Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

Opera and concert mezzo-soprano
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The Independent Online

The American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was a singer who specialised in both Baroque and contemporary music - equally at home in music by Bach, Handel and Mozart as in the latest scores of John Adams, John Harbison or her husband Peter Lieberson. Occasionally she ventured into the 19th-century repertory, as Bizet's Carmen, Berlioz' Dido in Les Troyens or the songs of Mahler. Though her career was spent mostly in the United States, she sang in Paris, Edinburgh, Aix-en-Provence and at Glyndebourne, where her wonderful performances of Irene in Handel's Theodora in 1996 and 2003 will be remembered by everyone who heard them.

Lorraine Hunt, as she then was, was born in San Francisco in 1954. She studied voice and the viola at San Jose University, and then worked as a freelance viola player, at first in San Jose and later in Boston. After further vocal studies at Boston Conservatory, she made her first professional appearance as a singer in 1985 at Purchase, New York, in the Pepsico Summerpark, as Sesto in Handel's Giulio Cesare, directed by Peter Sellars and set in a modern Cairo beset by terrorists. Hunt was an instant success; her beautiful voice, innate musicianship, perfect diction and above all her complete dramatic dedication to the character she played impressed everyone.

Hunt returned to Purchase in 1987, this time as a punk Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni. She also sang the Composer in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and repeated Sesto in Sellars's production of Giulio Cesare in Boston and, the following year, in Brussels. She sang two more Mozart roles in 1990, Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro at St Louis and Tamiri in an earlier opera, Il re pastore, at University College Los Angeles. Divine Justice in Die Schuldigheit des ersten Gebots (written when Mozart was 11) took her to Aix-en-Provence in 1991.

Her next new role, Sesto in Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, marked a huge step forward in her artistic development. Handel's Sesto is a boy trying to assume the duties of a man when his father is killed; Mozart's Sesto is a man trying to regain his self-respect after an ignoble action (which luckily misfires) caused by an obsessive love, and Hunt's interpretation mirrored this development faithfully.

She returned to Houston the following year for one of her 19th-century excursions, as Nichlausse and the Muse in Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann. In 1992 she also sang in a concert performance of Purcell's The Faery Queen with the London Baroque Players at the Royal Festival Hall.

If Peter Sellars was the chief influence on Hunt's early career, the conductor William Christie, director of Les Arts Florissants, became equally influential during the 1990s. She sang the title role of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Médée under Christie's direction at the Paris Opéra Comique in 1992, earning great admiration and repeating the role in Lisbon in 1994 with equal success. After another 19th-century excursion, this time the title role of Bizet's Carmen in Boston, in 1995 she scored a triumph in the Handel Festival at Göttingen, singing the title role of Ariodante.

Returning to Boston in 1996 she found another rewarding Handel portrayal in the title role of Serse (Xerxes) and that summer she appeared at Glyndebourne as Irene in Handel's Theodora, conducted by Christie and directed by Sellars. Irene, though not the main character, has some of the finest music and Hunt was greatly applauded for her magnificent singing. That year she also sang Phaedra in Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie at the Opéra Garnier in Paris, conducted by Christie. This production was toured to various venues in France and to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1997.

Nineteen ninety-seven was to prove a watershed in Hunt's life and career. After a much-praised Charlotte in Massenet's Werther at Lyons, she went to Santa Fe to take part in the premiere on 30 July of an opera by Peter Lieberson, Ashoka's Dream, in which she sang Trirakshma. Lieberson, the son of Goddard Lieberson, once president of Columbia Records, and his wife the dancer Vera Zorina, chose a subject from Buddhist history (he is a Buddhist) for his first full-scale opera. He and Lorraine Hunt were married in 1999, and she became Hunt Lieberson.

After singing the title role of Serse again, this time for the New York City Opera, she sang Ottavia, Nero's deposed Empress in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea at San Francisco in 1998 and the following year Lucretia in a concert performance of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at the Edinburgh Festival. On 20 December 1999 Hunt Lieberson made her Metropolitan début as Myrtle Wilson in John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, which he had himself adapted from Scott Fitzgerald's novel. The opera had quite a success and was revived in 2002, when Hunt Lieberson again sang Myrtle.

She took part in another world premiere in December 2000, of John Adams's El Niño at the Châtelet in Paris, then returned to the Met for Bach Cantatas, two monodramas conceived and directed by Sellars. At the 2001 Edinburgh Festival she found another very sympathetic role as Dido in Les Troyens à Carthage, part II of Berlioz' epic Les Troyens, which she sang in a concert performance. This portrayal was so successful that she repeated it on stage at the Met in 2003, the year she returned to Glyndebourne to sing Irene in Theodora. That summer she sang Britten's Phaedra at a Promenade Concert at the Albert Hall.

Hunt Lieberson had a flourishing concert and recital life throughout her career. After her marriage to Lieberson she added some of his songs to her repertory, and gave the premiere of his Neruda Songs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Her performance of his Rilke Songs was recently recorded, while her recording of Handel arias with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has been greatly praised.

She died at her home in Santa Fe after a long illness had caused her to cancel her engagements for the last two years.

Elizabeth Forbes