American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, a riveting singer known for her fearsome vocal and dramatic power, whether in opera or the cantatas of Bach, died peacefully at her home in Santa Fe, N.M., on Monday, according to Richard Gaddes, general director of the Santa Fe Opera. She was 52.
"It's a massive loss to the opera world," Gaddes said Tuesday. "She was one of the greatest singers of her generation. She was ... a deep, serious musician and had a great sense of theater."
Her last professional activity was touring with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in March, singing music by her husband, composer Peter Lieberson. Before and after those dates, she had canceled many engagements, including singing in Mahler's Third Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Sept. 29 through Oct. 1. She had performed regularly in Los Angeles in recent years.
The family had always declined to discuss questions about her health. Hunt Lieberson's younger sister Alexis died of breast cancer in 2000, the same year the singer was diagnosed with breast cancer. She reportedly underwent surgery in 2002, then pursued treatment at a clinic in Switzerland that uses homeopathic methods as well as more conventional treatments.
Noting that she did not want her health to be an issue, composer and longtime collaborator John Harbison told the New York Times last year, "No performer wants the listener to be distracted, least of all Lorraine. Lorraine gives so much of her inner soul that that's what she owes the public."
Hunt Lieberson was born March 1, 1954, in San Francisco, one of four children. Her father was a music teacher who conducted local community opera productions. Her mother was a singer. Hunt Lieberson began her musical career as a violist and initially regarded voice as a secondary pursuit. Only when she neared 30 did she try for a spot in a conservatory vocal program. She failed an audition for the Juilliard School and eventually attended the Boston Conservatory.
Her big break came in 1985, at 31, when Peter Sellars cast her as Sesto in a controversial production of Handel's "Giulio Cesare."
"She started singing, and you were in the middle of this raging forest fire, " Sellars recalled in a 2004 New Yorker profile of Hunt Lieberson. "Certain things were a little out of control, but what you got was sheer power, sheer concentrated energy."
After her viola was stolen in 1988, she took it as a sign that singing was her destiny.
Hunt Lieberson regularly collaborated with Sellars. He cast her as Donna Elvira in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in 1987 and nine years later as Irene in Handel's "Theodora," an oratorio about persecuted early Christians. He also made her central to his 2001 stagings of Bach's heart-wrenching solo Cantatas Nos. 82 ("Ich habe genug"; It is Enough) and 199 ("Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut"; My Heart is Bathed in Blood).
"People say it must be hard to do this, dredge it all up from your heart," she said of her Bach performance in an interview with the London Sunday Telegraph last year. "But the truth is it's fantastically liberating, because these pieces work through pain to a position of hope. They really are a journey."
She excelled at playing larger-than-life characters -- the child-murdering mother in Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "Medee" in Paris in 1993, the cold-hearted seductress in Georges Bizet's "Carmen" in Boston the following year. Critics were awed by the intensity of her singing and her risk-taking as an actress.
Her deeply felt identity with the characters she portrayed on stage left her "crispy-fried in every way, emotionally, mentally and physically," she told the Boston Globe in 2003. Even after she cut back on singing engagements for health reasons, she never lowered the voltage.
Several music experts compared her to great divas of earlier generations: Maria Callas for her total absorption in her music and Janet Baker for the strength and nobility she brought to her dramatic roles. With her long hair worn down over her shoulders and her dresses flowing to her ankles, she had an ethereal, romantic beauty that did not prepare audiences for her depths as an artist.
'Doesn't Fit the Mold'
She didn't follow the star-maker formula to success but built her repertory on music that was meaningful to her. She worked repeatedly with a small group of musicians and stage directors with whom she felt a rapport, including Craig Smith, artistic director of the Emmanuel Music orchestra, and Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as Sellars. She was as likely to perform in small settings as on the grand stages of major opera companies or symphony orchestras. "Hunt Lieberson doesn't fit the mold of the classical singer," wrote Michael White in his profile of her for the Sunday Telegraph. "Her rise to international success has been selective and slow."