Cathy Berberian, vocal phenomenon with an exceptional vocal range, always considered the voice as an instrument with endless unsuspected possibilities. Her extraordinary technique, universal sensibility and charismatic stage presence made her one of the 20th century’s most outstanding opera singers.
Born in Massachusetts, from a family of Armenian descent, Catherine Anahid Berberian quickly demonstrated great singing skills. She hanged on to her roots by practicing traditional Armenian music and then moved towards lyrical singing. This turn was inspired by the recordings she heard at home, such as those by Tito Schipa, which she enjoyed doubling while singing. This made her equally at ease on the famous Léo Delibes’s Air des Clochettes by Lily Pons, as on Modest Mussorgsky’s Song of the Flea performed by Fedor Chaliapine, which would further her extraordinary three-and-a-half octave vocal range. In 1937, she integrated Julia Richman High School in Manhattan, where she took singing lessons and joined the Armenian Folk Group in New York. At Columbia University, she attended Milton Smith, Herbert Graf and Gertrude Keller’s classes. In addition to her vocal training, she worked on diction, pantomime as well as traditional Spanish and Hindu dances. In 1948, her parents agreed to help her continue her studies in Paris with Marva Freund.
1949 marked a turning point in her career. In Milan, she met Giorgina del Vigo who redirected her to the mezzo tessitura and made her aware of the importance of interpretation beyond technique. Looking for an accompanying pianist, she met Luciano Berio. They married in 1950 and permanently settled in Milan. In the 1950s, she began her operatic career performing in classical repertoire. In 1958, she took part in the Incontri Musicali concert series, initiated by Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna, dedicated to contemporary music. The following year, she performed John Cage's Aria. Her participation in 1959 at Darmstadt's Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt allowed her to make a name to herself and placed her at the contemporary scene’s forefront. From there, many composers began to write especially for her: Bruno Maderna (Dimensioni II: Invenzione su una voce), Igor Stravinsky (Elegy for JFK), Darius Milhaud (Adieu) and William Walton (Façade 2). In 1964, she separated from Luciano Berio but their collaboration continued with Epifanie (1965), Folk Song (1964), and Sequenza III (1966). Cathy Berberian's art reached its peak. She constantly enriched her technique with new sounds. However, refusing to remain confined to contemporary music, the singer managed to shine and convince in more classical repertoires such as Monteverdi, Purcell, Gershwin, Debussy and even the Beatles.
Six landmark dates in the life of Cathy Berberian:
1949: Decisive encounter with Giorgina del Vigo in 1949
1950: Married Luciano Berio
1959: Participation in the Darmstadt International Ferienkurse für Neue Musik der Darmstadt
1966: Her first composition, Stripsody for solo voice, and Berio’s Sequenza III 1969: Composes Morsicat(h)y for solo piano
1988: Release of the album Magnificathy in tribute to the artist
Biography from Radio France’s Musical Documentation, July 2014