Ray Harari passed away on 5 June after a very long and heroically courageous struggle against illness. With his passing, the Geneva stage has lost one of its most colourful, exuberant, talented, cheerful and loveable actors.
Ray was born into a Jewish family in Cairo in January 1943. When he was 13 years old his family was obliged to leave Egypt, and settled in Milan. He thus became an Italian citizen, and went to Italian schools – he was very nearly selected for the Italian swimming team in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He went to the University of Sussex in the early 1960s, where he came into contact with one Howard Hornfeld who cajoled him into joining an international folk dance society which Howard had started. Some 20 years later Ray and Howard were to meet each other again by chance in our (the Martins’) house in Plan-les-Ouates. It’s a small world, especially when one lives in Geneva.
When I first met Ray in the late 1960s, there was nothing to suggest that he was destined ever to become an actor. He had just joined the International Labor Organization’s personnel department, a brand new official, very wet behind the ears, and I was a very slightly older, very slightly more senior official in the Director-General’s office. As our careers developed, so did our friendship; as the years went by we sometimes found ourselves working together in the same department – in fact, on two occasions he succeeded me as director of a department in the ILO. It became clear to me at a very early stage that Ray was no ordinary “fonctionnaire”. Not for him the life of a cautious, faceless, insipid bureaucrat. If he had something to say, he said it – in English, French, Spanish and Italian (in all of which he was fluent). He was an extrovert, in the most positive sense of the word. He did not believe in hiding his light, or his feelings, under a bushel. He threw himself into whatever he was doing with intelligence, commitment, dedication, enthusiasm and boundless energy. Above all, he had a marvelous friendly, open personality, and infected all his colleagues with his enthusiasm. Not surprisingly he rose meteorically through the ranks and had a distinguished career in the ILO.
One day – it must have been in the early 1990s – he called me to say that he was tempted to try his hand at acting in the Geneva English Drama Society (GEDS), and asked me for my opinion, adding that he had absolutely no theatrical experience or training, and in particular (I distinctly remember him saying this) that he had had no musical education and had never sung in public. I instantly gave it as my opinion that someone with his personality could well take to the stage like a fish to water, and that in GEDS he need not worry about his lack of musical talent as he was most unlikely to be called upon to sing – we left that to the riff-raff of the Geneva Amateur Operatic Society (GAOS)! I suggested that he put his name down to take part in a GEDS play reading to see how he liked it. I believe that he also approached other ILO thespians like Lee Swepston, Julian Finn and Ann Oakley who no doubt gave him similar advice, but I like to think that I can take some of the credit for the birth of a star. And what a star!
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. After a few GEDS play-readings he was completely bitten by the theatrical bug, and his first appearance on the Geneva stage in a full-scale production was in A Man For All Seasons, directed by Ann Oakley in 1994. After that there was no stopping him. In the following year he had the temerity to audition for the part of Tevye, the lead role in the GAOS production of Fiddler On The Roof. According to one (perhaps apocryphal) account of that audition, when he was asked how someone like himself who had had no musical training or experience in singing on stage could possibly aspire to the part of Tevye, he is said to have replied: “because I AM Tevye”. He got the part because he identified himself with it, and because he had a presence on stage which could convince the audience that he was Tevye. Whoever auditioned him (was it Pat Huber-Brown?) must have realized that whatever Ray may have lacked in experience and formal training was more than compensated for by enormous talent as well as real motivation and commitment and a huge dose of self-confidence. After many weeks of intensive rehearsal and voice training Ray presented his Tevye to a wildly enthusiastic audience. None of us present will ever forget his performance, and we experienced it once again at the very moving funeral ceremony on 11 June when we heard the recording of Ray singing “If I was a rich man” in that production.
Thus within 18 months, almost a complete novice, Ray had already reached the pinnacle of his theatrical career, and many of us wondered where he could go next. Although he never again played a role that fitted him quite so perfectly as did that of Tevye, he continued for many years to star in GEDS and GAOS performances. I leave it to my friends in GAOS (if I have any friends left in GAOS after the “riff-raff” remark above) to enumerate his many appearances in their productions, but I can identify eight subsequent GEDS productions in which Ray appeared (and there may be some that I have overlooked): Way of the World (1997); Relatively Speaking (1997); Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1998); Gasping (2001); Funny Money (2002); Art (2005); The Sunshine Boys (2006); and Night of the Iguana (2008). I had the pleasure of sharing the stage (and the dressing room) with him in two of those productions, as well as in numerous play readings. Like the rest of us he spent hours and hours in rehearsal, and even more hours and hours of intense concentration, learning his lines and preparing himself for the part that he was to play. Like the rest of us he had his moments of nervousness before the curtain went up. But as soon as he stepped out on stage in front of an audience, Ray was in his element. He appeared to assume quite naturally and effortlessly the role that he was playing, the audience responded to it, and there developed that magic interaction between himself and his audience which few amateur actors manage to attain.
Ray’s wife Catherine was very much behind his success as an actor. Although not an actress herself, she too was (and still is) a lady of the theatre. Her father had been a Managing Director of the Comédie française, so she had it in her blood. She designed the sets for many of the productions in which Ray appeared, and directed one production (Funny Money). She was even Chairperson of GEDS for a while. But Catherine’s role became immensely more difficult as Ray’s illness began to take its toll. Ray was determined not to allow his declining health to keep him off the stage. Even though the audience, and perhaps even the cast, may not have been aware of it, there were dramatic moments when it seemed as if he would not be able to keep going to the end of a performance. But for Ray, the show had to go on, and with sheer will-power and determination he kept up his performance until the final curtain came down.
Eventually he had to stop his theatrical activities, although he never lost interest in the theatre, and maintained his contacts with his “beloved” GEDS and GAOS. With Catherine’s help he fought his illness, and maintained his zest for life right up to the end with extraordinary courage and determination. When I saw him for the last time, we had a great lunch together in a restaurant overlooking the lake in Divonne; we talked about the theatre and our families and this and that. A few days later he called me to fix a date for our next lunch – 12 June. We were not to know that that would be the day after his funeral.