Cathy Berberian (1925 – 1983) was an American mezzo-soprano vocalist, based in Italy. She was known as a proponent of both avant garde and contemporary vocal music, moving during her career from debuting one of John Cage’s major works, his Aria with Fontana Mix composition, in 1958, to covering Beatles songs. Cathy Berberian was an opera diva who never took herself too seriously, probably the hippest lady in classical music of her day.
In 1949, she received a Fulbright scholarship to study music at the Milan Conservatory, where she would meet her husband, the great composer Luciano Berio, who would write music for her during their marriage and afterwards. (His Requies: in memoriam Cathy composition premiered the year after her death.) Of his wife, Berio said “The versatility of her mind was astonishing.” Aside from her great vocal gifts, she was also a gourmet chef, a fashion model and she translated Woody Allen’s book Getting Even into Italian.
Sylvano Bussotti, Hans Werner Henze, William Walton, and Igor Stravinsky also composed works for Cathy Berberian’s voice and she’s name-checked in the Steely Dan song “Your Gold Teeth” on Countdown to Ecstasy: “Even Cathy Berberian knows / There’s one roulade she can’t sing.”
But for all of her high-falutin’ musical and intellectual pedigrees, Berberian was equally known as someone with a sense of humor. Her Revolution album of Beatles covers is a unique and quirky collection indeed, but she really ties together her pop and avant garde inclinations beautifully in her own composition, “Stripsody,” a short vocal piece where she uses comic book exclamations and sounds (Words like “Boing!”“Vrrop vrrop” appear on the sheet music) to get the point across, sounding very much like a comical version of Cage’s Fontana Mix.