Cathy BerberianWednesday, December 14, 2022
Catherine Anahid Berberian (July 4, 1925 – March 6, 1983) was an American mezzo-soprano and composer based in Italy. She worked closely with many contemporary avant-garde music composers, including Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna, John Cage, Henri Pousseur, Sylvano Bussotti, Darius Milhaud, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, and Igor Stravinsky. She also interpreted works by Claudio Monteverdi, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Kurt Weill, Philipp zu Eulenburg and others. As a recital curator, she presented several vocal genres in a classical context, including arrangements of songs by The Beatles by Louis Andriessen as well as folk songs from several countries and cultures. As a composer, she wrote Stripsody (1966), in which she exploits her vocal technique using comic book sounds (onomatopoeia), and Morsicat(h)y (1969), a composition for the keyboard (with the right hand only) based on Morse code.
Cathy Berberian was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts to Armenian parents, Yervant and Louise Berberian. The elder of two children, she spent the first 12 years of her life in Attleboro, then the family moved to New York City in 1937 where she graduated from Manhattan's Julia Richman High School for Girls. From an early age, she showed an interest in Armenian folk music and dance as well as traditional opera. While still in high school, she was the director and soloist of the Armenian Folk Group in New York City. For a time, she was an undergraduate at New York University, but left to take evening classes in theatre and music at Columbia University, working during the day to support her studies. She went on to study music in Paris with Marya Freund in 1948, and in 1949 she went to Milan to study singing at the Milan Conservatory with Giorgina del Vigo. In 1950, she received a Fulbright scholarship to continue her studies there. Although she had appeared in several student productions, radio broadcasts and informal concerts during the early 1950s, she made her formal debut in 1957 at Incontri Musicali, a contemporary music festival in Naples. The following year her performance of John Cage's Aria with Fontana Mix in its world premiere, established her as a major exponent of contemporary vocal music. Her American debut came in 1960 at the Tanglewood Music Festival where she premiered Circles by the Italian composer Luciano Berio.
From 1950 to 1964 Berberian was married to Luciano Berio, whom she met when they were students at the Milan Conservatory. They had one daughter, Cristina Berio, born in 1953. Berberian became Berio's muse and collaborator both during and after their marriage. He wrote, for her, Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) (1958), Circles (1960), Visage (1961), Folk Songs (1964–73), Sequenza III (1965), and Recital I (for Cathy) (1972).
In 1967 Berberian released a 12-track album (recorded in Paris) that consisted entirely of quirky baroque-style cover versions of songs by The Beatles, entitled Beatles Arias. The instrumental backing was scored for a classical string quartet or wind quintet plus harpsichord or organ. Most of the tracks were arranged by Guy Boyer, and most of the songs featured him on harpsichord. The original cover illustration for the album was by Gerald Scarfe. The album was reissued on CD in 2005 with bonus tracks including a 1975 French radio interview, and three live tracks featuring Berberian performing songs from the album, recorded at French music festivals in the early 1980s, with accompaniment by Italian composer–musician Bruno Canino and arrangements by noted Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.
Sylvano Bussotti, John Cage, Hans Werner Henze, William Walton, Igor Stravinsky, and Anthony Burgess also composed works for her voice. Although Berberian was based in Milan from the time of her studies there, she taught at both Vancouver University and the Rheinische Musikschule in Cologne during the 1970s. Following her death, Berio composed Requies: in memoriam Cathy Berberian which premiered in Lausanne on March 26, 1984.
She is mentioned in the Steely Dan song "Your Gold Teeth" from the 1973 album Countdown to Ecstasy :
- "Even Cathy Berberian knows / There's one roulade she can't sing."
Berberian was also a translator. With Umberto Eco she translated into Italian works by Jules Feiffer and, with other Italian translators, works by Woody Allen. Eco and Berberian worked together in other projects too and he nicknamed her magnificathy. This nickname with a different spelling chosen by Berberian herself: magnifiCathy was later used as the title of one of her best-known albums.
In the last years of her life Berberian experienced increasing health problems and almost entirely lost her vision. In order to continue performing, she committed all her repertoire to memory. An avid reader, the loss of sight was a great source of frustration for Berberian and she expressed feelings of loneliness and depression. She had gained weight and had developed heart problems, but nevertheless continued with an ambitious concert schedule. On 7 March 1983, in a broadcast on RAI Italian Television that marked the centennial of Karl Marx's death, Berberian had planned to perform the Italian version of "The Internationale" in the style of Marilyn Monroe. On March 5, she called Luciano Berio to discuss ideas about the performance, but died the next day of a "massive" heart attack.
Her body was cremated in Rome and the urn with her ashes was brought to Milan where, on March 13, a ceremony was held in the Armenian Church of Via Jommelli. The ashes were divided between Berberian's brother Ervant and her daughter Cristina, who later dispersed them in the Mediterranean Sea, in front of the city of Oneglia, along with pink orchids, Berberian's favorite flower.