An Inner Light Extinguished: Farewell to a Great Singer

I once asked the late, esteemed voice teacher Beverley Johnson what distinguished a truly great singer. “An inner light,” she said. “Whether you’re talking about Piaf or Pavarotti, the great voices have a way of illuminating their soul.” On Monday, July 3, the most luminous voice I’ve ever heard was extinguished when the American mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died at the age of 52. I heard the news from a friend in London who’d once told me that he would fly anywhere in the world to hear Hunt Lieberson sing. “Right now,” he said, “the BBC is playing her recording of Ich Habe Genug”—a Bach cantata about longing for death, which she had performed wearing a terminal patient’s hospital gown in a controversial staging by Peter Sellars. My friend added, “It’s almost too much to bear.”

Everything this astonishing woman did was almost too much to bear. As with Maria Callas, whom she matched in eruptive intensity, Hunt Lieberson’s performances took you so deeply into what she was singing about that the experience verged on voyeurism. Although opera thrives on tragedy, operatic singers who possess a genuine tragic sensibility are rare. Hunt Lieberson was perhaps the most innately tragic singer since Callas. “I don’t know why,” she once told me, “but sorrow comes naturally to me.” Her voice—which carried an ineradicable melancholy that made her a peerless interpreter of Handel’s noble, abandoned heroines—glowed in the dark, the only light in the forest.

I first encountered her as Lorraine Hunt years before she added the surname of the gifted composer Peter Lieberson, whom she married in 1999. The occasion was a benefit for the New York Festival of Song at Leonard Bernstein’s apartment in the Dakota. I stood five feet from her as she sang a mesmerizing group of Spanish songs. Afterward, I went up to her and said, “You have one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard. Who are you?”

She said with the hint of a smile, “I’m a violist.”

It was true: Until recently, she’d supported herself as a freelance violist in Boston. Only after her viola was stolen from her loft had she taken up vocal studies (at the relatively late age of 26). She went on to incorporate that instrument’s dark, consoling nature into her art. I once asked Craig Smith, an early mentor and the music director of Emmanuel Church in Boston’s Back Bay, what made the sound of her voice so special. He said, “I think it’s her training as a violist. A viola is a middle voice—it has to be alert to everything around it.”

A kind of radiant alertness was the essence of her magnetism, as I was to observe on many occasions until her final New York appearance last November in Carnegie Hall, where she sang five love sonnets by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, set to music passionately tailored to her talents by her husband. Eschewing conventional career choices, she always confined her appearances to roles and settings in which she could be wholly herself—Baroque rarities by Rameau and Charpentier; radical stagings by Mr. Sellars of Handel and Mozart operas; world premieres of Mr. Lieberson’s Buddhist opera Ashoka’s Dream and John Adams’ oratorio El Niño; Mark Morris’ dance settings of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato; the secondary role of the seduced and betrayed Myrtle Wilson in John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby and her blazing Dido in Berlioz’s The Trojans—her only two operas at the Met.

She was equally particular about her small but uniformly splendid assortment of recordings. Listen to her singing of “Lord, to thee each night and day,” a magnificent prayer from the oratorio Theodora, included in a collection of Handel arias for the Avie label, and you’ll feel that mankind may be redeemable after all.

I got to know her offstage while profiling her for The New Yorker three years ago. Militantly private (she never had a press agent), she nonetheless allowed me to sit in on her intensive preparations for concert performances of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink. To witness the painstaking process by which she became Mélisande was to be amazed by the sheer linguistic and vocal detail she absorbed so that this most elusive of operatic heroines would emerge as not just the usual lost waif, but as a real woman in palpable pain.

Peter Sellars described his first experience of hearing her sing as being “in the middle of this raging forest fire.” It was a fire she could control with consummate artistry but not put out. One night in Santa Fe, I went with her and her husband, Peter, to a local movie house to see Mystic River. Afterward, outside on the street, she decried what she felt were the “false notes” of Sean Penn’s “overwrought” performance. As her voice rose and Peter and I tried to calm her down with remarks like “It’s only a movie,” I realized that she was not just raging at what she perceived to be another performer’s wrong choices, but talking fiercely to herself about the danger of indulging in histrionics at the expense of truth.

It was a temptation she never fell into—in her art or in her life. Six years ago, she underwent a lumpectomy for breast cancer and was later advised to have chemotherapy. She rejected that option in favor of an alternative treatment in Europe. During the past year and a half, she suffered excruciating back pains that caused her to cancel most of her concert and opera engagements. Several months ago, she was faced with the cancer’s recurrence. After she died, one of her closest friends said to me, “There’s no point second-guessing what happened. She had to do it her way. She was Lorraine.”