Soprano Rachel Harnisch

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Rachel Harnisch - An opera diva has had enough of the stage

Christian Berzins

No farewell concert, let alone a gala. But if you scroll to the end of the bio on her homepage, you have to read: “Rachel Harnisch ended her successful career in 2023.” The best Swiss soprano of the last 50 years is leaving the opera world pianissimo.

Not only with her voice, but also with this step, the 50-year-old Valaisian is reminiscent of her legendary predecessor on the queen's throne of Swiss sopranos, Lisa della Casa (1919–2012). The Burgdorf native said goodbye to the opera stage in 1974 at the age of just 55: first in the center of the opera world, then withdrawn for decades in Gottlieben on Lake Constance. She stopped because her daughter was seriously ill.

For Rachel Harnisch, the withdrawal released decades of tension. Anyone who has discussed opera and, consequently, triumphs and tragedies with Rachel Harnisch in recent years quickly noticed: this soprano always wanted to do more than just string together highly correct notes; she wanted to sacrifice herself to the music by singing, despite her Marianly beautiful timbre, which singing could only come from the depths of your soul.

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I once titled the obituary for Lisa della Casa with “Snow White of the Opera World”. But Rachel Harnisch not only had Snow White, but also a touch of evil stepmother: that was exactly her artistic greatness. Her supposed insecurities were enchanting, because great singing art seeks difficulty, walks on a ridge as if it were a wide wall. With Lisa della Casa it was always clear that nothing was happening: it was shining. If, on the other hand, Harnisch struck a note at a dizzying height and caused it to float and oscillate, it was far from clear whether it would be a sweet sound of joy or a bitter lament - whether happiness would be laughed or misfortune threatened.

The dream of a different life comes true in Prague Harnisch's last concert took place in Prague in mid-December. She doesn't want to say much about it because she would quickly be back full of words and thoughts, right in the middle of the old life that she has now left behind. The performance took place in the magnificent Smetana Hall, but it was nothing glamorous: Bach's “Christmas Oratorio,” in which there isn't even much for the soprano to sing.

However, when the verse “With you I finally want to float full of joy without time there in the other life” was sung, the Prague audience could have seen a tear flowing down Harnisch's cheek. A tear that expressed more joy than sadness: The step into a different life had thus taken place, Harnisch was already able to enjoy the performance carefree, while her three colleagues were once again plagued by the usual everyday worries of artists, which had also worried Harnisch for years : Will I get sick? How do I protect myself? What am I doing here for five days? What and where do I sing next month, next year?

Of course, the daily struggle for cheers and roles is part of being an artist and singer. But anyone who is over 40 and isn't called Anna Netrebko is considered old in the scene and waits - and hopes for offers. There can be no question of career planning. And you wait in vain for the beloved Mozart roles. Directors want younger singers, and the conductors usually don't care who is there. Should you instead accept an opera that you don't want to sing, such as "Madama Butterfly"? Or should you turn down a role that you no longer want? Working with a director you cursed last time? Standing at a crossroads again? Let others determine how life goes on, remain a puppet of the company?

Rachel Harnisch told me five years ago: “The person or artist behind the voice is becoming less and less interesting. But I'm bored by a singer who's just a singer." And so she preached to the young singers as a professor that they should focus more inwardly than outwardly in order to survive in the shark tank of the opera world and to stay within themselves. But those who can carry a soul to the outside world would be heard.

Now the singing career is over, although just a few years ago Harnisch seemed to have gained a new composure, accepting what came along the career path - or what didn't come. As a young singer, however, who was on the verge of making it to the top, she couldn't stand the pressure: "My career would have been different if I had been able to lose myself completely in this job at the beginning and had been able to subordinate myself to my career," she said she, “but this development was part of me, this career was me, this was my life. I used to give myself up to art.” Not everyone appreciated her honesty and her doubts. “I had this slump and some opera directors thought: 'She's too weak, she can't hold on.' People were afraid. Understandable. I was scared too." The company doesn't like supposedly weak and difficult singers.

No wonder, however, as Harnisch often sang with Claudio Abbado, who celebrated losing himself in music with entire orchestras.

After many ups and downs, everything seemed to be on a new, splendid path in 2013, when she received an ensemble contract from the Zurich Opera House, which was supposed to start a new era with Andreas Homoki: live in Zurich, sing the big roles in Zurich – perfect for the mother of two children. The dream of singing the great Richard Strauss roles Arabella and Feldmarschallin would then come true. Nothing came of it.

Shortly before the Corona break, everything seemed to be going well After all, another dream soon came true, yes, it seemed as if she was now laying the foundation for her mature years, as Harnisch was offered the leading roles in operas by Leos Janáček: In Geneva in autumn 2020 it was Emilia Marty in « The Makropulos affair. For Harnisch, it was a borderline experience about which she said: “A volcano was finally allowed to erupt out of me.” The director took Rachel Harnisch to her limits in the opera “The Makropulos Affair” in Geneva.

Added to this was the fact that the direction pushed her to her physical limits, and so she felt completely free and light in what seemed like a rollercoaster of emotions. Afterwards, she knew that nothing would push her to her limits so quickly after this production, yes, that her boundaries are much wider than she ever imagined. Emilia is a dying person right from the start, she strips herself within just two hours, only to show herself fragile at the end: "And only then is she allowed to sing, only at the moment of letting go - of dying."

Harnisch died many deaths on stage, was admired, cheered and yet experienced torture of all kinds. Now that she no longer lives for art but is studying psychology, she is blossoming. One of her ideas or wishes is to mentally build up other artists in the future. May it be of use to them then, with Harnisch's departure the opera world has unfortunately become poorer by a great figure.