Kathryn Harries OBE (1951-2023) | Surbiton High School, Surrey
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Kathryn Harries OBE (1951-2023)

Posted: 19th June 2023

Kathryn Harries playing piano at Surbiton High School

Kathryn Harries OBE (1951-2023)

SHS Head Girl 1969

It is with great sadness that we report the loss of a former pupil and globally-renowned soprano opera singer, Kathryn Harries (1969), who passed away at the age of 72, following a cancer diagnosis.

Kathryn was born in Hampton Court on February 15, 1951. Her father was a pharmacist and her mother trained as a singer, “so there was always a lot of music about.”  She recalled that she wanted to be a singer from the age of five years old. In her own words from her website, “I was lucky enough to win a Scholarship to Surbiton High School when I was eleven and received a great education. The high point of which was studying with Elizabeth Ashton – one of life’s most gifted music teachers. It was she who enabled me to get an A at A-level in Music in only four terms and she who wangled me into the Royal Academy of Music as a Junior in 1968.” Kathryn was our Head Girl in 1969. 

After Surbiton High School, Kathryn joined the Royal Academy of Music where she studied singing with Constance Shacklock, piano with Mildred Litherland, and harmony with Eric Fenby. Ironically, Kathryn recalled that she wasn’t allowed in the Opera Class while at the Academy as she couldn’t devote enough time to do it! Furthermore, she once said, “I had always thought opera was ghastly. I much preferred film, TV and straight theatre.”

After she graduated from the Academy, she taught piano to several local children, taught singing and piano at what was then Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University), and in 1977 landed the job as presenter of the BBC award-winning programme, ‘Music Time’. Kathryn’s concert debut was at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1977 and her operatic debut followed in 1982 as Leonore with the Welsh National Opera. Kathryn’s operatic career spanned a repertoire of more than 60 major operatic roles ranging from Carmen to Katya Kabanova in opera houses around the world.  

Following her stage career, Kathryn was appointed Director of the National Opera Studio (NOS) from 2008 to 2017. During her time as Director, she introduced new initiatives for singers and pianists alike, such as encouraging singers to improve their piano skills and accompanists to take singing lessons. She also created space to provide practical advice to artists – “We talk to them about getting a decent accountant, about managing their books, managing their health, about getting a website, all that practical advice,” she told John Allison in ‘Opera’ magazine. “About what to do when you’re ill — when you should sing when you shouldn’t.” Under her leadership, Kathryn brought in top-class directors while at the same time allowing up-and-coming young professionals to direct scenes with partner opera companies. Many of the artists whom she influenced and helped to develop over the years, now enjoy successful careers in the UK and abroad.

In 2016, we were fortunate to welcome Kathryn back to Surbiton High School. She met with pupils and shared her professional on-stage and off-stage journey and answered questions. Afterwards, she spent some time with Moya (2017) accompanying her on the piano, while giving Moya top tips on singing. Moya said “It was an amazing opportunity for a young, aspiring opera singer to be given the chance to learn from Kathryn who had such experience and talent. It’s incredibly sad to hear of her passing and my thoughts are with her family and loved ones at this time.”

Off-stage, Kathryn’s charity work was incredibly important to her. Her desire to help numerous charities drove her to take action to organise and participate in a series of long-distance walks. Over the years, Kathryn raised around £2 million for important causes. In 2001, she walked from John O’Groats to Lands’ End, singing seven concerts and giving multiple impromptu performances en route, in aid of the aphasia charity Speakability. In 2007, she walked for the CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) charity, trekking over the bridges of London starting at Hampton Court and ending at Tower Bridge. She raised money for several organisations across the sector, devising the ‘Opera Walk’ to support staff at the Welsh National Opera and English National Opera, and devoted a huge amount of time to teaching.

As a Surrey resident, she taught singing at Cranleigh School from 2009 to 2020. As a dedicated member of the community, Kathryn arranged the Coverwood Concerts at Coverwood Farm, a highlight of the Surrey calendar for 25 years. She also formed the Kathryn Harries Ladies Choir which performed at hundreds of fundraising concerts, and she was a patron of cancer charity, The Fountain Centre, in Guildford.

She was awarded the OBE in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to opera. 

Kathryn is mentioned in our 1969 Surbiton Chronicle as Head Girl and in the 1976 and 1977 Surbiton Chronicles under Old Girl News. You can find the Chronicles on our Green & Silver Community website www.community.surbitonhigh.com

Kathryn leaves behind a daughter, Victoria; a son, William and a brother, Keith. Kathryn will be remembered as a loving mother, globally-renowned soprano, educator, and an incredible fundraiser. She will be greatly missed by family and those of us who were fortunate enough to have her in our lives. The Green & Silver Club will be donating to The Fountain Centre. Tributes and memories of Kathryn can be sent to polly.rumbold@surbitonhigh.com

Categories: Alumni