Arts & Events

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday July 28, 2006

Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, San Francisco native and a favorite among supporters of the Philharmonia Baroque, with which she sang during the 1980s and ’90s in Berkeley, died July 3 at her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

“She was the most passionate singer I have ever heard,” said Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Artistic Director and conductor. “I am just amazed that she could transform the simple notes on the page into such ravishing and heartfelt music. It took one’s breath away!” 

Tributes to Hunt Lieberson began to accumulate in music journals and on the Internet after her death was announced in a New York Times obituary on July 5. The news spread quickly through the classical music community by e-mail, messages that expressed shock as well as sadness. According to Alec C. Treuhaft, senior vice president of IMG Artists, who announced the death on behalf of composer Peter Lieberson, the singer’s husband, not even close associates had known how ill she was. The cause of death was not announced, only that the singer had died “after a long illness.”  

For more than a year, Hunt Lieberson had canceled engagements frequently, citing ongoing difficulties from a back injury. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, shortly before the death from breast cancer of her younger sister, Alexis. Hunt Lieberson dedicated her 2002 Lincoln Center performances of Bach’s Cantatas, conducted by Craig Smith and staged in a monodrama by Peter Sellars, to the memory of her sister. Singing Cantata no. 82, “Ich Habe Genug” (“I Have Enough”), she wore a hospital gown, at one point pulling medical tubes from her arms, eliciting both praise and protest at her explicit portrayal. 

“Aside from the wondrous beauty of her voice, there was an intensity of emotion that I have almost never heard from any other singer before or since,” recalled McGegan of the first time he heard Hunt Lieberson sing in Peter Sellars’ production of Handel’s Gulio Cesare in the 1985 Pepsico Summerfare Festival in Purchase, N.Y. Even though in a supporting role as Pompey’s vengeful son Sesto, conceived by Sellars as an Uzi-packing terrorist, Hunt’s talent was recognized in what was to be her breakthrough performance. 

It had been a long road to recognition for a violist who did not concentrate on singing until she was 26. 

She was born Lorraine Hunt on March 1, 1954, to a music teacher/opera conductor father, and a mother who sang contralto. “Old timers will remember her at the theater with Randy and Marsha,” said an email circulating among The Lamplighters, San Francisco’s celebrated operetta company that specializes in Gilbert and Sullivan. 

Beginning on piano and violin, “at about 12” she switched to viola, going to high school at first in Orinda, then transferring to Berkeley High School in her junior year, singing solos in Mozart’s C-Minor Mass and as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. “They had an amazing music program,” she said of her time at Berkeley High, “an orchestra and three choirs.” 

After a double major in viola and voice at San Jose State, during which, in demand as a freelance violist, she dropped her vocal studies, Hunt Lieberson played and sang pop standards with a boyfriend in a guitar-viola duo lounge act in Los Gatos, and co-founded a string quartet specializing in contemporary music, whose Esperanto name, Novaj Kordoj (“New Strings”) was suggested by composer Lou Harrison.  

In the late ’70s, Hunt Lieberson was principal violist for the Berkeley Free Orchestra, under Kent Nagano’s baton. Moving to Boston, she studied in the opera program at Boston Conservatory and played viola with the Emmanuel Church orchestra in the Back Bay neighborhood, conducted by Craig Smith, who later recommended her to Sellars. 

Hunt Lieberson went on to collaborate many times with Sellars, with director Stephen Wadsworth, and with McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque, most notably for a series of Handel oratorio performances and Harmonia Mundi recordings. 

“We lost our ‘Messiah virginity’ at the St. Louis Symphony in 1986,” recalled McGegan. “It was wonderful to watch an orchestra be totally transfixed by her artistry ... her singing of the title role in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas [with Philharmonia Baroque] was so moving that the entire audience was reduced to tears by the end of the Lament ... I feel so lucky to have known her, been her friend and to have stood by her while she sang so gloriously, night after night. Her passing like Ferrier’s is a tragic loss to the world of music.” 

Hunt Lieberson met her future husband in 1996, when she sang the part of Triraksha in his first opera, Ashoka’s Dream, at Santa Fe Opera. They were married in 1999, and she continued to debut his vocal pieces. Her performances of his “Neruda Songs” with the Boston Symphony under James Levine at Carnegie Hall last November were her last New York City performances. 

Praised for her depth of characterization and emotion, her “ability to communicate” (according to one Bay Area teacher of musical theater), her “uncompromising integrity,” her particular quality of spontaneous song, and a kind of humility, of being part of a performance, not just its star was expressed by Craig Smith, in Charles Michener’s laudatory profile of Hunt Lieberson in the January 5, 2004 New Yorker. 

He wrote: “A viola is a middle voice—it has to be alert to everything around it. There’s something viola-like in the rich graininess of her singing, about her ability to sound a tone from nothing.” 

The writer of that piece recalled their first meeting, after Hunt Lieberson sang at a benefit evening in Leonard Bernstein’s apartment in 1992: “I went up to her and said, ‘You have one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard. Who are you?’ ‘I’m a violist,’ she replied, with the trace of a smile.”