Bayreuth Festival.

The soprano was closely associated with the works of Benjamin Britten and can be heard on recording in the roles of Ellen Orford, Helena, Miss Jessel and Female Chorus as well as in Les Illuminations and the War Requiem. Harper is known for having stepped in at 10 days’ notice to replace Galina Vishnevskaya in the world premiere of the Requiem after the Russian soprano was detained by Soviet authorities on her way to the United Kingdom.

The soprano’s repertoire also encompassed Strauss’s Arabella, Britten’s Governess, Gounod’s Marguerite and Mozart’s Countess as well as the Verdi Requiem, the Bach Passions, Delius’s Requiem, and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. She was a noted concert artist and marked her retirement from the stage with Berg’s Altenberg Lieder and Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music at the BBC Proms in 1996.

The soprano was appointed a Commander of the British Empire in 1965 and was given an honorary Doctor of Music from the Queen’s University, Belfast the following year.