This past year has seen so many great artists pass away that I would hesitate to try to list them for fear of omissions. The effect has been of a generation passing on, with the exception of one great singer of our generation, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died much too young. Though I was a devotee from almost the beginning of her singing career, I am just one of many affected by her much too early departure. Her death made me think much more than I had in years about my own youth in Boston and how much of my time has already slipped away. So I was glad to see a tribute page in the playbill for the Berlioz/Foss/Brahms concert at the SF Symphony last September (the Opera, which managed to pay tribute to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, who had last performed there decades ago, made no mention of the singer who had scorched their stage as Ottavia in Poppea). One sentence jumped out at me and stayed with me perhaps longer than that night’s concert: “She was a San Francisco native, a human being, not a saint, which means she was also more and less than sublime.” It was “a human being, not a saint” that I couldn’t get rid of. Where do they think saints come from? Who do they think saints are? And what do they think saints are?
I’ve always been fascinated by the saints. When other boys dreamed of being astronauts or firemen I wanted to be a saint, preferably a martyr (though I realized much later that what I really wanted was to be the model for a baroque altarpiece). As a child you just realize that these are people who stand out in some good way. Later on you can read about “heroic virtue” and the required miracles and the politics involved in official canonization. But at the core you just have someone who is remarkable for rising above and thereby inspiring ordinary humans enough to be remembered. This may be why “a human being, not a saint” puzzled me. Where was the distinction coming from? Was this perhaps a mild protest against the legend forming before our eyes? Already Hunt Lieberson’s early death has become part of the aura of her radiant artistry. Was there a slight resentment of the amazing gifts this woman had been given? Or just an attempt to keep a friend from slipping away into legend?
Even in the century of recordings there is a justifiable feeling that you just have to have been physically present, that recordings can be almost as unreliable as memory. I’ve always been slightly put off by the death cult around tragic artists like Callas – she was a great artist who lost her art, which is why I call her tragic – but it’s almost inevitable that how a great artist leaves shapes how we hear her even in our memories. Will people who weren’t there believe me when I tell them that every performance I heard from this woman was remarkable? I’ve thought a lot about her since last July, and even though I describe her performances in the same words I always have, I’m sure my descriptions are heard with a refulgent nostalgia they didn’t have before her death.
Because there was something inexplicable about her gift, and the intensity and generosity of her performances. I’m sure highly trained singers were just as curious as I was about this quality. I don’t mean to make her sound like an untutored conduit, some sort of oracle who simply opened her mouth to have glorious sound pour forth in streams of gold. But there was a core there that is obviously beyond technical understanding – if it weren’t, everyone would learn how to harness it. When I heard her I always had the feeling I was hearing something deeply spiritual about life, and not just when she sang Bach or Mahler, but also when she expressed the human agonies of the unhappy women of Mozart or Monteverdi. After her death it occurred to me that, like Mrs. Moore in Passage to India, in certain times and places a cult would have formed around her in acknowledgement of this power. Putting aside plaster statues of sweet-looking people clutching their picturesque attributes, and thinking about the role remarkable people play in our lives, does that make her a saint? Dorothy Day, when told she was a saint, used to say, “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Perhaps the phrase in the Symphony tribute was just an attempt to prevent Hunt Lieberson’s removal from among us?
I don’t know much about her life beyond what is public knowledge, though it doesn’t seem unusual for a woman of her time and place. There’s certainly nothing there that would seem questionable enough to call forth “not a saint, only human” excuses, unlike the life of Schwarzkopf (who, even if we could set aside questions about her Nazi affiliation, and I doubt anyone could know the full truth of that either before or after 1945, seems to have had a habit of hooking up with powerful men who could further her interests). Who knows the truth of anyone’s life? Plenty of canonized saints behaved in ways that look questionable to us.
I feel a bit odd writing about Ms. Hunt Lieberson – so much has been said already; yet her life and art and their meanings feel deeply personal, and I can't quite get my thoughts, which are undoubtedly superfluous to anyone but me, in order. I’m just trying to figure out why that need to say “a human being, not a saint” has haunted me for months. And I don’t want to overstate my thoughts here – I suspect Ms. Hunt Lieberson would be the first to laugh at any even informal canonization. But who knows what ramifications a life like that can have in those who were touched by it, however indirectly? Even if you don’t believe in God, you can’t deny the saints.