Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died from complications from breast cancer in July of 2006 at the early age of 52, but that hasn’t stopped those that knew her, or just knew of her, from singing their admiration for her incredible talent. As many music writers have pointed out, superlatives were rarely adequate in describing her musical insight into characters. Another performer said of Hunt Lieberson that she could make you forget all that is conventional in opera–that “she could make you feel something deep and true, and that’s what opera is meant to be.”
Carroll Freeman, artistic director of UT Opera, was a close friend and colleague of Hunt Lieberson, performing with her on a number of occasions, notably the Peter Sellars production for PBS’s Great Performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni—with Hunt Lieberson as Donna Elvira and Freeman as Don Ottavio. They first met at the Castlehill Festival in Ipswich, Mass, when Freeman was doing Sellars’ Cosi Fan Tutte. However, it was in the earlier 1985 Sellars production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the Pepsico Summerfare that she began to be seriously noticed as a remarkable talent.
Hunt Lieberson had a wide repertoire including contemporary operas; she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1999 as Myrtle Wilson, the mistress of wealthy Tom Buchanan in John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. Her second appearance at the Met came in 2003 when she sang the role of Didon in a new production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens.
However, it was in Baroque works that she was unequalled. If you are unfamiliar with her work, or just need a reminder, click here for a YouTube clip of “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Serse that is an example of how perfect nuance can take a well-known aria from the ordinary to the sublime.