From her background in Armenian music, Cathy Berberian rose to fame as a mezzo-soprano and composer in avant-garde style. In an article published in 1966, she outlined a new role for vocality in contemporary music, where the singer should “use the voice in all aspects of the vocal process; a process which can be integrated as flexibly as the lines and expressions on a face.”
Born Catherine Anahid Berberian on July 4, 1925, in Attleboro, Massachusetts, she was the eldest of two children. The family moved to New York City in 1937, where she graduated from the Julia Richman girls’ high school in Manhattan. She showed an interest in Armenian folk music and dance from an early age, as well as traditional opera. She was the director and soloist of an Armenian folk group in New York when she was still in high school.
She left her studies at New York University to take evening classes in theatre and music at Columbia University, working during the day to support herself. In 1948, she studied music in Paris with Marya Freund and the following year she moved to Milan to study singing at the Milan Conservatory with Giorgina del Vigo. She received a Fulbright scholarship in 1950 to continue her studies there. After 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. Her performance in the world premiere of John Cage’s Aria with Fontana Mix established her as a major exponent of contemporary vocal music.
During her studies at the Milan Conservatory, she met fellow student Luciano Berio, whom she married in 1950. They had one daughter, Cristina Berio. Luciano Berio went to become a renowned composer of avant-garde music and Cathy Berberian, his muse and collaborator during and after their marriage, which ended in 1964. 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). Following her death, Berio composed Requies: in memoriam Cathy Berberian, which premiered in March 1984 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Berberian, who was based in Milan since her studies there, worked closely with many contemporary avant-garde music composers in addition to Luciano Berio, including 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. She presented several vocal genres in a classical context, including arrangements of songs by The Beatles as well as folk songs from several countries and cultures. 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. She taught in Canada and Germany during the 1970s. Her prolific discography started in 1957 and comprised two dozen titles, including her recording of two Gomidas Vartabed’s songs, Chem grna khagha and Karoun a, for a double LP released in 1970 to celebrate the centenary of his birth (1970).
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.
In the last years of her life, Cathy Berberian experienced increasing health problems and almost entirely lost her vision. She had planned to perform the Italian version of “The International” in the style of Marilyn Monroe on March 7, 1983, in a broadcast on RAI Italian Television that marked the centennial of Karl Marx’s death. She died the day before, March 6, of a massive heart attack. Her body was cremated in Rome and the urn with her ashes was brought to Milan where a ceremony was held at the Armenian Church of the Forty Martyrs on March 13. The ashes were divided between her brother Ervant and her daughter Cristina, who later dispersed them in the Mediterranean Sea.