Turning Tragedy into Art

Classic Arts Features   Turning Tragedy into Art
An interview with mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who makes her New York Philharmonic debut this month.

"I am drawn to these characters, the juicier the better, and sometimes that means the more tragic the better." That's mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, surveying her gallery of roles, which includes some of the most tormented‹and tormenting‹women in mythic history. Medea, Jocasta, Dido, Carmen, the mysterious Melisande, Myrtle of The Great Gatsby‹murderers, victims, adulterers, suicides‹all are grist for the art of this San Francisco native.

For her New York Philharmonic debut, Ms. Hunt Lieberson will embody Phaedra in Benjamin Britten's eponymous cantata, set to a Robert Lowell translation of the Racine poem. She will also sing "Deh, per questo," from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. For these concerts she is reunited with Sir Colin Davis, with whom she last worked in her previous incarnation as a viola fellow at Tanglewood in 1980.

Her performance of Phaedra last year in London was praised for its "smoldering expression and brooding sense of inevitable doom." The title character is infatuated with her stepson, Hippolytus, and allows him to be accused of raping her. She finally confesses to her husband, Theseus, and then poisons herself. A meaningful moment for Ms. Hunt Lieberson comes when Phaedra says, "I want to die. Death will give me freedom. Oh, it's nothing not to live; death to the unhappy's no catastrophe!" Says the mezzo-soprano, "That is also very much true for all those women," referring to her characters, such as Dido and the Christian martyr Theodora.

How does she deal emotionally with her characters' traumas? After a 1993 Charpentier Médée, ("an unbelievably powerful piece"), she recalls "having trouble walking after one show‹so much of it was still in my body." But today, she says, with all her experience, "I feel I am more of a channel and it flows through me‹less gets stuck.

"Last season at [London's BBC] Proms I did Phaedra and Jocasta in Oedipus Rex on the same program. I'm not sure I realized it till I came off stage ‹ two suicides in one night! That's a first for me!" she says, laughing.

Jeannie Williams writes about opera for various publications, and is the author of the biography Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life (1999, Northeastern University Press).

Recommended Reading: