Soprano / Mezzo - Soprano  Kathryn  Harries

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



After studying for five years at the Royal Academy of Music and London University, in 1974 Kathryn Harries embarked upon a successful solo career as a recitalist and concert artist. Between 1977 and 1983 she presented the award-winning program Music Time for BBC One Television, and made her operatic debut in 1983 at Welsh National Opera as a Flower Maiden in Parsifal and as Leonore in Fidelio. Her repertoire comprises more than sixty roles including Kostelnička (Jenůfa), Kundry (Parsifal), Sieglinde (The Valkyrie), Gutrune, (Götterdämerung), Brangäne (Tristan und Isolde), Emilia Marty (Die Sache Makropulos), Didon (Les Troyens), Marie (Wozzeck), Carmen (Carmen), Judith (Bluebeard’s Castle), Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni), and Countess Geschwitz (Lulu).

She has performed at all the leading British opera venues including the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, the Edinburgh Festival, and Glyndebourne Festival, as well as at major houses in the USA (Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera and Los Angeles), and in Europe (the Palais Garnier, Chatelet and Bastille, Paris; Lyons; St. Etienne; Orange; Hamburg; Stuttgart; Berlin; Amsterdam; Genoa; Rome; Bilbao; Oviedo; Liège; Salzburg; Bochum.).

Harries is highly active as a concert singer, performing with the English Northern Philharmonia, the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, as well as in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the BBC Proms, in Bremen and Lucerne with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Among performances of the recent past are Kostelnička (Jenůfa), Mrs. Sedley (Peter Grimes), Massenet's Herodiade, Kabanicha (Katya Kabanova), Valerie von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), Stolzius's Mother (Die Soldaten), Mrs. Grose (The Turn of the Screw), the Old Lady (Candide) and Emilia Marty (The Makropoulos Case). 

Kathryn Harries was appointed Director of the National Opera Studio in London in 2009 and she is gaining an international reputation as a voice teacher and coach. She is vocal consultant for the new NI Opera in Northern Ireland and she regularly gives master classes in the UK and abroad. Kathryn was appointed senior judge for the Lexus Song Quest in New Zealand in 2014 and recently returned from Auckland, where she was chief vocal coach for the inaugural Kiri Programme. 

Kathryn has been a supporter of a wide variety of charities since 1977 and she has organised and sung at hundreds of concerts, raising over £400,000. Kathryn is also a keen long-distance walker and, in 2001, she walked from John O’Groats to Land’s End for Speakability, raising £86,000. In 2006, she created the Opera Walk to raise funds for the ENO and WNO Benevolent Funds and walked from London to Cardiff, Cardiff to Leeds and then back to London. Her annual walk takes place in London for the charity, Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY).


==  Adapted from the biography on the Opera Prelude website  


harries I had the chance to speak with Kathryn Harries during her first visit to Chicago early in 1994, for Marie in Wozzeck [shown in photo at right, with Franz Grundheber in the title role, and Thomas Edward McGunn as their son].  We talked of her roles, her life, and the advice she had for both professionals and audiences.

The conversation was published in The Opera Journal in 1996, and has been slightly re-edited for this website presentation.

Here is much of what was said at that time . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Looking at your range of repertoire
the high and the low, the old and the newwe can’t put you in any kind of pigeonhole at all.  Is that a good thing?

Kathryn Harries:   I think it’s quite interesting, but I don’t know if it’s a good thing, or a bad thing.  Some people find it quite difficult to know what I can do, and other people are prepared to give me a chance with all sorts of things.

BD:   How do you decide if you will sing or not sing any role that is offered?

Harries:   If it fits, and only if it fits.  If it definitely doesn’t fit, I certainly won’t do it at all.   There are plenty of things for me.  I was shopping the other day at a music shop here in Chicago, and there’s a new book out that gives arias for different voices, and you’ll see a list of the Fachs (categories).  It was funny because I could look through four categories and sing things from each one!  But then there were loads of other things that I couldn’t sing because they don’t quite fit.  It is a question undoubtedly of the tessitura
(where the piece lies).  There can be high notes, even a lot of high noteslike for Marie in Berg’s Wozzeckbut there are also a lot of low notes, and where it lies a lot of the time is comfortably in the middle.  That just makes it possible.  There are other roles that I can’t believe I did eleven years ago when I started in opera.  I sang a part in Gounod’s La Colombe which goes up to a high E!   It’s very florid, and has just four characters, and it was great.  But I look at it now, and know I’ll not do it again.

BD:   But it was okay for you at the time?

Harries:   It was fine.  [Laughs]  I didn’t know any better.  I wasn’t the ideal voice for it, but I could do it.

BD:   What kind of label do you put on yourself, if any?

Harries:   People always do, or at least they try.  The Germans would say I’m in between the categories, so that does mean, from my point of view, that I can do a lot of very interesting roles.

BD:   You’re not just between two categories, but rather between several.

Harries:   Exactly!  I try to think of other people who are like it.  Christa Ludwig sang a lot of quite high parts, including Leonora in Fidelio, but I am higher than she is.  Leonie Rysanek has recorded Kundry in Parsifal, and she is probably higher than I am.  I’m just... um... unique!

BD:   Is it more than just range?  Is it also the color and quality of the voice?

Harries:   Probably.  Being on the inside, I hear the voice differently from how other people hear it.  I don’t know that it sounds so different from others.  People tell me they can recognize me from other voices, so I suppose it must be.  I hope it’s different, and not worse.  There are certain roles that bring out the color of anybody’s voice to the greatest advantage.  For me, those include Dido in The Trojans, which I feel fits quite comfortably, like a comfortable coat.  There are things for me to work on, but they have no real problems.  The color is right, and I enjoy singing in French very much.  I enjoy Kundry, and I’ve got the right color for it, I think.  I enjoyed Sieglinde, and I enjoy Marie.  There are other roles I’ve done quite well where I wasn’t the conventional type of voice.


The conductor of this Fidelio was Richard Hickox, and the director was Graham Vick.
See my interviews with Gwynne Howell, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson.

BD:   These considerations are about range and color.  Do you also think about the characterization?

Harries:   The first consideration is the tessitura.  Then, if I agree it is okay to sing, then the deciding factor would very definitely be the character, and what she was like.  If she was dull, I wouldn’t do it.  I might do it in a concert, but I don’t enjoy doing dull characters, really.  But you can usually find something in most roles.  The characters, actually, are mostly very interesting.  I’m studying Brangäne at the moment, and my singing teacher asked why I would do that boring role.  But I don’t think it will be boring, and since the music is fantastic, I’ll find out.  Of course, if it really fits you well vocally, you can do so much more with it.  Wagner’s text is interesting.  If you have a boring text, then it’s much more difficult to make it work.

BD:   Is this Brangäne any possible springboard to Isolde?

Harries:   I haven’t really thought about it.  I came late into opera
I was thirty-twoand I’ve learned a lot of roles.  I’d like to repeat a few of those I’ve learned.  I’ve done about thirty big roles, and can’t wait to repeat some of them.  I’ve done Dido a few times, and also Sieglinde, and Senta.  [Brightening to the idea of Senta]  There’s one you’d think wouldn’t fit at all in my voice, but it’s fine.   There are a lot of high notes, but the color is right for me, plus it’s very lyrical and not heavy.  It’s awkwardly written, and sits right in the cracks.  Maybe that’s why it fits me.

BD:   Plus, it’s not a particularly long role when compared to Isolde, or Brünnhilde.

Harries:   Those are gigantic.  A very good friend of mine, Anne Evans, has been doing them at Bayreuth.  I was involved in her first Ring at Welsh National Opera.  She did Brünnhilde and I did Sieglinde, and it was great to see her do it and develop it.  She will be the Isolde when I do Brangäne.  It will be terrific, and I shall learn a great deal from her about style, and the use of the language.  I’m looking forward to it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You date your career from eleven years ago.  What was before that?

harries Harries:   I studied as a singer and as a pianist, and did a teacher’s course at the Royal Academy of Music, and earned my living teaching piano and singing.  I taught lots and lots of little children.  It was great fun, and I loved it.  Subsequently, I did a television program on the BBC, teaching music for children, and I’ve often thought all that teaching was really performing.  It’s all about communicating.  Now being on the stage is just a different version of the same thing.

BD:   A natural progression?

Harries:   It is, really.  If you can communicate, I don’t think acting is so difficult.  All you have to do is look around you to see what happens in real life, and have a bit of imagination to know what to do in those circumstances.  You learn by experience what works and doesn’t work in the theater.  You learn not only how to do things, but also how not to do things.

BD:   When you go out onstage, do you portray the character or do you actually become that character?

Harries:   It’s a bit of both.  You can’t become a character to the exclusion of all else, because if you did, you wouldn’t be detached enough to be in charge of your singing.  You can’t cry and sing!  You can get close to it.  You can cry in between the bits, but you can’t sing with a lump in your throat.  During rehearsals, you go further in your exploration of a character than you can do on the stage.  You can let yourself go in rehearsal, then assimilate it, and come back to the point where everything you’ve assimilated is portrayed.

BD:   Does the director know this?

Harries:   [Laughs]  Depends on the director!  Some are good, some are less good, and some are brilliant.  Some stretch you beyond what you thought you were capable of, and others are quite happy to accept what you offer, and not try to get anything more out of you.

BD:   But if you go a bit too far in an early rehearsal, might he not expect that from then on?

Harries:   A good director will know that it’s a little too much, or you can discuss it.  It’s a two-way thing working with a director.  I enjoy rehearsing and finding out about these characters, and then working with a conductor and finding out how everything works with the music.  It’s a very privileged life.

BD:   Do you get enough rehearsal for each run of performances?

Harries:   No, not really.  There are two extremes.  There are the nine-week rehearsal periods which are sometimes necessary for a very difficult modern piece, or for The Trojans, which is really two operas at once.  Then there are instances where you go from Israel, where it was very warm and where I sang Kostelnička
which is very highto Brussels, where it was cold for Carmen with just six days’ rehearsal.  I felt a bit spaced out during the entire time, not believing I would do it at the end of the week.  But it was fine, even with the tremendous drop in temperature, and going from a high part to a very low one.

BD:   With all the travel, how are you able to combine a career with a marriage and a family?

Harries:   I’m very lucky.  I’ve got a fantastic husband, and the children are wonderful.  My son is twelve and my daughter is fourteen.  I’ve been away a lot of their childhood, but they come to visit me on their holidays.  For the last few years they’ve been at boarding school, so they don’t see my coming and going, and I don’t disrupt their routine.  We gave them the option, but they wanted to be with their friends during the week and see us at the weekends.  They came to Israel, and they’re coming to Chicago next week.  They’ve been to New York, Holland, France
all over.

BD:   Do they like seeing Mummy on the stage?

Harries:   They think it’s frightfully boring, actually.  [Laughs]  No, to them it’s interesting sometimes, and terribly funny a lot of the time.  They will think Marie is hilarious because it’s Mummy trying to be sexy again.  There’s nothing funnier than Mummy being sexy, except Mummy being really cross, which they’re used to!  [Laughs]  They were in hysterics when they saw Kostelnička giving black looks to Jenůfa, throwing chairs and tables all about.  No, the children are very good, and they’re good critics, too!

BD:   Do you feel that if you’ve satisfied them you’ve really succeeded?

Harries:   Very often, yes.  They have got very well-developed aural perception.  They are also aware of what works on stage and what doesn’t.  So, if I do something that doesn’t work, they’ll tell me.


BD:   Are you encouraging them to get into music, or desperately trying to keep them away from it?

Harries:   Neither.  If either wants to pursue a career in music, I’ll give them all the help they want, but I’ll do that whatever careers they choose.  And if they change their minds after they’ve tried something, that’s fine, too.  Success isn’t always success in worldly terms.  Peace of mind and being creative are so important, even more than doing what your parents want you to do.  By giving them the best education possible, we feel they’ll be equipped to try whatever they want and do their best.  They work hard at what they like, and you can’t ask more than that.

BD:   Were your parents supportive of your decision to go into music?

Harries:   Yes, they were great.  My family are Welsh, so there was a lot of music always about.  I started singing when I was three or four.  They were wonderful parents, and a great example to me as to how to conduct myself as a parent... very loving, very supportive, very encouraging.  They didn’t push me into it, but made it possible for me to do all I’ve done.

BD:   Are there any operatic characters that you portray which are perilously close to the real you?

Harries:   There are bits of me in everything.  The great characters in the operas are great because they have lots of facets of our own characters in them, and your interpretation means you put a lot of yourself into the characters.  So how I play Carmen, or Kundry, or Dido will be different from anybody else, which means you can have a thousand singers singing the same thing and they’re all different.  A lot of me goes into every role, and it’s just a question of putting the emphasis on this or that facet.  Whether it’s being sexy, or sensual, or being trapped by circumstances, I can understand how the character would feel in those situations.  It’s a lot of imagination, and I’ve had enormous amount of fun exploring these characters.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do you feel about singing opera in translation?

Harries:   If it’s going along at speech-speed, and you haven’t got surtitles, then I think it’s very often a good idea to do it in the language of the audience.  They do that a lot in Germany, and, of course, at English National Opera, and Opera North.  We did the Ring in English with Welsh National Opera, and when we brought it to Covent Garden, and a lot of people who’d been to the Ring several times in their lives, said they really enjoyed it because they could understand and really take in what was happening at that moment.  Having said that, I personally prefer to sing in the original because the composer has set his own language better than any translations, even though there are some very, very good ones.  It comes back to communicating to make the audience get the whole picture.  It’s very tedious not to understand what’s going on.


BD:   In opera, how much is music and how much is drama?

Harries:   For me, the music must be the most important, but the drama is only a hair’s breath away.  Even in the most conventional pieces, audiences have come to expect a good standard of acting, so they are drawn into the drama.  In a really good opera, the drama and the music are almost inseparable because they are so intertwined.  They all sort of muddle together, really.  I feel that if you work from the text, and work from the music, the drama evolves, and the characterization seems to come out of nowhere and grows.  I don’t really have to think a great deal about it.  It just sort of happens.

BD:   Let me ask another balance question.  How much is art and how much is entertainment?

Harries:   That assumes they are not the same thing.  Coming back to communication, you do your artistic best, but if it fails to communicate, you’ve failed.  The word
entertainment has rather light connotations to it.  You might say going to the cinema is entertainment, but what about Schindler’s List?  That’s very like the effect Wozzeck can have on people.  The balance changes when it demands more or less of the audience.  As in the nature of life, some experiences are purely pleasurable and entertaining, others are terribly moving, and still others that are quite ghastly, and art does mirror all that.  Each piece has its own life, and its own character, and will have a different effect on the audience.  Each person receives it differently, too.  There are people who love Wozzeck, and people who can’t wait to get out of the theater.  I can understand that, because when I first heard it, I felt it was a kind of assault.  It hits you, and you can’t fathom it out when you hear it for the first time.  I remember the effect of that very clearly.  Gradually, as I started working on it, I heard more and more and more.  I know that it’s a piece which, to the end of my days, I’ll discover more and more in it each time I hear it.

BD:   Is this what makes a certain piece of music great
that you can keep digging and keeping finding ideas?

Harries:   I think it is.  That’s why Wagner is so compelling.  You might say Bellini’s Norma can be taken in quite easily on a first hearing, but I find it also a great piece.

BD:   Perhaps that’s dependent on how it’s done.

Harries:   I think you’re right.  The pieces make different demands.  For a work like Norma, you have to have great singing, and you can get away with slightly less great acting.  In Wozzeck, if you had a great singing and bad acting, it would be a waste of time.  This brings back your balance question, and you see the balance shifts.

BD:   Do you change your acting style at all for a small theater, or a very large theater?

Harries:   I leave that to the director, because the director can tell you whether something read, or whether it doesn’t.  This is a big theater here in Chicago.

Kathryn Harries at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1993-94  Wozzeck (Marie) with Grundheber, Kaasch, Clark, Bailey, Svendén; R. Buckley, Alden, Schuler, Palumbo

1996-97  Un Re in Ascolto [Berio] (Protagonist) with Lafont, Desderi, Woods, Begley; Davies, Vick, Tallchief

Jenůfa (Kostelnička) with Racette, Smith, Denniston; Davis, Jones

2004-05  A Wedding [Bolcom] (Nettie and Aunt Bea) with Malfitano, Hadley, Gardner, Doss, Flannigan, Lawrence, Cangelosi; Davies, Altman

harries BD:   It’s 3,600 seats, and the Met has 4,000.

Harries:   Yet the Met feels smaller, because the balconies are nearer to the stage.  This theater gives the impression of a much bigger space.

BD:   Do you change your vocal technique for the size of the house?

Harries:   No.  You might have to sing louder, but the fundamental technique remains the same.  Volume is just a matter of more or less energy, and you can’t sing any louder than you can sing.  You can’t defeat an orchestra.  You can, however, push too hard and make a dreadful mess of things.  [Laughs]

BD:   So you have to know exactly how much to give to be as loud as you can without forcing?

Harries:   Yes, and that comes with experience.  In a small theater, such as is common on Europe, you can happily sing upstage, or into the wings, or anywhere but out, and still be heard.  In this piece, I’m several times required to sing a B-flat with one or another gentleman on top of me, and I have to be in a position to sing out.  In the Bible scene, I’m sitting parallel to the sage and singing across.  It’s only when I come forward that the sound practically doubles.  But that’s how the director wanted it, so I can’t do much about that.

BD:   Let me assure you, it all comes out.

Harries:   Oh, good!  That’s a relief.  You get a feel for a theater quite quickly, as to how much you have to give and how little you can get away with.  You have the team of people whose ears you can trust, sitting out in the house during rehearsal, telling everyone what the balance has become.  I did make a mistake about ten years ago by taking the direction too literally, and being too lyrical and sweet, and was criticized for not being loud enough.  Then, of course, I made it too loud, but by the third performance I got it right.

BD:   Would you like the critics to come to a later performance, rather than always the opening?

Harries:   [Smiles]  Well, everyone is somewhat of a critic.  It’s just that some have papers to write in, and have the power to make or break a show... although that’s really more for West End or Broadway shows, and not so much in opera.  I’ve had plenty of bad reviews, and I’m still working.  I’ve had plenty of good reviews, too.  I am a very honest performer.  That is to say, I’m very revealing about what I do, and am prepared to take risks.  A lot of people really love it, and other people really hate and detest it, because it’s disturbing.  It isn’t comfortable.  Some people jolly well come to the opera to let the music wash over them and sort of doze.  When something hits them between the eyes, they don’t really like it.  It’s a matter of taste.  I don’t like everybody I hear or see in any walk of life, so I can’t expect everybody to think I’m the bees’ knees either!

BD:   Ultimately, I assume, you have to please yourself and let it go at that?

Harries:   Yes, pleasing yourself, and pleasing the people that you work for.  You be a good colleague, do the best by the music, and use all your resources to your greatest ability, to the limits of your ability, and if you’re honest about your work, then hopefully you continue to work.   Everything in its own time.  If it happens, it happens.  My husband was made redundant, so I am the breadwinner these days.  He looks after the house, and is fixing it up with a lovely music room which will eventually hold small concerts for fifty to sixty people.  But as long as I can do good work, pay the mortgage and score fees, get the children through university and keep my horses, then I don’t mind.  You have to be open and accept things if they do happen, but this goes back to the discussion of success.  To a lot of people, I’m very successful.  There are many people who are much more successful in worldly terms than I am, but I’m successful for me, and I still enjoying working.   It
s a matter of attitude.  Its a privilege to be paid to go to exciting places.  I enjoy traveling and meeting people.  I’m very, very lucky.






© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 7, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 2000.  This transcription was made in 1996, and published in The Opera Journal in March of that year.  In 2020 it was slightlly re-edited, the photos and boxes were added, and it was posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.