March 2006

A passion for the voice that never wanes


By PATRICIA KELLY


With a passion for piano and a fine technique David Harper planned a career as a concert pianist when he left his native New Zealand in 1967 to continue studies at the Royal College of Music in London.

He had already been acclaimed for his solo performances. But after taking in nine performances in a row of Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden soon after his arrival in London, he became so fascinated with the human voice in full operatic flight, he turned his talents over to working with singers.

In 1972 he joined English National Opera as a repetiteur. Within three years he was able to go solo and quickly built up a thriving studio in London, working as vocal coach and accompanist to stars of opera, extending their powers of singing, interpretation and style.

Singers such as Anne Sofie von Otter and fellow Swede, soprano Miah Persson, Barbara Bonney, Yvonne Kenny and sensational Romanian soprano Nelly Miricioiu who has not only sung guest roles with the Australian Opera, but was named after Australian diva Dame Nellie Melba. Harper has worked with Miricioiu since 1981.

Then there are fellow New Zealanders Paul Whelan and Keith Lewis who both recorded for the HRL Morrison Music Trust with Harper as accompanist, and soprano Deborah Wai Kapohe with whom Harper recorded Spanish songs by Obradors, Guridi, Rodrigo, Granados and Montsalvatge while she was three weeks away from giving birth.

An invitation to do a course on vocal interpretation in Sweden in 1975 led to more work with singers, and to playing harpsichord continuo in opera productions.

Members of the Drottingholm Baroque Ensemble asked him to become the group's harpsichordist which he did for several years, touring Europe and the Far East.

Each year he tries to visit family members in New Zealand and Australia, while filling a full schedule of coaching sessions, vocal workshops and interpretation courses, as he does in Sweden, Holland and the British Isles.

Like William Christie, director of Les Arts Florissants whose work has also been crucial to many star singers, Harper does not claim to be a singing teacher. They are vocal coaches. But unlike Christie, Harper is not afraid to venture into technique if and when it is required by professional singers.

"The people who come to work with me generally realise that although I call myself a vocal coach, they know that I'm also going to approach the work from a technical point of view because that's my slant," Harper said. "We do vocal exercising if I think that's appropriate, or if they want it. If they want to get warmed up in a certain way, and consolidate some technical ideas we're working on, then we do that. Other people just want to get straight into the repertoire.

"With the advantage of coming from a piano background I can play or sightread most scores. The singer can therefore have a pretty reasonable accompaniment to work with and get a good idea of the music and what will happen orchestrally. While doing that we're working through the technical aspects as well. The way the whole voice mechanism works, together with the articulation and pronunciation of different languages, interests me greatly," Harper explains.

"It's important to have an ear for real resonance, to recognise the difference between a sound that resonates with all the right harmonics and one that's just loud because it's being pushed or squeezed. I can generally explain to the singer how to get the voice connected on to the breath and into the resonators through good breath management and attention to linguistic detail. Once the singer has found that connection the sound can become free and the listener is drawn into the energy that the sound creates - true resonance - rather than being ‘sung at’."

Making this happen is not easy. Most people don't realise how tough it is physically, emotionally and psychologically to stand and deliver a consistently good resonant sound while attending to all the other aspects of a performance, Harper says, and he admires singers who can do this "incredibly athletic and effortful thing" and make it seem effortless.

As a member of the British Voice Association, he has carried out research on the mechanisms of the voice, and breathing. It has helped him develop his strength in rehabilitative or enhancement work with professional singers, some of whom may have found themselves in vocal difficulties at times.

Harper's interest in all matters vocal began in his pre-Europe days when he would play for lessons given by the legendary New Zealand teacher Sr Mary Leo, including those given to Kiri Te Kanawa. "That's when I really became interested in working with singers. I had been a boy soprano but once my voice broke I no longer wanted to sing, so I saw this as a way of working with the voice while maintaining my piano accomplishments." The obsession grew after he saw and heard Lucia Popp singing Sophie and Brigitte Fassbaender doing her first Octavian at Covent Garden in 1969. He was intoxicated and bought tickets in the gods for every performance.

Thousands of opera performances later, and working with a great variety of singers too numerous to mention, Harper's passion for the voice is as strong as ever. Travelling between the hemispheres can be wearing and while he does love returning down under to work, London and Europe is where the action is and that is where he will stay as long as his expertise is in demand. Retire? Why would he retire when he loves his work so much? The human voice is ever varied, commanding and challenging. Singers are "delicate creatures and you have to treat them very carefully and respectfully," but Harper relishes helping, fixing, extending, perfecting.

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