With a crystalline voice of fragile beauty and a sensitive quality of musicianship, Elizabeth Harwood was a lyric soprano of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Her intelligence and musical curiosity led her to a broad range of music, and her lovely, blond appearance and subtle stage manner made her welcome in a number of theaters. Along the way, she attracted the interest of Herbert von Karajan, who cast her in several important productions, featuring her in his 1972 recording of La bohème (as Musetta opposite the Mimi of Mirella Freni and the Rodolfo of Luciano Pavarotti) and as a non-Viennese Hanna Glawari, who had nonetheless mastered the Viennese style. An immensely serious artist, she spent the final years of her life working with students, serving them as devotedly as she had her art.
Following study at the Royal Manchester School of Music, Harwood won the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Prize in 1960. After joining the chorus at the Glyndebourne Festival, she was assigned a solo role, making her debut as the Second Boy in a 1960 production of Die Zauberflöte. In 1961, she joined the Sadler's Wells Opera and began a steady rise through the ranks in such light roles as Susanna and Konstanze, Manon, Adele in Rossini's Le Comte Ory, Gilda, and Zerbinetta. In the mid-'60s, she was engaged for a company assembled to accompany Joan Sutherland on an Australian tour, alternating the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor with the superstar and performing Amina and Adina as well. Covent Garden welcomed her in 1967 when she sang the challenging role of the Fiakermilli in Strauss' Arabella. Later, the Royal Opera House was to hear her in such other roles as Gilda, Marzelline, Norina, Donna Elvira, Teresa in Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini and Bella in a revival of Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage. The latter production was recorded under the direction of Colin Davis and remains a showcase for Harwood's warm and knowing interpretation. She joined the Scottish Opera in 1967, singing there until 1974 such roles as Sophie, Fiordiligi, and Lucia.
A performance at Aix-en-Provence led to an invitation by Herbert von Karajan to come to Salzburg; there, she specialized in the Mozart repertory, singing Fiordiligi, the Countess, and Donna Elvira in the three Da Ponte operas, in addition to Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In addition to Salzburg, the 1970s brought debuts at La Scala (1972) and the Metropolitan Opera, where she appeared as Fiordiligi in 1975. Glyndebourne heard her again in the 1970s and 1980s when she returned as Fiordiligi, Mozart's Countess and, later, as the Marschallin in 1980 and 1982.
Along with her stage work, Harwood was an important concert artist, appearing with numerous orchestras and under the direction of the leading conductors of her time. Two singular oratorios were captured on recording, each led by musicians uniquely qualified to bring these compositions to life. With Mackerras, she sang the soprano arias in a restudied edition of Messiah, a recording which has remained in the catalog since 1966. Under Benjamin Britten, Harwood sang Gretchen in Schumann's Szenen aus Goethe's Faust together with the Faust of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Mephisto of John Shirley-Quirk. Harwood also recorded Titania in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream with the composer leading the performance.