Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Remembered

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

Her voice is filling the room and you don’t know where it’s coming from… She is going right to the heart of a suffering person, not to increase the suffering, but to heal it, to release it, to offer some kind of balm… which is what her voice ends up doing. It can be piercing and shocking in its intensity, and then this incredible balm of compassion and tenderness, of generosity that is poured out of her voice like a kind of liquid that is there to heal.

Peter Sellars

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson [Anne-Marie Le Ble]

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the most celebrated operatic singer of her generation, died last week at the age of 52.

Famously, Hunt Lieberson’s professional singing career started late. A freelance violist who never stopped taking singing lessons, she didn’t begin singing full time until the age of 26. Critics were quick to point out that even if she stopped playing the viola, she never forgot its dusky-voiced lessons: Be musically aware, and listen to the voices around you. (There will most likely always be voices around you.) The violins — and sopranos — can have their higher registers. You have richness and power, sensuality and depth. Use them.

I’ve tried, while writing this post, to listen once again to her Bach Cantatas, and I’ve found that I couldn’t concentrate on the task at hand. I’ve probably listened to the recording 50 times in the last year and a half, and her emotional range — from ferocity to resignation, brooding to sweetness, agony to transcendance — has always verged on being too much to bear. But now these cantatas (“Ich Habe Genug” or “I Have Enough,” and “Mein Herz Schwimmt In Blut” or “My Heart Swims in Blood”), are simply overwhelming.

“I delight in my death,” she sings. “Ah, if it were only present already! Then I will emerge from all the suffering that still binds me to the world.” Also: “Ah! if only the Lord might rescue me from the chains of my body. Ah! were only my departure here, with joy I would say, world, to you: I have enough.”

The outpouring of the last week — from fans, critics, fellow musicians, anyone who was touched by her magical voice — has confirmed just the opposite: We have all we’re going to get from Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and it doesn’t seem like enough. Not nearly.

As a woman named Alice Asquith wrote in response to an article in the Boston Phoenix online, “I guess the angels couldn’t wait any longer to have her join their choir.”

Update, 7/13/06

In my breathless rhapsodizing I forgot to actually include any questions here, and I’m grateful to Jackson for getting the ball rolling. “While we are remembering LHL,” he asks, “what other singers out there are working with both their hearts and their brains?” To which I’d add: Did you ever see Hunt Lieberson perform? Did you perform with her? What will you remember her for?

Craig Smith

Conductor, Bach Cantatas, BWV 82 and 199

Artistic Director, Emmanuel Music

Peter Sellars

Director, Bach Cantatas, BWV 82 and 199

Professor of World Arts and Cultures, UCLA

Peggy Pearson

Oboist, Emmanuel Music

Drew Minter


Visiting Assistant Professor of Voice, Vassar College

Monsieur C

Singer and blogger, The Standing Room

Patricia Emerson Mitchell

Oboist and blogger, Oboeinsight

Anne-Carolyn Bird

Opera Singer and blogger, The Concert

Extra Credit Reading

Patrick Vaz, …as with rosy steps the morn, The Reverberate Hills, July 6, 2006.

Leon Dominguez, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Sieglinde’s Diaries, July 9, 2006. Also, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, November 29, 2005.

Maury D’Annato, My Favorite Intermissions, July 4, 2006

Live Stream of the Bach Cantatas, Nonesuch Radio, July 5, 2006.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Interview, KUAT-FM archives, [from Fanfare Magazine], July 6, 2006

Charles Michener, The Soul Singer, The New Yorker, January 5, 2004.

Craig Smith, Famed Mezzo-Soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson dies, The New Mexican, July 5, 2006.

David Patrick Stearns, A vocalist who invaded the soul, The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 6, 2006.

Marc Geelhoed, Voice, Over: Remembering the mezzo-soprano, Slate, July 7, 2006. [Thanks Jackson]

Related Content

  • Jackson

    An interesting comment in the Slate obit for LHL — something to the effect that she could make Bach and Handel as “relevant” as Joni Mitchell. You’ll find it here:


    I won’t dwell on why music critics feel compelled to say such stupid things — the word “relevant” alone is just so twentieth century, don’t you think? — but it’s not necessarily a bad point for all that. LHL’s voice is extraordinarily personal — “personal” as in “personality,” for one thing. Rich in character, distinctive. As a performer, she had a strong and wonderful affinity for the meaning of texts (maybe that’s where the Mitchell comment came from) and a rare gift for letting the words with music be the focus of her performance.

    And while we are remembering LHL, what other singers out there are working with both their hearts and their brains?

  • Noteman

    I remember many truly luminous and dramatic performances of works as diverse as Berlioz’s “L’Enfance du Christ” (with Lorraine as a warm, deeply caring mother of the infant Jesus the family departs for Egypt to avoid Herod) and Handel’s “Hercules,” in which she sang the role of Dejanira, Hercules’ insanely jealous wife, with an energy that was positively frightening.

    But, for personal reasons, this week I pulled out a recording of a simple song by Fauré, “Melisande’s Song”, which was written for an English production of Maeterlinck’s play in the late 1890s. This song has never been published, but it was performed in a Boston Symphony concert conducted by Simon Rattle as an insertion into Fauré’s suite of music from the play.

    Several years later, the BSO was scheduled for a weekend recording session in which everything had to be changed at the last minute, because the pianist scheduled to record the Liszt concertos was sick. The DG producer, recording engineer, and equipment were all there, and the BSO schedule had been mapped to include the session. They decided to record some music that the orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus had recently performed to produce an all-Fauré disk–with the “Pelléas et Mélisande” suite as one of the featured works.

    I recalled the lovely song of Mélisande from several years earlier and suggested to Costa Pilavachi, the BSO’s artistic administrator, that including this unpublished song would make the recording unique. He ran the idea past Seiji, who thought it was a good one–provided they could get the music. Happily the orchestra’s librarian had retained photocopies of the manuscript score and parts. All that remained was to find a singer on a few hours’ notice. The soprano who had originally sung the piece under Rattle’s direction was nowhere near. But Lorraine Hunt had begun to make her mark as a singer in Boston, so Costa called her to see if she was available and interested.

    An hour later on that Saturday morning, she came to Symphony Hall, looked at the piece, and agreed to sing it. A few hours later, the song was “in the can.” This turned out to be Lorraine’s first commercial recording–and even with so simple a musical number, many reviewers commented on the vocal beauty, the impeccable diction, and the expressive artistry of this still-unknown singer.

    She made many memorable recordings after that, but, for obvious reasons, I have a special fondness for this one (DG 423089).

    Steve Ledbetter

  • loki

    Deo Gratias!

  • calkol

    This gathering in honor of Lorraine Hunt Liberson is the memorial service I needed to

    ease the loss. It is wonderful to hear colleagues speak of her with such insight and

    intimacy. I was present at the Boston performance of the Cantatas 82 and 199, and

    just this past spring, the Neruda Songs.

    Thank you all for keeping her sigular flame glowing.

  • Pingback: The Standing Room()

  • This was a very moving show. I’m afraid I didn’t know her work while she was alive, but I found this a profound and touching discussion. Well done!

  • gronwi

    A moving show indeed – thank you. I wonder has anyone else noticed the biographical coincidences with the great English contralto, Kathleen Ferrier. They both started as instrumentalists, in Ferrier’s case as a pianist. They both acquired the adoration of their colleagues and listeners. And in both cases what is reported of them is their love of life, their earthy humour, but, above all, the deep integration of their musicianship and their personalities. The story is well known that when Ferrier first performed “DasLied von der Erde” with Bruno Walter at the 1947 Edinburgh Festival; at the end of the “Abschied” she was in tears and could not sing the final few notes. When she apologised to the conductor afterwards for this “unprofessional” behaviour Walter replied: “My dear Miss Ferrier, if we were all such great artists as yourself, we should all have been in tears” And, of course, sadly, both of these great singers were lost to us in mid-career, both dying from breast cancer.

  • grahamden


    I was struck by the obvious power of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson story and what a great tragedy her loss was, particularly from cancer. I wonder how many of her doctors, nurses and others who care for her knew who she was. I am an active Nurse Practitioner in a ER/UCC for cancer patients and try to remind my self and my student NP’s to make an effort to “find out� who are the people we care for.

    Much is made of the mind body connection to cancer but little is every made of the provider patient connection. What is it that makes us who we are and how can I your care giver enter this space.

    How do we teach others to make a connection to the human side of disease? How much easier would it be to care for an illness if we knew a little about the person who has it?

    As the old folk song lyric went, “the nurses didn’t know it, but my grandmother was a poet�.

    Dennis Graham RN NP

    Nurse Practitioner Clinical Program Director

    Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

    1275 York Avenue

    New York NY 10021

    Office 212 639-3028

    Fax 212 717-3568


  • NWnet

    Yesterday, in my online meanderings I came upon a link on NPR recalling Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and I listened… her voice, so rich, so vibrant, vital and immensely moving and spiritual… a treasure so wonderful that I continued to search for more… Reading and listening here of her life and music and the depth of her courage remind one that life is ours to treasure and the gifts and talents ours to polish and share openly… without restraint and to follow life through with humor and intensity. Sadly I’ll not hear her in person, but the timbre of her life will play on, a reminder to live life and enjoy it fully.

    To be sure, I’ll continue to seek her music as salve for the soul with its depth of feeling bringing peace even beyond death.

    Thank you for sharing Lorraine with those of us who for whatever reason. missed her presence while she was here… There is no doubt for me… her voice is the most beautiful — honest, pure, unforced, and moving — that I have ever heard…