From the New York Times
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Luminous Mezzo, Dies at 52
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Published: July 5, 2006
The mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who won near universal
praise from critics and audiences for her courageous, insightful
and deeply affecting artistry, died on Monday at her home in
Santa Fe, N.M. She was 52.
Her death was reported by Alec C. Treuhaft, senior vice president
of IMG Artists, speaking on behalf of the singer's husband, the
composer Peter Lieberson. Mr. Treuhaft would only say that Ms.
Hunt Lieberson had died "after a long illness."
For the last 18 months she had sung only sporadically, canceling
most performances, citing lingering problems from an injury to
her lower back as the cause. Yet she had had a public bout with
breast cancer some years ago, which caused her to withdraw from,
among other major performances, the premiere of Kaija Saariaho's
opera "L'Amour de Loin" at the Salzburg Festival in 2000. Mr.
Treuhaft said that even close associates of Ms. Hunt Lieberson,
an intensely private person, did not realize that her illness
had become so critical in recent weeks.
If she rarely spoke of her private life, few artists have brought
such emotional vulnerability to their work, whether it was her
sultry portrayal of Myrtle Wilson, the mistress of wealthy Tom
Buchanan in John Harbison's "Great Gatsby," the role of her 1999
Metropolitan Opera debut, or her shattering performances several
years ago in two Bach cantatas for solo voice and orchestra,
staged by the director Peter Sellars, seen in Lincoln Center's
New Visions series, with the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, Craig
In Cantata No. 82, "Ich Habe Genug" ("I Have Enough"), Ms. Hunt
Lieberson, wearing a flimsy hospital gown and thick woolen socks,
her face contorted with pain and yearning, portrayed a terminally
ill patient who, no longer able to endure treatments, wants to
let go and be comforted by Jesus. During one consoling aria,
"Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen" ("Slumber now, weary eyes"),
she yanked tubes from her arms and sang the spiraling melody
with an uncanny blend of ennobling grace and unbearable sadness.
Still, vocal artistry alone could not account for the impact of
Ms. Hunt Lieberson's performances and her consequent desire to
keep her private life private, as Mr. Harbison, quoted in an
article in The New York Times last year, explained. "Lorraine
gives so much of her inner soul," he said, "that that's what she
owes the public."
Ms. Hunt Lieberson had a maverick career. She brought uncompromising
integrity to her choice of roles and repertory, was a champion
of Baroque operas and of living composers, and preferred to work
in close-knit conditions with directors and ensembles who shared
her artistic aims, especially at festivals like Glyndebourne in
England and Aix-en-Provence in France.
That she began her professional life as a freelance violist and
did not focus fully on singing until she was 26 may account for
the musical depth and intelligence of her vocal artistry. One
of her closest colleagues, Craig Smith, the Boston-based conductor
and choir director, said as much in a 2004 profile of Ms. Hunt
Lieberson by Charles Michener in The New Yorker. "There's something
viola-like about the rich graininess of her singing, about her
ability to sound a tone from nothing," he was quoted as saying,
adding, "There's no sudden switching on of the voice, no click."
Though her work seldom drew less than raves from critics, her
singing eluded description. Despite the gleaming richness of her
sound, her voice somehow conveyed poignant intimacy. Although
she paid scrupulous attention to rhythm, phrasing and text, she
came across as utterly spontaneous. Her person disappeared into
her performances. And yet in a Handel aria, a Britten cantata
or a song by her husband, she could be so revealing you sometimes
wanted to avert your eyes for fear of intruding.
It was typical of the self-effacing Ms. Hunt Lieberson to be drawn
to the secondary role of Myrtle in "The Great Gatsby" for her Met
debut. Her second appearance in a Met production came in 2003 when
she sang the role of Dido in the new staging of Berlioz's epic "Les
Troyens." With this luminous, stylistically informed and emotionally
true portrayal she showed that she could galvanize the Met's stage
in a major role. She was scheduled to return this coming season in a
new production by Mark Morris of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice," singing
Lorraine Hunt was born on March 1, 1954, in San Francisco to musical
parents: Randolph Hunt, a music teacher and a conductor of community
ensembles and operas, and Marcia Hunt, a contralto and a voice teacher.
Her parents survive her, along with two siblings, Stan Hunt Hunt.
Another sister, Alexis, died of cancer six years ago.
Her taskmaster father was single-minded in his desire to develop
her musical gifts, arranging first for her to study the piano
and then the violin, she said in the New Yorker profile. At 12
she switched to viola and began playing in youth orchestras and
singing in the high school choir.
She studied voice and viola at San Jose State University and,
upon graduation, became a freelance player in the Bay Area
noted for her expertise in contemporary music. She played in a
cutting-edge string quartet called "Novaj Kordoj" (Esperanto for
"New Strings"). When a French horn player she was dating got a
job with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she moved with him to
Boston, soon becoming a valued freelance musician. She was
particularly drawn to the music program at Emmanuel Church in
the Back Bay section of Boston, where Mr. Smith conducted the
orchestra and choir. But during these years she also studied
voice at Boston Conservatory.
Her breakthrough as a singer came with the Pepsico Summerfare
festival in Purchase, N.Y., in 1985 when she was cast by Mr.
Sellars in his production of Handel's "Giulio Cesare." Her role
was Sesto, the avenging son of Pompey, though in this production,
zapped to the present day Middle East, Sesto was a terrorist
armed with an Uzi. While Mr. Sellars's work was predictably
controversial, Ms. Hunt Lieberson emerged as an exciting vocal
For the next decade her career thrived as she collaborated with
the early-music conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia
Baroque Orchestra on a series of Harmonia Mundi recordings of
Handel operas and oratorios ("Susanna," "Theodora," "Ariodante");
took part in Mr. Sellars's updated production of Mozart's "Don
Giovanni" and, later, his triumphant staging of "Theodora" at
Glyndebourne; and worked with William Christie and other major
She met Mr. Lieberson in 1997 when he selected her to sing in
the premiere of his opera "Ashoka's Dream" at the Santa Fe Opera.
The story tells of an Indian emperor in the third century B.C.
who renounces violence after converting to Buddhism and inspires
trust and generosity among his people. Ms. Hunt Lieberson sang
Triraksha, Ashoka's consort.
She and Mr. Lieberson, a practicing Buddhist since his
graduate-student days at Columbia, were immediately drawn to
each other. At the time he was married with three daughters.
After an understandably upsetting divorce for Mr. Lieberson, he
and Ms. Hunt Lieberson were married in 1999. Their closeness was
apparent to anyone who observed them onstage at Symphony Hall
in Boston in November during the ovations for "Neruda Songs,"
Mr. Lieberson's setting of five Spanish sonnets by Pablo Neruda,
each a reflection of a different aspect of love.
The performance, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted
by James Levine, was repeated a few days later at Carnegie Hall.
Every phrase of this emotionally unguarded, intricate and haunting
work seemed fashioned by the composer for his wife's distinctive
voice. It would be her last New York performance.
Joan Boorstein <[log in to unmask]>