Because she died early and her celebrity came late, and because she always sang as if she were on intimate terms with death, a whiff of tragedy clings to the recordings of mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. In her recital performance of Mahler’s orchestral song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” she practically exhales the opening words (“I am lost to the world”) in a voice that buzzes with desolate pallor. As the song goes on, her timbre ripens into a complicated, iridescent sound, with downy highs and woody lows. But it’s her emotional eloquence, not just the quality of her vocal cords, that is the root of her expressive power. The moment comes from a live concert, and those could be devastating events, explorations of melancholy in all its seductive shades. The very next number, “Scherza infida” from Handel’s Ariodante, is a contemplation of suicide, which Lieberson pumps full of vibrant, extroverted rage.
It would be unfair to see her as just a virtuoso of depression. Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und -Leben charts a young woman’s sentimental journey from bubbly girlishness to her first taste of maturity, and Lieberson is as comfortable with naÃ¯ve joy as she is with the burdens of wisdom. In “Helft Mir, Ihr Schwestern,” she calls giddily for help in making herself pretty for the man that the listener knows from the get-go will ultimately disappoint her. The singer knows it, too, but she’s doesn’t let on, instead caressing the lilting carillon tune with simple, clear-voiced verve.
But it’s true that uncomplicated joy made only cameo appearances in her repertoire. She was a knowledgeable guide to life’s intricate sadness and her voice could feel like the palm of a hand pressing against the heart. A freshly released concert recording of Berlioz’s Nuits d’Ã©tÃ© reveals her ability to project extremes of emotion, from bliss to abject sorrow and back again, with an exquisite balance of urgency and restraint.
She began her career as a freelance violist in Boston before she recognized the Stradivarius in her larynx. Slowly, and on her own terms, she worked her way to the top of the list of indispensable singers. She skipped all the marquee roles she might have blazed through early on, and dwelled instead in the reeds of baroque and 20th-century opera. One doesn’t become a diva singing Britten and Purcell.
It was as Lorraine Hunt that she sang an unforgettable run of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse in Italian) at New York City Opera in 1997, opposite the male alto David Daniels. The da capo aria, the standard baroque form, is a number that gets to the end, then starts again from the top. She was the rare singer who made that wholesale repetition seem vital. She used it to burrow into the character’s core, to distill an emotion until it was hard to bear. The intensity she brought to Handel comes through in an unmissable album of arias that ranges from the spectacular subtlety of “As with Rosy Steps the Morn,” from Theodora, in which she delicately threads her voice among the plush strings, to the show-stopping “Se bramate d’amar” from Serse (Xerxes).
Lieberson needed fame less than other singers and she refused to sing the roles that might have gotten it for her sooner. She believed that she existed to serve music, rather than the other way around. She sang for composers and they wrote for her, especially John Adams, John Harbison and Peter Lieberson, whom she married in 1998. When they met, Lieberson was a successful composer of big, bristling pieces that almost always referred to his practice of Tibetan Buddhism. With Lorraine, he discovered melody. He composed the darkly romantic “Rilke Songs” for her, exploring the subtleties of her sound with sensual intimacy.
Vibrant as she was, she specialized in death. Already in the early 1990s, her rendition of “Dido’s Lament” from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was a tour de force of morbid beauty. In a memorable collaboration with the director Peter Sellars, she performed a pair of Bach Cantatas, Nos. 82 and 199, as the expressions of a soul on the fringes of death. Bach never wrote an opera, but Sellars transformed his vocal music into stark monodramas. Lieberson appeared on a bare, dim stage, with an endless, looping scarf that played an assortment of roles – noose, prayer mat, newborn child, a suffering woman’s lifeline. The texts for Bach’s cantatas are internal monologues, but Lieberson sang them as narratives: 199 observes a ravaged soul on the brink of suicide, 82 chronicles the final half-hour of a person’s life, from wistfulness to ecstasy. The result of all the stage business was an interpretation full of visceral struggle: the shudder of fear, the violence of doubt, the sheer weightlessness of bliss.
Lieberson died of cancer in 2006, a great, great singer who was prevented from becoming a household name by good priorities and poor health. Often she would end a concert with an encore of Bob Telson’s poignantly plaintive “Calling You” from the movie Baghdad CafÃ©, which was enough to suggest that if the idea had struck her fancy, she could have been a pop star, too.