A LITTLE ARIA WITH YOUR WINE?
Daniel Harper's great loves are his music, his wife of almost 24 years, their cats, his sister, cooking, spending time with family and friends in the
off-season and wine, but not necessarily in that order.
Harper is a tenor with the
San Francisco Opera. His baby sister, Carol Bakker, happens to live in La Grande.
Harper and his wife, Valeri, try to visit Bakker and her family here every year during the company's off season.
They love it here, and Bakker is always looking for new things to do when they visit.
"Well, my brother loves wine," she explains, "and Gilstrap Brothers Winery was something new."
An impromptu concert was a natural outcome.
"I love to show off my brother," Bakker says, smiling warmly at Harper. "I'm always asking him to sing when he's here. He even busted out in the middle of Red Cross Drug for me," she says, laughing.
"Wineries tend to have good acoustics," Harper adds, smiling back at her, "but I'll sing anywhere she asks me to."
Easy-going and relaxed, Harper is not quite what one would expect of a classical tenor with a world-renowned opera company. No prima donna here, Harper is as mellow as his favorite wine.
"I'm how should I say this," he pauses ... "I am not the most driven person," he settles on that description and raises a glass of Gilstrap's merlot as if to salute his choice.
In fact, Harper, his wife and sister all agree it is his nature more than any lack of confidence or talent that took him off the fast track, and kept him from becoming one of the famous three tenors.
"He could have been the next Pavarotti," Bakker asserts. "He has the gift."
Indeed, Harper has sung with some of the most impressive names and in the most impressive places in the industry. He has covered been the understudy for both Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.
"I have friends singing all over the world," he says, "the finest houses in Europe. But they come back to see me and they're jealous. I have the best of both worlds."
Many of his musical friends have lousy relationships, failed marriages and live in hotels, he says.
Harper, on the other hand, has a steady gig in the chorus with an occasional lead role, a happy marriage, a comfortable home, and he is able to surround himself with company and cook for friends.
This is not to say he has never been in the fast lane.
"We have been very fortunate to be able to go to some amazing places," he admits, noting that some of the wealthiest people in the world are actually some of the nicest.
"John Getty, for example," he says without pretension, "very nice man and a wonderful host."
Bakker says the best thing about her brother and his wife, aside from being perfect for each other, is their adaptability to any crowd working class or jet-set.
The Harpers are comfortable everywhere, perhaps due to their confidence in his talent, or maybe the history they shared growing up in middle-class neighborhoods.
Harper's first gig was singing "Go Tell it on the Mountain" for a program at Parkview Elementary in Lombard, Ill. He was just a little boy, third or fourth grade, but he caused quite a sensation with his performance.
"Mrs. Erlandson across the street ... " Bakker starts to say and is immediately interrupted by her brother's laughter as he joins in.
"Oh, no!" Harper's laugh is as full and rich as an opera star's laugh should be.
"She still talked about it for years afterwards," they finish the story simultaneously. "She did!" They're both laughing now, sharing memories of growing up.
Did he always know he had a voice suited for the opera?
"Did I know then?" Harper ponders the question, swirling a little wine in his glass. "No," he decides. "But I knew I loved to sing, and I was always able to sing higher than the girls in Sunday school."
He glances over at his sister and they both laugh.
Their father was a working man. Although the pair "grew up quite poor," their parents always made sure there was enough for music lessons. Every one of the seven Harper children learned to play something.
If they became discouraged, their father would take them to see the symphony to encourage them.
In high school, Harper took voice lessons. He tried a year of college, but it was not for him or he was not ready, "I wasted my time and money," he readily admits.
And then he won an audition to sing with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, an unprecedented opportunity for one so young, his sister says, especially since he did it all on his own.
Although Harper had been encouraged to play an instrument and to love classical music, his parents did not support his desire to pursue music as a career.
"You have to understand," Bakker explains, "we grew up in a very fundamental household."
"I think it was the possible lifestyle that accompanies a career in the arts they were leery of," Harper says, laughing.
"The bottom line is, he did it without any support," Bakker recalls. "All the auditions the tryouts, applications he went after it all on his own."
Eventually, Harper tried out for a 10-week summer program with the San Francisco Opera Merola program. Out of the 1,000 who made it into the auditioning, only 20 made the cut. Harper was one of them.
"I had no idea what I would do after that," he says.
But when the Merola program came to a close, he was one of those encouraged to try out for an Adler apprenticeship. Again, he made the cut. Of the three or four who were accepted that year, Harper was chosen.
He also spent some time traveling with the Western Opera Theatre and sang with the San Francisco Symphony. For a decade, Harper basically did a lot of freelance singing.
"You build up a reputation," he says humbly, "people call."
"But then," Carol prompts him,"everything changed."
In 1994, Harper decided to join the San Francisco Opera Company as a member of the chorus. He is one of the few regular chorus members who has the distinction of appearing in solo or character roles and covering leads.
A steady gig, it has allowed him to have, as he says, the best of both worlds. He has a steady job he loves in which he is able to pursue his passion and share his talent. He also has built a very successful and fulfilling personal life.
"We've had a really good life," he says, smiling at his wife and raising his glass.
"It's been a wonderful life," she agrees, smiling back.
Bakker watches them with pleasure and pride shining through her smile thrilled to be able to show off her big brother, the operatic tenor, when he comes to La Grande.