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The Singer Who Gave the Heart Thrilling Voice

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 6, 2006; C01

The rumors were all true, alas. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson -- one of the great mezzo-sopranos of our time, a thrillingly personal artist -- was indeed suffering from terminal cancer when she appeared in Washington last March with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She died Monday at her home in Santa Fe at age 52.

For the past two years, there had been reports that Lieberson had not been well. She canceled most of her engagements, and her representatives put the word out that she was suffering from a back injury. But she summoned her strength to appear in a few choice performances, making her last appearance in Chicago with the San Francisco Symphony, only a few days after her visit to the Kennedy Center, to sing the mezzo-soprano part in Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony.

In Washington, she was heard in music composed by her husband, Peter Lieberson, a setting of five poems by Chilean author Pablo Neruda on deep and wrenching subjects such as delight and its passing, bittersweet memories, fear of separation, and transcendence beyond death. The songs are as universal as they are shatteringly personal. "When I set them, I was speaking directly to my own beloved, Lorraine," Peter Lieberson wrote in his program notes, acknowledging more than anybody wanted to believe at the time.

The "Neruda Songs" proved one of the most extraordinarily affecting artistic gifts ever created by one lover for another, a gift reciprocated by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's rapt performance, which I knew then that I would remember all my life but which now takes on an almost unbearable poignancy.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was always a deeply private person who preferred to let her music speak for her. "I like to listen to singers where I feel the direct openness of the heart in the voice," she once told the Boston Globe. "They say the eyes are the windows of the soul. You could say that the voice is the music of the soul."

She began her career as a violist and began singing professionally only in her late twenties. Even after her breakthrough performance -- as Sesto in a production of Handel's "Giulio Cesare" staged by the maverick director Peter Sellars in 1985 -- she considered singing a secondary pastime. It was only after her viola was stolen in 1988 that Hunt Lieberson (then known as Lorraine Hunt) took it as a sign and devoted her energies to singing.

Her repertory was a varied one, including a great deal of baroque music (she made recordings of several Handel oratorios and a memorable disc of Bach cantatas), romantic operas such as "Carmen" and "Les Troyens," and contemporary music by her husband and John Harbison, among others (she created the role of Myrtle Wilson in Harbison's "The Great Gatsby" at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999).

She made her first Washington area performance under unusual circumstances -- after soprano Julianne Baird was arrested by an overzealous guard at the University of Maryland following a tussle over a parking space immediately before a performance of Handel's "Israel in Egypt" in 1987. Hunt took over the role, sight-singing from the score, until intervention from the university president allowed Baird to be released from custody just in time to sing the last act. (Charges were later dropped.) In 1993, Hunt made her local recital debut, under the auspices of the Vocal Arts Society. Reviewing the performance, Joseph McLellan called her voice "well-rounded in tone, easily produced and beautifully supported over a wide range, and used with an intelligence that knows the full value of words in relation to music." She came back for another recital in 1996 and was scheduled to sing again last year, but was forced to cancel. She also dropped out of the world premiere of John Adams's "Doctor Atomic."

How fortunate we were that she kept her engagement at the Kennedy Center! When the "Neruda Songs" were over and Peter Lieberson was called to the stage, composer and soloist fell into each other's arms with the same ardor they had brought to the creation of their masterpiece (this was, after all, no time for the tidy, professional peck on the cheek). Standing ovations are almost de rigueur in the politely diplomatic city of Washington, but they are rarely delivered with such fierce and prolonged intensity. It was as though the audience wanted to replenish the elemental fire brought to us by the Liebersons with something of our own.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company