On July 3, 2006, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died of complications from breast cancer. She was fifty-two years old. Her career path to becoming a singer was unconventional – formerly a professional violist, Lieberson did not shift her full-time focus to singing until she was in her thirties. She made a number of recordings, including works of Bach and Handel, as well as modern works. She’s known for the dramatic power of her vocal artistry as well as her commitment to performing infrequently-heard Baroque eraand contemporary works.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was born in San Francisco, on 1 March 1954. She grew up in a very musical household, with both her parents being music teachers and heavily involved in opera. She grew up studying piano, violin, and viola, settling on the viola as her instrument. She gave relatively few performances as a singer in her youth, but when she did she 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 debut. 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, under the direction of Craig Smith. In an interview with Charles Michener, for a 2004 New Yorker profile, Smith related her singing to her playing: “A viola is a middle voice—it has to be alert to everything around it. There’s something viola-like about the rich graininess of her singing, about her ability to sound a tone from nothing—there’s no sudden switching on of the voice, no click. And, like most violists, she is also self-effacing: without vanity as a singer. When we first performed the Bach cantatas, she just disappeared as a person.”
Her work at Emmanuel caught the attention of the young director Peter Sellars, who, in 1985, cast her as Sesto, Pompey’s son, in a modern-dress production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. The character of Sesto became a wild-eyed young radical, swearing vengeance with an Uzi in his hands. The singer was revealed not only as a supremely musical artist but also as a keenly dramatic one. “She started singing, and you were in the middle of this raging forest fire,” Sellars recalled. “Certain things were a little out of control, but what you got was sheer power, sheer concentrated energy.”
She went on to sing in a series of Handel performances and recordings with the Philharmonia Baroque, also of Berkeley, and appeared in Mark Morris’s celebrated choreographic stagings of Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. She decided to devote herself to singing full-time only after her viola was stolen. In the 1990s, she finally began to find wider fame, 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 debut 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.
Yet she fit uneasily into the classical mainstream. “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 rattled her colleagues with her raucous sense of humor and her braying laugh. She loved all kinds of music; in private settings, she’d give scorching renditions of jazz and blues standards, and she declared herself a fan of Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, among others.
In retrospect, her extracurricular interests and supposed eccentricities were 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.