January 24, 2011

Margaret Harshaw: Low to High

She was considered a teacher of teachers, and one of the last touchstones to the school of Manuel Garcia and his sister Pauline Viardot-Garcia, having studied with their student Anna E. Schoen-René at The Juilliard School in the 1930's.

Margaret Harshaw sang more Wagner roles than anyone in history as a result of having moved from Mezzo-Soprano to Dramatic-Soprano. She made her debut in 1942 as the third Norn in Wagner's Ring, and sang Contralto/Mezzo-Soprano parts until 1951 when she went on for an indisposed colleague as Senta. The change in repertoire was foreshadowed in a NYTimes review of a 1939 Juilliard School production of Dido and Aeneas.

The outstanding work of the evening among the singers was done by Margaret Harshaw as Dido. She has a voice, not only of immense potentialities, but one whose achievement is here and now. It is a mezzo-soprano of rich substance and velvety texture, with an extensive range; in fact, the middle and top tones have the impact of a dramatic soprano. More important, Miss Harshaw has musical instinct, and she sang the role of Dido with a nobility of line and a wealth of feeling that were well beyond the realm of student work.

The reviewer, Howard Taubman, was not alone is his assessment. The great conductor Walter Damrosch heard her the same night and startled the young singer after the performance by prophesying that she would later sing Wagner's Brünnhilde. The great pedagogue had her own thoughts on the matter which were documented in an interview with Bruce Duffie in 1994 (see the whole interview here).






BD:    You had a long and distinguished career, starting as a mezzo soprano and then moving to soprano.  Why did you decide, or was it imposed upon you, to move from the mezzo range to the soprano range?

MH:    Oh, my voice decided that!

BD:    Completely?

MH:    Completely.  I never was a mezzo.


*  *  *  *  *  * 


BD:    You started your career singing mezzo roles, but you say you never really were a mezzo?

MH:    No, I never really was.  I came along at a time when there were some fantastic mezzos, but they were getting tired.  I had a high voice, which was easy for me, and it was never noticed that I probably didn’t have that other thing that many of them do on the bottom, which is an open chest sound.  I had the height and the middle, and of course a solid sound, so I moved into those roles and then through Ortrud and Brangane.  That was the process that led right on.

BD:    Did you know even when you were singing traditional mezzo roles like Amneris that you would eventually be singing Aïda?

MH:    Yes.  Oh, yes, I knew that almost to the year, because Schoen-René told me.  She said, “Somewhere between thirty-eight and forty, you will probably move into that area.”  And it was just around those years. 


One of those fantastic mezzos was Karin Branzell, who also studied with Schoen-René, and sang at the Met until 1944. It has been reported to this writer that she was not as enthusiastic as others about Harshaw's steep climb to Valhalla. Was this because she made occasional forays into the heights herself, and knew the difficulties and potential cost involved? Whatever the case, it should be noted that Harshaw made the change without the assistance of Schoen-René, who died the same year that Harshaw made her Met debut.

Interestingly, quite a few recordings of Harshaw are now available on Utube.  I've grouped them into two categories below so you can make your own comparison.






Mezzo-Soprano












Dramatic Soprano







I would have liked to post more Soprano offerings, but the three above at least give the listener some idea of the difference between Harshaw's singing as a Mezzo and a Soprano. My own thoughts on the matter? Harshaw's Soprano voice is astonishing in its projection and authority, but too often lacks the velvety quality that is evident in the Mezzo recordings (the '59 Ortrud/Lohengrin might be considered the exception since it came well after the her soprano career had begun). However, this listener hears this earlier quality in the umlauted vowels- an interesting matter, no?

There is one recording which isn't present here which is perhaps the most telling. And that is a performance of Tristan und Isolde ('46).  Harshaw sings Brangäne to Helen Traubel's Isolde (Kirsten Flagstad's successor), and there are times when it is hard to tell the two voices apart- they are equally opulent and share the same character. Was this the quality Schoen-René hoped her pupil would have when she reached the heights?

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing with us your interest in Margaret Harshaw. I would like to call your attention to one small but important point. You write that she "made the change" and Miss Harshaw states that she "moved into that area". She often made the point to me, that she never "changed" anything, but sang higher mezzo roles and then moved slowly into the dramatic soprano repertoire. This is an important point for all those voice teachers and singers out there.

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  2. HI Alan. Thank you for your comment. The 'change' I was referring was the matter of repertoire which is clearly stated in my second paragraph. All best regards- Daniel

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  3. Hi Daniel- I will try to explain it better. Your observation that her voice "often lacks the velvety quality" implies that she somehow changed something technically. She didn't. The bottom of her voice was always velvety and the top ringing. The tessitura of the different roles simply showed more of the one and less of the other. The truth is that Miss Harshaw's voice kept that velvety quality in the lower part of her voice until the day she died. As a long time "Harshaw" student, I had the great pleasure of hearing it often. Believe me, nobody singing today comes even close.

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