Voice, Over

Remembering the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

There was an almost incredible urgency whenever Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang.The emotions behind the music were always at the surface, on display for all to see and hear. She knew where she was coming from, and she made sure that you knew, too. The American mezzo-soprano, 52, died Monday in Santa Fe, N.M., from what was likely the recurrence of breast cancer, which she had fought off more than six years ago.

Critics did somersaults over the lustrous timbre of Hunt Lieberson’s voice, which was penetrating, clear, and without the husky padding of some mezzos. But both they and audiences responded to the naked honesty that she communicated about the music she sang. She would occasionally appear to double over in pain in her performances, but it never felt like an attention-grabbing, heart-on-sleeve gambit. It was, instead, the final piece of her artistic puzzle sliding into place, making the emotion of the composer’s music seen as well as heard.

Hunt Lieberson set herself apart from her peers by shying away from the glamour of the world’s famous opera stages. She sang in two productions at the Metropolitan Opera, in 1999 and 2003, but it was in close collaborations in much more intimate settings that she flourished. Under Peter Sellars’ direction, she sang Bach’s Cantata No. 82, Ich habe genug (I Have Enough) while in a hospital gown with the tubes of a terminally ill patient protruding from her arms. Bach’s singer yearns for the release of death, and a patient in that condition certainly would. It was just the sort of imaginative yet thoroughly believable performance you could expect her to participate in.

A recording of that cantata came out in 2002 on the Nonesuch label, and, listening to Hunt Lieberson, you can begin to understand why Anthony Tommasini wrote in his New York Times obituary that her singing of the staged cantata had an “uncanny blend of ennobling grace and unbearable sadness.” She sings the opening aria with an eerie calm as the melody unfolds between her voice and an oboe d’amore. By the cantata’s end, however, she is ready for death. With rapid scales spiraling downward, her narrator is wishing for death to hurry up and arrive. Bring the pain, the sooner to end it.

But as moving as Hunt Lieberson is on that recording, I doubt that it matches what Tommasini described from the live performance. I heard her sing the mezzo solo Urlicht from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra late in March (her last concert). The words seemed to have been pulled from deep within her as she imparted how she would, as the song says, ascend into Heaven and achieve peace when she is reunited with God. She recorded that symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in 2004 and gives a much lighter, sweeter spin to the tune. She had urgency to burn in Chicago, but it’s not on the disc (though it’s still one to cherish).

Most musicians, regardless of genre, give more to a live performance than to a studio recording, but what Hunt Lieberson did went far beyond that. The force of her communication could leave audiences dazed. At a recital at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago’s northern suburbs two summers ago, listeners milled around at intermission wondering what had struck them. What moved them most, probably, was her performance of excerpts from Handel’s cantata La Lucrezia—a typical, for its time, setting of a Roman myth with plenty of space for vocal histrionics at the caprices of Fate. With her friend Peter Serkin at the piano, Hunt Lieberson grabbed the music by its throat and made the anguish palpable. Like the Bach, the Handel cantata was also recorded. But that performance that summer night seized our attention in a way that the recording can only begin to approach.

Her husband was the composer Peter Lieberson, and she performed much of his music. Her final recording includes his Rilke Songs, which were taped live at the Ravinia recital I mentioned earlier. They were another example of her collaborative instincts, singing a song cycle by her husband with a good friend accompanying her. Serkin and her husband were also friends from their New York childhoods. But basking in the luxury of being surrounded by talented people, she brought listeners into her sphere. That recording still has the immediacy of her live performances, for the simple reason it was taped at one.

Ultimately, Hunt Lieberson showed listeners the value of music whose creators had been dead for centuries. She wasn’t divorced from the larger culture and knew that Bach and Handel can still move an audience, and sang their music as if it were as relevant as Joni Mitchell’s, of whom she was a fan, or any other form of music. The last time I heard her singing, in Mahler’s symphony, she sang of how determined she was to reach Heaven. I think she is there now, but her burning intensity that evening was Heaven enough for me.