Yesterday I was getting set to review the SF Opera’s last three productions of the season when my little plans were derailed by the news of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s death. I saw an announcement on a music-related website and had to go to several others to make sure – to make sure of what I don’t know, since the recent performance cancellations and stories or rumors of serious illness should have prepared the way, but I just am having such a hard time with this loss. When I started attending concerts in the 1980s in Boston I soon read of a really extraordinary viola-player turned singer named Lorraine Hunt. So I developed as a listener as her career developed; she wasn’t that much older than I am, so there is a certain “golden grove unleaving” quality to my sorrow. But more than a reminder that no matter how bright and beautiful we might be, the inevitable waits is just the lost of a rare artist. I will never hear her live again and recordings can’t quite capture the intense glowing quality she brought to everything she sang. Over the years I heard many of her performances, with Emmanuel Music and other groups, both in Boston and then the Bay Area after I moved back home, and even a non-musician (like me) could tell immediately that there was a special quality to her. Even more than the beauty of her voice and the radiance of her person there was – I guess I should just call it an artistic integrity that sublimed to the spiritual. I went to all the performances I could and should be grateful for each of them but I can’t help regretting that I didn’t hear more. Why didn’t I go to Santa Fe for Ashoka’s Dream? Why didn’t I go to NYC for Les Troyens?
Oddly enough, the night before I heard of her death I happened to be listening to a recording I had just bought of Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses; I bought it because she sang Minerva in the piece, and the role of the wise warrior goddess sums up much of what I felt about this stranger who gave me so much. The last time I heard her live was in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony here in San Francisco.
Several years ago she gave a recital in Berkeley. When she came out the audience gave her a prolonged and heartfelt round of applause. The stranger next to me muttered, “She hasn’t done anything yet.” In his pompous rush to play the skeptical connoisseur, I think he missed a key moment in the strange magic, the developing, enveloping love, that can happen between performer and audience. I sometimes wonder why I go to hear performance after performance, so many of them forgettable if not regrettable, and then I come across a reminder of the generous gift that a great performance is and I know why I keep going night after night. I never met Ms. Hunt Lieberson off-stage, even to exclaim “You’re Lorraine Hunt Lieberson!” or gush about how much I love her work, but this morning in my tatty cubicle at work I put on her Handel arias and had to take my headphones off when I started to cry too much for a woman I never met. Her passing brings to mind lots of clichés about treasuring what you have and the uncertainty of life and daring to take an untrod path but these things are clichés because they are so true that all their edges have been worn off and they are as undistinguishable to the casual eye as pebbles worn down by the sea. But if Lorraine Hunt Lieberson were here to sing them to you, you would know that they are true.