Going for baroque: A chat with Eiddwen Harrhy

Eiddwen Harrhy coaches a Jacobs School of Music student.

Eiddwen Harrhy coaches a Jacobs School of Music student.

The name’s Eiddwen (IDE-when in “American”). Eiddwen Harrhy. (Ms. Harrhy if you’re nasty.)

A renowned soprano and baroque opera specialist, Harrhy has been coaching Jacobs School of Music voice students for eight years as part of The Handel Project, sponsored by the Georgina Joshi Foundation in honor of Joshi, a former Jacobs student. The next work in the series is a free performance of Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast” at 8 p.m. Feb. 13 in Auer Hall.

As a four-year-old girl in southern Wales, Harrhy tripped through the light fantastic of the storybook garden across the back lane to take piano lessons from her neighbor and get a “sweetie” before skipping back.

She was first exposed to music at chapel three times each Sunday, and sometimes mid-week as well. She first heard the great oratorios at her grandfather’s chapel, in eastern Wales. All made an indelible impression.

After studying voice and piano at the Royal Manchester College of Music, Harrhy became a professional singer, eventually subbing for an ill voice coach about five years before she retired from performing. She enjoyed it so much, she knew it was what she wanted to do after leaving the stage. “This is the best thing ever,” she exclaimed. “If I had put my feet up and done nothing, I would have gone crazy, I think. Years later, I absolutely love it. And I certainly love coming here—this is the crème de la crème for me.

“When one is offered any kind of teaching opportunity in an institution like this, if it doesn’t work, and if you don’t like it, you don’t come back. And I can’t wait to come back. Luckily, I have been able to every year—eight years running, now—because one year we do an opera, and the next year we do an oratorio.”

IU Opera Theater's 2017 production of Handel's "Rodelinda."

IU Opera Theater’s 2017 production of Handel’s “Rodelinda.”

So exactly what does she do at Jacobs?

“I don’t come here as a singing teacher, because obviously you have a wonderful roster of singing teachers,” Harrhy explained. “Because I’ve done it, I think I understand what students have to do on stage—sing, act, dance, move about. They have text, they have a language. The combination is enormous, and it’s difficult for them to work all that out on their own. I try to complement what they are doing with their teacher.”

In addition to helping with students’ pronunciation and diction, Harrhy tries “To instill in them the love of text—because the text is all important. The music comes out of the text because that’s the way the composer wrote it. The composer got hold of some text, whether they wrote it themselves or had a librettist, and the music came after that. The actual pronunciation of the text is very, very important. If the text is projected to the audience with conviction, it makes a real impact, and heightens the experience.

“And acting, in general, has gotten much, much better. You need to be much more expressive, because you have to communicate to people, that’s what it’s all about.”

Why does she do it here?

Georgina Joshi

Georgina Joshi

Harrhy taught Joshi during the young student’s undergraduate years at the Royal College of Music in London. Afterward, Joshi decided to pursue her master’s at the Jacobs School of Music. Her studies were cut short when she and four other Jacobs students died in a 2006 plane crash.

“Every time somebody asks me about her, I start to get these great big emotions and tears in my eyes,” said Harrhy. “Georgina had such grace and style, and she was a total, total musician from top to toe. Plus her work ethic was astounding. She was genuinely the most beautiful, wonderfully hearted young woman. And apart from all of that, she could sing! What more could I want from a student?

“I’d introduced her to the works of Handel, so her parents came up with the idea of having some kind of Handel work in her memory every year. They thought, and I’m eternally grateful to them, that it would be nice if I could work with the students here because I had been involved with her. So we have this sort of never-ending thread.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Isn’t it incredible? Georgina’s walked all these pathways, been on that stage, in that hall. Her aura is so present, and that, to me, is the most wonderful thing. It thrills me because I know I’m not coming back to a sad place. It’s not a sad place at all. I find it one of the most special places in my life, really.”

Advice for students?

“Whatever’s on stage—from music to dance to theater—go see it, you’ll learn something. It’s not just a case of ‘I’m standing at the front singing my piece, and they’re all accompanying me’—oh, no, it’s not like that at all. You’re a unit, you’re a team.”

When I enthused about her helping to instill such values in her students, because we’ve all met the person who thinks they are the star, she said, “Oh, yes, and you just ignore them—because the ones who are the real stars are not like that at all, of course.”

Exactly. Georgina Joshi was proof of that.

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