Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson - one of the rare elect

Some singers have wonderful voices. Others are consummate musicians. Still others are incandescent actors. A very few possess those virtues in equal part, and the rarest of them all use the gifts both selflessly and with self-awareness. Internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died Monday morning at her Santa Fe home, was one of that rare elect. Whether singing at the Santuario de Guadalupe in Santa Fe and joking with the audience from the stage, pouring out sound and feeling in great concert halls, or commanding respect in the world's opera houses, she was an artist of the highest order as well as a woman full of heart -- a true daughter of the muses.

Hunt Lieberson, who was in her early 50s, had battled breast cancer for several years but continued to perform whenever possible, and always up to her own exacting standards. Her husband, composer Peter Lieberson, was at her side when she died. The pair met at the Santa Fe Opera during the 1997 production of Lieberson's Ashoka's Dream, and married shortly thereafter; in recent years, Lieberson wrote many fine pieces tailored to his wife's voice and artistry.

'She did pass away this morning,' family friend David McCarthy, an artist, confirmed Monday by phone. 'She'd been at home. They'd tried doing some chemotherapy, and had hoped she might get better. Lorraine was the love of Peter's life, and she was one of four sisters. Tragically, one of her younger sisters died just a few years ago of cancer.' The Liebersons kept Lorraine's health situation private during the last few years, McCarthy said. 'All of Peter and Lorraine's friends were requested not to talk about her health. Lorraine hasn't wanted to have the music world clamoring around and doing all the things they might do. They gossip about anything in the music world, and you're usually booked three or four years in advance. [So] they tended to go to ground every time they got back to Santa Fe.''

Nonetheless, Hunt Lieberson's postponements and cancellations garnered as much notice as other singers' performances. 'There was a whole page last fall in the New York Times speculating about when she might perform,' McCarthy said. 'And recently I was on Cape Cod for a family reunion, and in the Boston Globe, on the first page, was an article speculating about Peter and Lorraine and what they might be doing.''

Anyone who ever experienced Hunt Lieberson's magic knows what all the fuss was about. Whether she was singing Mahler's great paean to life and sorrow, Das Lied von der Erde, or some of his fragilely beautiful art songs, the world itself seemed to pause and listen. When she sang Lieberson's Five Rilke Songs at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 2001, it was as if pearl had been given sound -- a voice, as I wrote then, with a 'rich, violalike lower register and clear upper voice,' one that 'practically spanned a planetary system' in some of the far-reaching melodic lines. And when she embodied a character onstage, as in Ashoka's Dream, it was hard to imagine anyone else ever doing it as well.

A native of San Francisco, Hunt Lieberson studied violin, viola, and piano as a child and later became a professional violist; she only turned to singing as a profession when she was 26. In the early instrumental days of her career, she worked frequently with the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, in Boston, conducted by Craig Smith (no relation to the writer of this tribute). Hunt Lieberson collaborated with Smith and director Peter Sellars in several brilliant operatic productions, including Mozart's Don Giovanni (as Donna Elvira) and Handel's Giulio Cesare (Sesto) and Theodora (Irene), thankfully preserved on video. The creative team also did an amazing staging of two solo Bach cantatas, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut and Ich habe genug, in 2001. Performed in New York, Boston, and Europe, the concept included Hunt Lieberson singing the latter cantata as a dying hospital patient on life support -- by all accounts, a mesmerizing performance.

Hunt Lieberson's other operatic roles illustrated her delight in unusual repertoire and fascinating characters. They included Myrtle in John Harbison's The Great Gatsby in 1999 and Dido in Berlioz's Les Troyens in 2002, both at the Metropolitan Opera; Jocasta in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex; the title roles in Handel's Xerxes and Ariodante; Melisande in Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande; Ottavia in Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea; and Bizet's Carmen. Other recent highlights were performing Lieberson's Neruda Songs with both the Boston Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra, and his The World in Flower with the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel; Mahler songs with the New World Symphony and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras, and Songs of a Wayfarer with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; John Adams' El Nino at the Chatelet theater in Paris and also in San Francisco; and many recordings on the Harmonia Mundi and Nonesuch labels. Her most recent recording, just released, was the Rilke Songs on Bridge, with Lieberson's The Six Realms and Horn Concerto.

Reproduced, with acknowledgements, from Free New Mexican. The author, whose tribute is far better than any words I can offer, is Craig Smith. And do please read the first comment below, which tells so eloquently and movingly of the unique affection which Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was held in.

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2 comments:

gt said...

Pliable, your site is the bearer of simply devastating music world news this morning. Thank you for your posting of this extensive tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

In May, I heard Lorraine sing her husband Peter Lieberson's beautiful 'Neruda Love Songs', with the Boston Symphony, under David Robertson; and then, last month, I listened to Lorraine sing Peter's equally beautiful 'Rilke Songs', on Bridge, with Peter Serkin at the piano. Her recordings of Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, and many others are some of the finest and most heartfelt that are available today. (I first heard music of Peter Lieberson, John Adams's peer and equal, when his Chamber Cello Concerto was performed by Fred Sherry and members of the New York Philharmonic, at Lincoln Center, in March 1976 -- thirty years ago. I believe that the conductor was James Levine, but I would need to check.)

Lorraine and I attended high school together, for two years, thirty five years ago, and, as you note, she excelled on the viola and piano, as well as then aspiring carefully to become a classical singer. (I recall touring together, with our high school and youth orchestras, to Los Angeles, San Diego, and the American Southwest including the Grand Canyon; and to Mainz and West Berlin).

I also recall her singing the famous aria from Saint-Saƫns 'Samson and Deliah' at one of our youth orchestra concerts, and everyone in the orchestra quietly commenting that she was to be a classical singer, and that her training would be slower, and more careful to the physical body, than that of the other most promising musicians in the ensemble. She was always -- even in the 'de rigeur' faded blue jeans of her Berkeley and Boston long training and apprentice days -- one of the handful of most beautiful people on the face of this earth.

Classical music did matter to Lorraine and Peter, and to their families and close friends.

Pliable said...

gt - as you rightly say Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was a talented viola player who switched to singing in 1988 when her uninsured viola was stolen.

More on this wonderful artist, who will be so badly missed, in this 2004 Guardian profile by Andrew Clements.