Wild at Heart

How does a director harness a talent like Lorraine Hunt's?

Stephen Wadsworth faces the challenge


In 1985, the Handel tricentenary year, I went to Peter Sellars' production of Handel's Julius Caesar in Purchase, New York, and that's where I first saw and heard Lorraine Hunt. She went at the role of Sesto hammer and tongs. I remember her singing "L'angue offeso," which uses a snake metaphor, and wrestling furiously with a couple of rubber snakes. She sang with a sort of raw abandon, honoring all at once Sellars' distinctive choreography of torment, Handel's music and Sesto's own private hell. She was absolutely in the moment. Everyone in New York wanted to know who she was. A year later, she sang an audition for me. She was a quiet, brimming presence in the room, and when she sang Rusalka's Song to the Moon, I wrote, "An outpouring. Haunting timbre. Musical utterance fabulously eloquent. Conflict! Where is this coming from? Charged presence. Soprano clear, true, a little short on top. (Do I care?) Complicated energy. I love."

In 1987, again in Purchase, she was Donna Elvira, in another Peter production. Conflict again, big-time. She was like a traumatized racehorse in pain. The racehorse part was the fabulous eloquence -- in word, phrase and sound -- and the absolute, heat-seeking rightness of her dramatic instincts, her way of being on a stage. She looked like she was searching for something and would fall apart if she didn't find it before the curtain call. It was all rather hectic, actually -- and vocally, too -- but everyone in the theater was pitched forward, riveted, learning more about Donna Elvira's sad, sorry world than they ever thought they would.

I remember the Act II trio, with Lorraine twisting around and around in a window, and Kurt Ollmann, the Giovanni, sitting rigid in a chair below, and Elmore James, the Leporello, turned away to the wall. There, locked in a most beautiful image, were terrible shame, humiliation and grief -- an intriguing, touching picture. While twisting, Lorraine sang the words "Ah taci, ingiusto core!" with a clarity and simplicity very different in complexion from the torment they so aptly expressed. I noted this volatile arrangement of craft and chaos with deep interest.

LORRAINE: "I think my early experience of music was very mixed. My father sat me down at the piano very young. Music was a thing I was forced to do, and taught to do with a strict and very harsh hand. I hated practicing, before school -- piano and violin, and later viola -- with my father yelling criticisms from the next room. But then later, in private, when I could make it my own, the music and the music-making gave me pleasure and comfort. I wasn't ever encouraged to be my own person. I don't ever remember anyone asking what I felt about anything. I was told how to feel and what to do. I had this quiet, obedient, passive Pisces thing -- but with Scorpio rising. My favorite color was red. All I wanted was red dresses."

Fast forward to 1990, St. Louis -- Figaro, but this time I was director and Lorraine was Cherubino. We had terrible conductor problems: we lost one, and then two wildly different others took the performances. The cast, as smart and warm-hearted a company of complicated energies as could be found, became inseparable. Lorraine was reserved at first, watchful, skeptical maybe. But as we worked into that ineffably funny-deep world of Figaro and created our own funny-deep world, she started to laugh. In intense work, beer-drinking companionship and our do-or-die party games after the show, we found blessed relief from the heartache of the road. We had dark and light every day, often in the same moment, and a huge amount of feeling came out of us all in both modes. Lorraine's laugh is the perfect sound memory of that time: a deranged cackle, a loud, sudden, hilarious energy release, a far cry from her smoldering, haunted "Voi che sapete." Her humor is not unlike her art: no irony of human interaction is lost on her.

LORRAINE: "There was a lot of laughter in our house -- very important and necessary releases within this ... dysfunctional, rage-aholic sort of repression. And lots of singing around the piano, with me playing. 'She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain.' And 'Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley.' The second verse was about walking the valley yourself, a very moving sentiment to me as a kid. And my mother, who was adopted, and whose adoptive mother had died when she was thirteen, used to reduce the relatives to sniveling idiots singing 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child!'" [cackle]

I remember the vicious, rough-and-tumble "Non più andrai," in which Lorraine, buffeted between Figaro and Count, went directly to the edge, do not pass Go. But there was also Lorraine trying to escape from the Countess' bedroom (the Count had locked windows and shutters, as well as doors), staggering dreamlike around a shadowy room hopelessly entangled in half-off girl's clothes and finally climbing up to, squeezing through, and leaping from -- with a faint, sickened cry -- a small clerestory window twelve feet above the stage.

Now that was hard to work on, allegro assai and all, and I gave billions of notes (as is my dread wont), but it was funny. And somehow ravishingly funny, I think because the style was right -- a gestural delicacy, a blending of clarity and passion, a quality of thought and movement so eighteenth-century, so not of this time but so simply recognizable. Style fairly palpitated in the brains, hearts, limbs and throats of Lorraine and her estimable Susanna, Rebecca Abram. I realized that Lorraine the actor understood style as subtly as did Lorraine the musician, and I knew I had a collaborator and muse for life. She not only animated my notions, she transformed them.

PETER [SELLARS]: "That's the thing about working with Lorraine -- you never watch your own ideas come back. Everything she touches goes to a completely different place. And nothing is too hard. I remember giving her really hard stuff in Julius Caesar and then watching her just tear up the stage. You can suggest something, and she'll do it, and then it becomes just immense. She unleashes this primal feminine force that connects, you know, the earth to the sky with lightning bolts. I first knew her when she played the viola in Orlando in Boston, and Craig [Smith, the conductor] said, 'Oh, she also sings. Shall we audition her?' And she started singing, and you were in the middle of this raging forest fire. Certain things were a little out of control, but what you got was sheer power, sheer concentrated energy."

I think I had an instinct to control the forest fire, because I was also working on tempering passion, bringing my own into line with the writer's and the character's. And my work with Lorraine on La Clemenza di Tito (1991, Houston) was about form. Staging the accompagnato that kicks off the Act I finale, I was very particular about moving on the break points of Sesto's logic, and about finding the gesture, the body angle, the speed most telling, most pure, for each move. Lorraine bridled. It went against the grain. We'd never had occasion to work like this on Figaro. The atmosphere in the room was very tense. That sheer power, that concentrated energy, was focused directly, if wordlessly, on me. Stage management feared for my life. ("When she gets like that," Craig Smith said during a rehearsal this year, with a sort of glee, "she terrifies me!")

I persisted. Not because I was worried that Lorraine couldn't carry the scene in her own way, God knows, but because I had a sense that if her passion was brought more in line with the sensibility that generated this work of art, with the style of this drama, and with my sensibility as well, she might be even better. I knew something about it that she didn't know, or at least that she didn't understand in the same way, and I needed to see it onstage. And I knew her storm cloud wasn't about ego at all: she was caught between the world of Sesto's torment and another, less familiar world. We were discovering our style and figuring out how to play in that style, and it was very difficult to be both out of control, in the right way, and in control, in the right way.

I staged the big Act II recitative between Sesto and Tito (Peter Kazaras) on a tiny platform, maybe only ten feet square. The footwork was very precise, but by now Lorraine was deep into this new language of physical beats, so no more storm cloud. The scene culminates with Sesto's complex aria "Deh, per questo istante solo." A lot happened during rehearsals and performances of that aria, though movement was minimal. I watched Lorraine and Peter K. (an old, close friend) tilt their heads slowly till they touched, and then suddenly lean sadly into each other's bodies, surrendering to their mutual loss. I watched something about my work, a spareness and purity I'd been working toward, come of age. I watched, on many levels, friends. And I think I watched a new version of Lorraine: the forest fire was still blazing, but she was controlling it, rather than the other way around. And she was sounding more like a real mezzo than a soprano.

LORRAINE: "There was a time when I thought, 'I've been playing all these boys, these tormented boys. What does this mean?' For me there's always a sort of art-imitates-life intertwining, and maybe I was working out some issues about men, or my male side, but maybe it was the torment more than the boy thing that wanted to ... get expressed. Certainly it is a wild and wacky balancing act, of femaleness and maleness, and I love that. I love that I'm a woman playing, being a man. I love that I can pull it off -- crossing that line is very satisfying. I mean, in how many other professions can you really do that?! It's probably about not wanting to be limited. I can be a man, I can be a king. Or I can be Carmen. And actually wear a skirt in rehearsal [cackle]. And embody a very powerful, sexual woman."

"I'm in the business of soaring.

And diving deep."

In 1994 I heard her as Charpentier's Médée at BAM (she was both powerful and sexual), and we did Xerxes for the first time, in L.A. Lorraine was sounding decidedly more mezzo. Peter Hemmings [general director of L.A. Opera] compared her to Janet Baker and wanted her for Brangäne. When we repeated Xerxes in Boston this year, the transformation was complete: a lot of power in the lower middle, a real alto snarl, but sudden rays of that penetrating soprano light still liable to strike at any moment.

LORRAINE: "There are some singers who just have this wide-open, free voice, technically, from the start. But for me that freedom has come gradually, and it's connected to my, well, inner voice. As I become more free, and shed those layers, those skins I don't need, and let go of my past, my voice sort of follows me. I remember doing Donna Elvira, Ms. Torment, at a time when I was really struggling with everything. There were so many obstacles -- high notes, or getting through the aria, whatever -- and I don't think I could even tell whether the struggle was body first or psyche first. I can do more of what I want now, without fear, musically, technically, and it's a huge sigh of relief in my life."

There is a big bravura aria in Act I when Xerxes, tormented boy king extraordinaire, suddenly thinks he understands love: "I imagine the enchantment of a lover and discover a world of delight" (my translation). I hardly had to stage it in L.A. Lorraine just fell into it, larky and anguished by turns, ending down center looking out at the house with a smile both wistful and transported by a sensation so new it couldn't quite be held onto -- the very moment of adolescent truth, the moment of change. She was completely released, the moment completely inhabited, and zero struggle. The audience screamed with joyful recognition. When we got to it in the Boston rehearsals, fifteen months later, she simply performed it, move perfect, at full radiance. Everyone in the room stopped doing what they were doing. As did my heart -- the way it will when a friend understands your essence and does something subtle and perfect to show it.

LORRAINE: "It seems to be a journey, of self-discovery, self-empowerment, through self-expression. I don't really know what it's all about, but I do know that it's about a lot more than Lorraine Hunt. I've been thinking about the sacredness of the relationship between the artist and the audience, about how important it is to honor that. There's some amazing exchange, not always apparent on the surface -- there's the singing, and there's the clapping, but it's something unspoken that is deeper. Communion. The need to talk to each other. A situation in which people open up. The artist triggers something in those people, and there's some heart-opening, a real give and take ... it's not just the performer who is delivering the goods. It's a safe place, where I can express some really big and sometimes wild things. In a way that wouldn't be appropriate, really, in ... other lines of work!" [cackle]

PETER [SELLARS]: "Of course by now Lorraine has completely grown into herself, and there are no distractions. She's just so centered. And Irene [in Theodora, Glyndebourne, 1996] was a beautiful role to come at this time in her life, because her newfound poise, and the poise and centeredness of the character and of the music, just came together in a way that made you gasp. The word is devotion. What the Hindus call bhakti -- this tremendously deep, devotional quality to Lorraine's work, which moves ego directly out of the way and pours her whole being, as a kind of offering, into her role, into the music. And I mean your own sense of vocation is deepened and altered when you're in the presence of that."

Lorraine's musical personality is Protean. As a violist, she played the symphonic repertory -- in youth orchestras, as a Tanglewood fellow, in the Berkeley and San Jose Symphonies -- under Karajan, Ozawa, Previn, Colin Davis, Kent Nagano and George Cleve (an inspiring forest-fire role model). In the 1970s, she watched singers from the first stand -- Horne, Von Stade, Jessye Norman. James McCracken's intensity especially impressed her. She played for years in two string quartets exclusively devoted to new music. The CDs she currently takes on the road are Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang, Aretha Franklin, Bobby McFerrin and especially Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. She sings Britten's as well as Rameau's Phaedra (both recently recorded), Massenet's Charlotte (Lyons 1997), more Carmen (Bastille, 1998), Bach, Mahler, Weill, spirituals, Spanish songs, Stravinsky, everything -- and all of it is extremely tasty.

LORRAINE: "I'm looking for ... fun! And I'm looking for great, inspired, uplifting musical experiences. I'm looking for conductors who are real collaborators and not control freaks. And directors who can take me on really interesting, rewarding, transforming journeys. Even if the piece is something I really want to do, it's just not interesting to me anymore if it's not with people I want to work with. It's so disappointing to work on a great piece and feel ... fettered. I'm not interested in anyone who wants to hold me back. Or get in the way of that exchange, that sacredness. I'm in the business of soaring. And diving deep. And I'd like to play with people who want to do that too."

Next year I get to play with her twice -- Xerxes in New York, and the world premiere of Peter Lieberson's Ashoka's Dream in Santa Fe. Lucky me.


MR. WADSWORTH, who was an editor of this magazine in the 1970s, will direct the new Seattle Ring in 2001.

OPERA NEWS, November 1996 Copyright © 1996 The Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc.