We have lost a great, great artist. Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, 52, who had previously triumphed over breast cancer, died at her home in Santa Fe on July 3. Her New York Times obituary did not specify the cause of death, sparking speculation that Hunt Lieberson’s was due to a recurrence of the disease.
Raised in the Bay Area by musician parents, Lorraine originally studied and performed as a violist. Undertaking singing at the age of 26, her voice conveyed the heart-tugging depth and dry, velvet smoothness of the viola at its best. Known equally for her ability to articulate florid runs of early music composers (such as Handel, Purcell, Bach and Charpentier) as though navigating untroubled waters, and instilling her interpretations with a transcendent, breath-arresting intensity, her loss leaves an ache in the hearts of those privileged enough to have witnessed her perform in person.
This music critic had the privilege of attending Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Cal Performances recital of April 29, 2001, and reviewing it for andante.com. After opening with an aria from Handel’s Ariodante and singing excerpts from her husband Peter Lieberson’s Rilke Songs and opera Ashoka’s Dream (which she premiered at the Santa Fe Opera), Hunt Lieberson devoted the second half of the concert to a mesmerizing performance of Robert Schumann’s song cycle of love and loss, Frauenliebe und Leben. All distance between performer and audience vanished as she lived the life of a woman first enamored, then abandoned. Lorraine’s naked honesty, emotional directness and wealth of softly breathed nuance not only moved many present to tears, but also served to communicate the depth of her love for her husband, whom she introduced to the audience.
The brilliant director Peter Sellars recognized Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's gifts in 1985, directing her in a controversial production of Mozart's Don Giovanni that daringly played on racial stereotypes. He also directed her in Handel's Giulio Cesare and Theodora, John Adams' El Nino (Nonesuch Records/Arthaus Musik DVD) and a gut-wrenching staging of Bach cantatas in which she appeared in a hospital gown with medical tubes emerging from her body as she sang of her readiness to die.
Another Hunt Lieberson champion was conductor Nicholas McGegan, who worked with her in a series of marvelous Handel recordings, many with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Reached at his home in the Berkeley hills, McGegan said of his colleague:
"She was the most passionate singer I have ever heard. I was just amazed that she could transform the simple notes on the page into such ravishing and heartfelt music. It took one's breath away!
"One of the highlights of my entire life was performing Berlioz Les Nuits d'Été with her in 1995. On stage she was absolutely electrifying. Whatever the emotion of the music, she made you feel it to the utmost degree. I feel so lucky to have known and worked with her."
Indispensable to her much too small discography are two Grammy-nominated discs--Bach Cantatas (Nonesuch) and a transcendently beautiful audiophile quality multi-channel SACD of Handel Arias (Avie). The Avie disc in particular offers a rare marriage of superb sound and unrivaled artistry. Also notable in that regard are her brief contributions to Michael Tilson Thomas’ multi-channel SACD of Mahler’s remarkable Second Symphony (San Francisco Symphony).