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Cheryl North Interviews Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column for June 11, 2004

During a telephone interview a couple of years ago, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, now extravagantly praised for her vocal performances throughout the world, revealed that it was not her voice that initially propelled her into a musical career, but rather, the viola. Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she participated in all the local youth symphonies, including the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra under the directorship of Robert Hughes and later, Dennis DeCoteau. She lived in San Mateo until she was in fourth grade and then moved with her family to Orinda.

"Both my parents were musical," she said, ``and I was given piano lessons when I was very young. Then came the violin and eventually, the viola." While in Orinda, she attended Campolindo High School where she continued her musical studies and sang in the school chorus. She moved to Berkeley for her last high school year, where she took full advantage of what she termed "Berkeley High School's incredible music department."

Eventually she enrolled in the music department at San Jose State University where she undertook a double major in both voice and viola. "That's where I met the well-known Bay Area cellist, Emil Miland," she recalled. "We car-pooled down to San Jose together."

Soon after, she joined the San Jose Symphony under George Cleve and for the next six years, concentrated on the viola. Singing was put in the background. Then, she recalled, "I sang in the Metropolitan Opera auditions in San Francisco and made the finals. After that I was really excited about singing again."

She stressed however, that her decision to go into singing professionally did not come about overnight. "It happened very gradually, quite naturally, in fact. There were a lot of encouragements along the way, but no individual, earth-shaking event that made me change," she said. "But, back in 1988, when my viola was stolen, I took that as a sort of omen."

She travelled to Boston, began study with Delores Leffingwell, and as a result was accepted into a two-year opera program at the Boston Conservatory. She has since won fame and acclaim for the unusually broad repertoire that encompasses everything from Baroque to contemporary music. The beauty of her voice, as well as her exceptional musicianship have earned her leading roles in the European premiere of John Adams' El Nino at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris earlier this Spring, as well as its original World Premiere in San Francisco a couple of years ago.

During the coming months, she will not only sing the eloquent mezzo solo in Mahler's 2nd Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony during concerts the next two weeks, she will also sing it in Boston later in the year. In addition, she will sing with Emmanuel Music as it tours through the United States and Europe with a semi-staged work based on J.S. Bach Cantatas and staged by Peter Sellars. There will also be recitals in Berkeley and at New York City's Lincoln Center in its upcoming "Art of Song" series. And besides all of that, she just recorded a CD of Schumann's 19th century Lieder with pianist Peter Serkin for Koch Classics.

Last year she sang such diverse roles as Myrtle Wilson for the World Premiere of John Harbison's contemporary opera, The Great Gatsby;" the lead role in Bizet's Carmen" for the Met's Millennium Gala; Handel arias with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and the lead in her husband Peter Lieberson's new opera, Ashoka's Dream, with the the Santa Fe Opera.

And although she hasn't yet replaced her stolen viola when I spoke to her, she avowed that "the viola is always with me in spirit when I sing."

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