Taylor Ho Bynum

*Photo by Peter Gannushkin

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I have had many blessings in my life, in family and friends, in love and music. One of the greatest of these, for my family and myself, was the friendship of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

My mother first met Lorraine in 1984, when she was still simply Lorraine Hunt and an up and coming singer on the Boston scene. They became good friends, and when Lorraine needed a place to stay for a bit a few years later, it seemed natural that she move in with us. (I grew up in a household often full of opera singers; it was one of my mother’s ways of supporting the arts.) But Lorraine was far more than just another visiting singer; she quickly became a member of our extended family, and my mother’s place became her home base for the next ten years until her marriage to Peter Lieberson.

My mother, sister, and I got to be first-hand witnesses to the incredible development of her musical career, from stealing the show in supporting roles in Handel operas to starring at the Met and headlining the world’s major concert halls. Coming home from school to hear Lorraine practicing Bach in the living room makes one’s childhood quite extraordinary. But beyond her spectacular musical gifts, which have been feted at length and more eloquently elsewhere, Lorraine was a terrifically fun and deeply loving presence in our lives. She inspired me as much by her humanity as by her artistry.

Lorraine was like the super-cool hippie aunt everyone wishes they had. Much of my high-school wardrobe was Lorraine hand-me-downs, I was probably the only fifteen year old wearing flowy quilted pants and fake green fur coats. She helped me get decked out for my prom that year too, with a purple bow tie and matching cummerbund on a white tux. For years, I had a disembodied plastic arm lurking in the back seat of my car; that was a gift when I got home from college one year, almost giving me a heart attack when I saw it sticking out of an old jacket. And Lorraine turned me on to the genius of the Simpsons; I’ve never heard a better Homer impersonation.

There were some wonderful musical moments too, of course, but not necessarily the kind you’d imagine. (I never really thought of Lorraine as an opera singer, actually. Like Otis Redding, or Joni Mitchell, or Billie Holiday, she had a kind of intense emotional expressiveness that totally transcended genre.) When I was eighteen, I gave a concert at my house with my jazz combo, and Lorraine graced us by sitting in on a couple of tunes. She swang her ass off on “What is This Thing Called Love”, then stunned our little audience of friends and family with a heartbreaking rendition of the theme from Baghdad Café, “Calling You.” (Later it became an encore staple in her recitals. I think this was the first time she performed it.)

The same year, my grandmother Nai-Nai passed away. Lorraine sang at her memorial service at Riverside Church, one of the more emotional moments in my family history. Afterwards, an eighty-year old friend of my grandmother’s came up to her. “You have quite a good voice. Have you ever thought of becoming a professional?” Lorraine just graciously smiled and offered her thanks for the compliment.

Also around the same time, Lorraine brought me to see Stevie Wonder at Radio City Music Hall for my birthday. We went with the wonderful counter-tenor Drew Minter. It was an amazing show, one of the most fun live concerts I’ve ever attended. However, I don’t think I’ll ever feel like more of a vocal klutz in my life, standing in between Lorraine and Drew as we all sang along with Stevie. I was way out of my league, but I’ll always remember it with delight.

A few years after that, Lorraine first met Peter. We went down to Santa Fe to hear her sing in the premiere of his opera Ashoka’s Dream. She had hinted that something special was up, and when you saw the two of them together, their chemistry was undeniable. The air between them was positively electric, almost palpable in its intensity. I’ve rarely seen two people so suited for each other, or so in love. All of Lorraine’s friends were overjoyed that she had found her soul mate. She and Peter’s pleasure in each other’s company, and interest in each other’s enthusiasms, and support for each other’s art, was an inspiration for all of us over the past ten years. And Peter’s friendship was another gift Lorraine gave us; not only is he now one of my favorite modern American composers, but he is person of tremendous kindness, wisdom, and deep spirituality.

Lorraine’s death this past July was terribly hard to accept. I knew she had been sick, but the last time I saw her, performing Peter’s Neruda Songs at Carnegie Hall, she seemed so full of life. The performance was, of course, stunning, and it was wonderful to get to hang out with them afterwards; there was a small handful of friends and family backstage, and my wife and I spent the rest of the night laughing and talking and enjoying the company. That night was one of the few times Lorraine ever talked to me about battling cancer. She told me it had been the darkest and most difficult time in her life, but she felt that she had come through to the other side, and felt stronger and more attuned to life than ever before. At the time, I thought she was saying that she was fully recovered, and I felt thrilled and optimistic. In retrospect, I realize she must have known the reality of her situation, and was assuring me that she had found the strength and the serenity to face death. That thought has given me some solace.

While I knew Lorraine had a dedicated following, I was taken aback by the outpouring of emotion and intensity of coverage that met her passing last summer. It was beautiful to see how deeply her music touched so many people, but it also made it almost more difficult; both in acknowledging the magnitude of her loss, and in trying to deal with a very personal grief while her voice was on the radio and her picture was in the newspaper. This feeling has been echoed in the last few weeks with the CD release of Neruda Songs, but I am slowly coming to better terms with it. The sheer beauty of the recording helps; the music speaks of love and death and all the possibility and complexity of life like little else I’ve ever heard. It’s as if Lorraine and Peter both understood how little time was left to them together, and poured their whole being into the collaboration. It is a small, but real, comfort to see how much they accomplished, and know that so many will hear it.

In one of life’s cruel injustices, Peter is now too battling cancer, and he is much in my thoughts and heart. Like Lorraine, he is a soul of exceptional humanity, as he has proved throughout the greatest hardships. Lorraine and Peter have given me endless artistic inspiration, through their individual creativity and commitment and intelligence, and through the depth and power of their collaboration. But their greatest inspiration has been not in art, but life. They’ve shown me how to live life, and face death, with love and bravery and passion. Thank you Lorraine, and thank you Peter.

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