by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Sept. 25, 2006.
On the day before the Fourth of July, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died of complications from breast cancer, at the age of fifty-two. News of her passing aroused little interest outside the classical-music world, since she was hardly a household name, and lacked even the intermittently twinkling, Sunday-morning-television stardom achieved by the likes of Renée Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma. She recorded infrequently in later years; she was shy about being interviewed; she had no press agent. Her fame consisted of an ever-widening swath of ardor and awe that she left in her wake whenever she sang. Among those who had been strongly affected by her work, there was a peculiarly intense kind of grief.
I was one of those people. In recent years, I found it hard to assume a pose of critical distance from this artist, even though I never got closer to her than Row H. In the days after she died, I tried to write about her, and failed. It felt wrong to call her “great” and “extraordinary,” or to throw around diva-worship words like “goddess” and “immortal,” because those words placed her on a pedestal, whereas the warmth in her voice always brought her close. Nonetheless, empty superlatives will have to do. She was the most remarkable singer I ever heard. She was incapable of giving a routine performance—I saw her twelve times, and each appearance had something explosively distinctive about it—and her career took the form of a continuous ascent. New Yorkers saw her for the final time last November, when she came to town with the Boston Symphony to perform “Neruda Songs,” composed by her husband, Peter Lieberson. She sang that night with such undiminished power that it seemed as though she would be around forever. Then she was gone, leaving the apex vacant.
She was born Lorraine Hunt, in San Francisco, the daughter of two exacting Bay Area music teachers. She grew up studying piano, violin, and viola, settling on the viola as her main instrument. She made relatively few public appearances as a singer in her youth, but when she did she invariably caught people’s attention. At a concert by the Oakland Youth Orchestra, in 1972, she stepped forward to deliver an aria from Saint-Saëns’s “Samson and Delilah,” and Charles Shere, in a perceptive review for the Oakland Tribune, described a now familiar spell being cast for perhaps the first time: “She simply stood there and sang, hardly even opening her mouth, with an even range, secure high notes, and marvelous control of dynamics in the swells.”
By 1979, she was the principal violist of the Berkeley Symphony. When the orchestra decided to mount a production of “Hansel and Gretel” at San Quentin State Prison, she volunteered for the role of Hansel. Under these fittingly unconventional circumstances she made her operatic début. She took up singing full time while studying in Boston in the early eighties, drawing notice first for her precisely expressive accounts of Bach cantatas at Emmanuel Church and then for her work in radical opera productions, by Peter Sellars, of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” She rose to fame in Europe in the mid-nineties, mainly on the strength of an instantly legendary performance in Sellars’s production of Handel’s “Theodora” at the Glyndebourne Festival, in 1996. She made a belated Metropolitan Opera début in 1999, in John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby.” The ovations that greeted her Dido in “Les Troyens” at the Met, in 2003, signified her assumption of diva status.
“Lorraine’s a bit of a nut,” people in the music business used to say. They were referring to her Northern California nature—her spiritual pursuits, her interest in astrology, her enthusiasm for alternative medicine. She sometimes unnerved her colleagues with her raucous sense of humor and her braying laugh. In retrospect, her alleged eccentricities seem essential to the evolution of her art. She broke through the façade of cool professionalism that too often prevails in the classical world, showing the kind of unchecked fervor that is more often associated with the greatest pop, jazz, and gospel singers. She was often compared to Maria Callas, but she might have been a shade closer to Mahalia Jackson.
The voice was primally beautiful, rich in tone and true in pitch. It had a wonderful way of materializing from the instrumental background, as if from the ether. In “Ombra mai fù,” from Handel’s “Xerxes,” the first note begins like an extra resonance around the strings. There was something calming and consoling about the mere fact of that sound. “Time itself stopped to listen,” Richard Dyer wrote in his obituary for the Boston Globe. Central to the singer’s repertory was a group of arias that I think of as her benedictions, her laying on of hands: “Ombra mai fù,” with which she made an overpowering first impression on New York operagoers in City Opera’s 1997 production of “Xerxes”; “As with rosy steps the morn,” from “Theodora,” which she made into an anthem of beatitude; Bach’s “Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen,” which, in an uncomfortably haunting Sellars staging, she sang while attired in a hospital gown; and the African-American spiritual “Deep River,” her signature encore. Listening closely, you could hear how immaculately crafted these performances were. Their emotional transparency was rooted in the fact that each expressive inflection was joined seamlessly to the next.
Loveliness was only the point of departure. She could also communicate passion and pain and a fearsome kind of anger. Her Xerxes whipped around to deliver an up-against-the-wall tirade in “You are spiteful, perverse, and insulting.” There was an apocalyptic quality to her rendition of “La Anunciación,” her centerpiece aria in John Adams’s Christmas oratorio, “El Niño.” When she sang Britten’s cantata “Phaedra” at the New York Philharmonic, she froze listeners in their seats with her high monotone chant of the words “I stand alone.” And as Irene, a spiritual leader of the martyrdom-bound Christians in “Theodora,” she made her voice into a kind of moral weapon. There is a DVD of the Glyndebourne “Theodora”—it is one of three essential recordings, the others being the Nonesuch CD of two Bach cantatas and the Avie CD of Handel arias—and the pivotal moment comes in the air “Bane of virtue, nurse of passions . . . Such is, prosperity, thy name.” In other words, money kills the soul. The phrase “thy name” is sung eighteen times, and by the end the voice is seared around the edges, raised up like a flaming sword. Deployed in the right way, this sound could bring down a government.
Having run the gamut from angelic serenity to angelic wrath, this most complete of singers concluded her career with a very human demonstration of love. She met Peter Lieberson in the summer of 1997, on the occasion of the première of his opera “Ashoka’s Dream,” in Santa Fe. They fell in love and eventually married, and Lieberson began to write with his wife’s voice in mind. By reputation a brilliant practitioner of twelve-tone technique, he had always had a secret yen for sensuous, late-Romantic harmony, and in “Neruda Songs" that desire came rushing to the surface. This is some of the most unabashedly lyrical music that any American composer has produced since Gershwin. It is also courageously personal music, the choice of Neruda poems seeming to acknowledge the fragility of Lorraine’s health. The final song, “Sonnet XCII,” begins, heartbreakingly, with the words “My love, if I die and you don’t—” The music is centered on a lullaby-like melody in G major, and it has the atmosphere of a motionless summer day. The vocal line ends on a B, and afterward the same note is held for two slow beats by the violas, as if they were holding the hand of the singer who came from their ranks. The composer is holding her hand, too. The last word is “Amor.”