Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: inimitable, indispensable voice

A week or two back I belatedly eulogized the tenor Jerry Hadley, who in his prime owned a glorious spinto tenor but who met a horrid and ludicrous end on July 17, 2007.

Then there was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the accidental mezzo soprano who started to be–and became–an orchestra violist, but who had known about her voice for years before. I would, for example, give anything to hear the Saint-Saens “Mon Coeur S’ouvre a ta Voix” she performed with the Oakland Youth Orchestra in 1972.  I’d warrant it “was all there” even then.


Using her maiden name, Hunt moved inexorably toward vocal music, all the while maintaining (for my ear) the instrumental sensitivity of an orchestral musician.  I never caught a sense of “I’m a big star”; instead, “I am an ensemble player who happens to have a reasonably good voice.” Indeed she did.

She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1999, in a subsidiary role in her friend John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, ironically starring Jerry Hadley.  That same year she married the composer Peter Lieberson and chose to keep her name while adopting his. She sang mainly baroque opera. Her great operatic triumph came in 2003, portraying Dido in the second part of Berlioz’ Les Troyens.  For her Lieberson wrote the Neruda Songs, which I recall has been judged the greatest musical gift of love one human being has given another (at the very least it stands alongside the Wesensdonck songs). To hear the eerie and beautiful “‘Amor mio, si muero y tu no mueres (My love, if I die and you don’t–)’ is to be in the place of acceptance–for surely they both knew she was dying–and to rise above it to a place where love indeed can conquer death by leaving its mark on mortality.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died on July 3, 2006, age 52, and the New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote about her almost worshipfully “She was the most remarkable singer I ever heard.”

I’m a bit reluctant to go that far, but there was something so expressive in that voice that you are almost physically shaken to sit still and listen. To listen to her with Simon Keenlyside perform Pelleas et Melisande at Tanglewood in 2003 is to hear a level of greatness of which most people can only dream.

Richard Avedon photographed her late in his own life–the photo is above. It does not deny the aging process but shows a serene and lovely visage.
Attend then to this: a Ravel Vocalise without words, something that requires the purest of voices, and something that still makes my throat tighten.

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