Volume 76, Number 8 | July 12 - 18, 2006

Remembering the unforgettable Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

Among professional musicians and thoughtful listeners, the talk this week has been of the death of the great American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. But the talk has been oddly muted. In death as in life, Hunt Lieberson’s artistry seems to beggar mere words. Her performances were in a realm beyond conventional praise, and left critics groping for ways not to say “you had to be there.”

The sorrow of Hunt Lieberson’s death at age 52 also beggars mere words, but it is tempered by her career-long exploration of the deepest questions of life, death, and love’s transfiguring grace. We cannot know how these insights came to bear on her experience of illness and in taking leave of the world. But it is safe to say that no other classical singer has illuminated these existential issues so profoundly.

Many obituaries compared Hunt Lieberson to Maria Callas. Certainly, both shared a passionate intensity; they did not so much interpret music as embody it. But where Callas’s fiery temperament and international glamour established our modern conception of the diva, Hunt Lieberson was an anti-diva: private, dignified, happily married. With her, it was all about music and meaning.

Which is not to say she was lacking in fire. In the oft-repeated anecdote of her breakthrough role — the demonic Sesto in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” — the visceral ferocity of her portrayal astonished director Peter Sellars, supposedly to the point where he was frightened by what she might do. What makes the story impressive and funny is the seemingly shock-proof Sellars, who is famous for pushing singers to extremes for the sake of dramatic expressiveness — not the other way around.

My own Hunt Lieberson anecdote dates back to 1995 at the Glyndebourne opera festival. When I went to the press office to pay my respects, the eminent critic and author Manuela Holterhoff was doing likewise, and we exchanged pleasantries. What was she doing in England? Simple: “I would go anywhere in the world to hear Lorraine Hunt sing,” she said. Her opinion, as always, was well founded. As the obsessive mother in Rossini’s “Ermione”, Hunt Lieberson gave a characteristically fearless, musically brilliant portrayal.

Though Hunt Lieberson sang at the Met, New Yorkers probably remember her best for her most daring collaboration with Peter Sellars, in which she sang two solo Bach cantatas as staged monodramas: “Ich habe genug” and “Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut.” By all accounts, this improbable idea — Hunt Lieberson as a woman contemplating suicide, and as a terminally ill patient considering the end of life — was electrifying theatre.

Hunt Lieberson’s last New York performances were of her husband’s settings of Neruda love sonnets at Carnegie Hall last November. Looking radiantly happy and with her husband, composer Peter Lieberson, at her side, she sang these ravishing songs with an intensity that fused their eroticism with chaste, almost holy yearning and made the audience part of a frankly intimate communion of love.

Hunt Lieberson’s accounts of Bach cantatas BWV numbers 82 and 199 have been captured on the Nonesuch label with the Emmanuel Music Orchestra under the direction of Craig Smith in one of the greatest recordings ever made. Listen to the depth of life experience and the weight of worldly cares in the title aria “Ich habe genug” (“I have enough”), and the transition to inner peace and transcendent understanding in “Schlummert ein” (“slumber now”). Bach never wrote a more exquisitely beautiful aria, nor has it ever been sung as Hunt Lieberson did. It is the only fitting valediction I can imagine for this magnificent artist.

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