The American mezzo-soprano, Lorraine Hunt, was born to musical parents: Randolph Hunt, a music teacher and a conductor of community ensembles and operas, and Marcia Hunt, a contralto and a voice teacher. Her taskmaster father was single-minded in his desire to develop her musical gifts, arranging first for her to study the piano and then the violin. At 12 she switched to viola and began playing in youth orchestras and singing in the high school choir. She studied voice and viola at San Jose State University.
Upon graduation, Lorraine Hunt became a freelance player in the Bay Area noted for her expertise in contemporary music. She played in a cutting-edge string quartet called "Novaj Kordoj" (Esperanto for "New Strings"). When a French horn player she was dating got a job with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she moved with him to Boston, soon becoming a valued freelance musician. She was particularly drawn to the music program at Emmanuel Church in the Back Bay section of Boston, where Craig Smith conducted the orchestra and choir. But during these years she also studied voice at Boston Conservatory.
Lorraine Hunt began focussing fully on singing only when she was 26, what may account for the musical depth and intelligence of her vocal artistry. Her breakthrough as a singer came with the Pepsico Summerfare festival in Purchase, New York, in 1985 when she was cast by Peter Sellars in his production of George Frideric Handel's Giulio Cesare. Her role was Sesto, the avenging son of Pompey, though in this production, zapped to the present day Middle East, Sesto was a terrorist armed with an Uzi. While Sellars's work was predictably controversial, Lorraine Hunt emerged as an exciting vocal talent.
For the next decade Lorraine Hunt's career thrived as she collaborated with the early-music conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra on a series of Harmonia Mundi recordings of G.F. Handel operas and oratorios (Susanna, Theodora, Ariodante); took part in Sellars's updated production of Mozart's Don Giovanni and, later, his triumphant staging of Theodora at Glyndebourne; and worked with William Christie and other major musicians.
During the 1996-1997 season Lorraine Hunt appeared in the roles of Charlotte in Werther at the Opéra de Lyon under the baton of Kent Nagano; Sesto in Giulio Cesare at the Opéra National de Paris; Phèdre in Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie at the Palais Garnier in Paris and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants; and Triraksha in Ashoka’s Dream, a new opera by Peter Lieberson, at the Santa Fe Opera. Concert appearances included performances of J.S. Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243) with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas; Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs with the Berlin Philharmonic and Kent Nagano; G.F. Handel arias with the Handel and Haydn Society at Tanglewood; and a program of Mozart and Brahms at the Mostly Mozart Festival with members of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center. Performances of the 1997-1998 season included the title role in the New York City Opera’s production of Xerxes; Jocasta in Oedipus Rex with the Netherlands Opera; Ottavia in L’Incoronazione di Poppea at San Francisco Opera; a return engagement with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival; and a program of music dedicated to John Harbison at Weill Hall.
Lorraine Hunt met the composer Peter Lieberson in 1997 when he selected her to sing in the premiere of his opera Ashoka's Dream at the Santa Fe Opera. The story tells of an Indian emperor in the third century B.C. who renounces violence after converting to Buddhism and inspires trust and generosity among his people. She sang Triraksha, Ashoka's consort. She and Peter Lieberson, a practising Buddhist since his graduate-student days at Columbia, were immediately drawn to each other. At the time he was married with three daughters. After an understandably upsetting divorce for Peter Lieberson, he and Lorraine Hunt were married in 1999. Their closeness was apparent to anyone who observed them onstage at Symphony Hall in Boston in November during the ovations for Neruda Songs, Lieberson's setting of five Spanish sonnets by Pablo Neruda, each a reflection of a different aspect of love. The performance, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine, was repeated a few days later at Carnegie Hall. Every phrase of this emotionally unguarded, intricate and haunting work seemed fashioned by the composer for his wife's distinctive voice.
Successes of the late 1990's included the role of Irene in G.F. Handel’s Theodora at the Glyndebourne Festival in a new production by Peter Sellars; the title role of Charpentier's Médée with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in Europe and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; the title role of Ariodante with Nicholas McGegan at the Göttingen Festival (also a Harmonia Mundi recording); the title role of Xerxes with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera; and Haydn’s Scena di Berenice with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the Tanglewood Festival under the Baton of Jeffrey Tate. Other performances of the late 1990's included Xerxes with Boston Lyric Opera; Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été with the Philharmonia Baroque and Nicholas McGegan and L’enfance du Christ at Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Sir Charles Mackerras; a solo recital at the 92nd Street “Y” and her participation in a series of recitals with Dawn Upshaw at the same venue; and performances of Hans Krása’s Chamber Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Seiji Ozawa in Boston and at Carnegie Hall.
Lorraine Hunt also performed Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with Philharmonia Baroque and Nicholas McGegan (recorded by Harmonia Mundi); L’enfance du Christ with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Roger Norrington; and Carmen with Boston Lyric Opera. With the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Roger Norrington she has sung Les nuits d’été at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. Additional highlights of past seasons include performances in Tokyo and a recording of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria; the roles of Nicklausse and the Muse in Les Contes d’Hoffman with Houston Grand Opera; Béatrice in Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict with Boston Lyric Opera, directed by Colin Graham; and appearances with the Mark Morris Dance group at the Edinburgh Festival (UK), the Adelaide Festival (Australia), and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She was seen on the international television broadcasts and subsequent video releases of Peter Sellars’ productions of Don Giovanni (Donna Elvira) and Giulio Cesare (Sesto).
It was typical of the self-effacing Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson to be drawn to the secondary role of Myrtle Wilson, the mistress of wealthy Tom Buchanan in John Harbison's The Great Gatsby for her 1999 Metropolitan Opera debut in New York. Her second appearance in a Met production came in 2003 when she sang the role of Didon in the new staging of Berlioz's epic Les Troyens. With this luminous, stylistically informed and emotionally true portrayal she showed that she could galvanise the Met's stage in a major role. She was scheduled to return in 2006-2007 season in a new production by Mark Morris of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, singing Orfeo. She also sang at NYCO, San Francisco, and Sante Fe Opera, and is at home on the concert stage.
In 2000-2001 season Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson’s engagements included appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen both in Los Angeles and on tour in Europe in performances of Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; G. Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under André Previn; She also made her recital debuts at Wigmore Hall and at the Edinburgh Festival. Engagements in the early 2000's included Igor Stravinsky’s Biblical Pieces at the Netherlands Opera and Salzburg Festival; J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) with The Cleveland Orchestra under Music Director Christoph von Dohnányi; and the role of Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby at the Metropolitan Opera (2002) and at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
In the early 2000's Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson also gave a series of shattering performances of two Bach cantatas for solo voice and orchestra, semi-staged by the director Peter Sellars, with the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music conducted by Craig Smith. These concerts were performed in Lincoln Center's New Visions series, in Paris, Berkeley, and at the Barbican in London. In Cantata BWV 82, Ich Habe Genug ("I Have Enough"), she was wearing a flimsy hospital gown and thick woolen socks, her face contorted with pain and yearning, portrayed a terminally ill patient who, no longer able to endure treatments, wants to let go and be comforted by Jesus. During one consoling aria, Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen ("Slumber now, weary eyes"), she yanked tubes from her arms and sang the spiralling melody with an uncanny blend of ennobling grace and unbearable sadness (See discussions at: Craig Smith & Emmanuel Music w/ Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson (Mezzo-soprano) - Cantatas BWV 82 & BWV 199 and article at: Sellars Staging [Uri Golomb]):
For the last 18 months of her life Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson had sung only sporadically, cancelling most performances, citing lingering problems from an injury to her lower back as the cause. Yet she had had a public bout with breast cancer some years ago, which caused her to withdraw from, among other major performances, the premiere of Kaija Saariaho's opera L'Amour de Loin at the Salzburg Festival in 2000. Her last professional activity had been touring with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in March 2006, singing music by her husband, Peter Lieberson.
Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson died of cancer on July 3, 2006 at her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the height of her musical and expressive powers, aged only 52. Her parents survive her, along with two siblings, Stan Hunt and Susan Hunt. Another sister, Alexis, died of cancer six years ago.
For Harmonia Mundi Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson has recorded G.F. Handel’s Susanna; Theodora; Clori, Tirsi e Fileno; Messiah and Arias for Durastanti; and also Bach’s Anna Magdalena’s Notebook.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson had a maverick career. She was a consummate recitalist and concert singer and a riveting operatic performer; her repertoire ranges from the Baroque to the contemporary. On the opera stage she has excelled in roles as diverse as Médée (Charpentier), Sesto (Mozart), Carmen (Georges Bizet) and Xerxes (G.F. Handel). She brought uncompromising integrity to her choice of roles and repertory, was a champion of Baroque operas and of living composers, and preferred to work in close-knit conditions with directors and ensembles who shared her artistic aims, especially at festivals like Glyndebourne in England and Aix-en-Provence in France.
Though her work seldom drew less than raves from critics, her singing eluded description. Despite the gleaming richness of her sound, her voice somehow conveyed poignant intimacy. Although she paid scrupulous attention to rhythm, phrasing and text, she came across as utterly spontaneous. Her person disappeared into her performances. And yet in a G.F. Handel aria, a B. Britten cantata or a song by her husband, she could be so revealing you sometimes wanted to avert your eyes for fear of intruding. Still, vocal artistry alone could not account for the impact of her performances and her consequent desire to keep her private life private, as Mr. Harbison, quoted in an article in The New York Times last year, explained. "Lorraine gives so much of her inner soul," he said, "that that's what she owes the public."
One of her closest colleagues, Craig Smith, the Boston-based conductor and choir director, said as much in a 2004 profile of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson by Charles Michener in The New Yorker. "There's something viola-like about the rich graininess of her singing, about her ability to sound a tone from nothing," he was quoted as saying, adding, "There's no sudden switching on of the voice, no click."