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  • The Absent Diva: Notes toward a Life of Cathy Berberian
  • Arman Schwartz (bio)

For the role of these chimerical headdresses is to subject the feminine body to some new idea . . . and consequently to deform it (stripping this word of any pejorative meaning), either because the coiffure, a kind of half-vegetal, half-solar flower, is repeated at the bottom of the body and thereby makes unreal the ordinary meaning of the human figure, or because, much more frequently, it extends the statue by its entire height, in order to double its power of extension and articulation.

—Roland Barthes, “Erté, or À la lettre1

You fasten up your beaded gown Then you try to tie me down . . . Even Cathy Berberian knows There’s one roulade she can’t sing.

—Steely Dan, “Your Gold Teeth”2

. . . before night comes . . .3

In 1984 Luciano Berio premiered a composition entitled Requies, a memorial to Cathy Berberian, his ex-wife and frequent collaborator, who had died the previous March at the age of fifty-seven. A fifteen-minute orchestral work, it develops haltingly from a single note, strings of high-pitched tremolos slowly giving rise to a fragile sort of song. The orchestra, Berio wrote, “describes a melody, but only in the sense that a shadow describes an object or an echo describes a sound.”4 In its fascination with resonance and with the edge of hearing, Requies recalls some of Berio’s other late, death-haunted pieces: Prospero’s five arias in Un re in ascolto (1984); the grim song cycle Stanze (2004), his only major composition for male voice and his last completed work.5 Uneasy, shimmering, and reticent, the style of Requies also glances back to Berio’s most famous memorial, the 1968 composition with which he marked the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

There is a hint of menace in the work. The critic Edward Greenfield, writing for The Guardian, paraphrased Berio when he imagined “hearing a melody just too far [End Page 93] away to be identified.” But he went on to claim, more interestingly: “A ghostly singer is mocking us silently from afar, as Cathy herself might have done.”6 Intentionally or not, these words also describe what might be considered Berio’s “secret” homage to Berberian—the mocking aria sung by Un re in ascolto’s mysterious “Protagonista.”7 “My voice is mine,” she taunts an enfeebled Prospero. “My theater is my own. My song is a lament for you.”8 In a program note written for the opera’s Italian premiere, Massimo Mila (pretending to address Berio directly) described a woman “of whom we know nothing, although we recognize her right away: it is Cathy, your Cathy, our unforgettable Cathy, to whom you perhaps owe part of your extraordinary vocal science.”9 I hear a note of anxiety in Mila’s chain of possessive adjectives and his very delicate “forse.” It is as if his comments were an attempt to ward off the Protagonista’s (or, perhaps, Berberian’s) own angry claims for self-possession.

This cluster of critical and musical fantasies suggests that, in the years immediately following her death, the legacy of Cathy Berberian appeared as something threatening and strange. That moment has now passed. Today, the camp comedienne smiling back from dusty album covers is usually treated as little more than an eccentric executor of new music, a figure whom historians can reliably call upon to enliven the otherwise grim dramas of the postwar avant-garde. In her study of musical patronage in West Germany, for example, Amy Beal pauses to quote an extraordinary 1959 letter from David Tudor to John Cage.

Fontana Mix was a great success in Darmstadt! Cathy was perfectly incredible (in purple) and entertained royally. This in spite of Nono’s outburst, which everyone knew was directed against Karlheinz, except critics, there in force. . . . P.S. No disturbance beyond general flutter of excitement . . . during Fontana Mix except in back of hall where a lady stood up crying “Stop the music—I’ll have heart failure.” She was quieted by a gentleman who remarked “Ah! It’s natural selection.”10

Luigi Nono screams, a woman almost faints, a concert at...


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