Tuesday, September 19, 2006

On The Alchemical Transmutation Of A Soul Through Classical Music: From Delilah To Theodora To Triraksha To Dido To Disembodied Love

"On the day before the Fourth of July, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died of complications from breast cancer, at the age of fifty-two. News of her passing aroused little interest outside the classical-music world, since she was hardly a household name, and lacked even the intermittently twinkling, Sunday-morning-television stardom achieved by the likes of Renée Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma. She recorded infrequently in later years; she was shy about being interviewed; she had no press agent. Her fame consisted of an ever-widening swath of ardor and awe that she left in her wake whenever she sang. Among those who had been strongly affected by her work, there was a peculiarly intense kind of grief.

I was one of those people. In recent years, I found it hard to assume a pose of critical distance from this artist, even though I never got closer to her than Row H. In the days after she died, I tried to write about her, and failed. It felt wrong to call her “great” and “extraordinary,” or to throw around diva-worship words like “goddess” and “immortal,” because those words placed her on a pedestal, whereas the warmth in her voice always brought her close. Nonetheless, empty superlatives will have to do. She was the most remarkable singer I ever heard. She was incapable of giving a routine performance—I saw her twelve times, and each appearance had something explosively distinctive about it—and her career took the form of a continuous ascent. New Yorkers saw her for the final time last November, when she came to town with the Boston Symphony to perform “Neruda Songs,” composed by her husband, Peter Lieberson. She sang that night with such undiminished power that it seemed as though she would be around forever. Then she was gone, leaving the apex vacant.

She was born Lorraine Hunt, in San Francisco, the daughter of two exacting Bay Area music teachers. She grew up studying piano, violin, and viola, settling on the viola as her main instrument. She made relatively few public appearances as a singer in her youth, but when she did she invariably 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” ...

She rose to fame in Europe in the mid-nineties, 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 début 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....

Having run the gamut from angelic serenity to angelic wrath, this most complete of singers concluded her career with a very human demonstration of love. She met Peter Lieberson in the summer of 1997, on the occasion of the première of his opera “Ashoka’s Dream,” in Santa Fe. They fell in love and eventually married, and Lieberson began to write with his wife’s voice in mind. By reputation a brilliant practitioner of twelve-tone technique, he had always had a secret yen for sensuous, late-Romantic harmony, and in “Neruda Songs,” a recording of which is not yet available, that desire came rushing to the surface. This is some of the most unabashedly lyrical music that any American composer has produced since Gershwin. It is also courageously personal music, the choice of Neruda poems seeming to acknowledge the fragility of Lorraine’s health. The final song, “Sonnet XCII,” begins, heartbreakingly, with the words “My love, if I die and you don’t—” The music is centered on a lullaby-like melody in G major, and it has the atmosphere of a motionless summer day. The vocal line ends on a B, and afterward the same note is held for two slow beats by the violas, as if they were holding the hand of the singer who came from their ranks. The composer is holding her hand, too. The last word is “Amor.”"

Alex Ross "FERVOR: Remembering Lorraine Hunt Lieberson" The New Yorker Issue of 2006-09-25 Posted 2006-09-18


Dido and Aeneas in cave

Folio 106, recto: Aeneid 4.160ff.

Index of Images From Vergil MSS Vat. lat. 3225 and 3867
Vat. lat. 3867 = Romanus, R in Mynors' text

Image credit: University of Pennsylvania. With thanks.


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