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Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

1954 - 2006

JUSTover a year ago I wrote on this website of my fears for the health of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson after she had to pull out of her performance of Bach Cantatas at the Barbican because of a "serious back pain". Those worst fears were come to pass on July 3, 2006 when the American mezzo-soprano died of cancer. She was 52.

Hunt Lieberson had suffered for six years with breast cancer, an illness that also took the life of her sister. She continued to perform up to just a couple of months previously when she cancelled her bookings after touring with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and performing songs written by her composer husband Peter Lieberson. A CD of those songs is due for release.

Hunt Lieberson had a rare voice, rich yet subtle, which could drain every last drop of emotion from any aria and from anyone listening to her. She excelled at Baroque music - Bach and Handel, in particular, and Mozart. But her recitals and concerts were varied and, in John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, Peter Lieberson's Ashoka's Dream and John Adams' El Niño she showed how adept she was with modern compositions.

She appeared at the Proms, performed Theodora at Glyndebourne and helped make Michael Tilson Thomas' Mahler 2 the success it was.

Born Lorraine Hunt in San Francisco into a family of musicians, she became a singer late in her life after first learning the piano, violin and viola.

She soon came under the wing of the American opera director Peter Sellers after graduating from the Boston Conservatory and it was Sellers that provided her with the performance of her life, singing the Bach Cantatas BWV 82 (Ich habe genug) and 199 (Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut). She controversially appeared on stage in a hospital gown with medical tubes coming from her after a life-support machine had been turned off for 82 and, in 199, a suicidal woman wearing a costume depicting blood in a powerful mime. Although it was a performance I was unable to see when its revival was cancelled last year, the recording of the cantatas on Nonesuch at least allows us to hear her, although without her stage presence, much of the drama is lost.

Hunt Lieberson was a very private person and because she arrived late on the scene there are too few recordings of her. Handel is well covered with her performances as Susanna and Theodora with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi. Indeed, hopefully Harmonia Mundi will also re-release, or at least make more widely available, her performances as Dido and in Clori, Tirsi e Fileno and the Messiah, among others. Her Handel Arias with Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for Avie is simply stunning.

One of my favourites is her Idamante in Mozart's Idomeneo with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras (EMI Classics).

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sung like an angel. Today she sleeps with them.

Obituary by Peter Wilson

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