A tribute from KEN NODA
It has been a year since Hildegard left us. The idea of a world without her has been so hard. My love and respect for her went far beyond music: she influenced the way I try to live my life with the sound of her voice, which was not only beautiful but the essence of who she was as a person. She was my teacher in all senses.
I had briefly met Hildegard three times before really getting to know her. After her triumphant return to the Met in l994 as Elektra, it was a letter I wrote to her which opened a level of communication I have never experienced before or since with another human being. I think the last two sentences in it interested her: “the next morning I was joyfully patient and took quiet, profound pleasure in making mosaic-like constructive moves inside and outside of myself. I was no longer preoccupied about resolutions or answers but excited about a certain kind of earned freedom which might allow me to ask unprecedented, heightened questions.” (In the latter regard, I meant re: life and/or music.)Right after the ELEKTRA run was over, we met for lunch at an Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – she had been by then a strict vegetarian for a few years – and soon afterwards, Maestro Levine invited her to give two concert performances of Schoenberg’s ERWARTUNG with the Berlin Philharmonic in June l995. Hildegard and I immediately made plans as to when and how we would work on it. We didn’t actually begin until January of that year, but it was then that I learned how disciplined she was. She would arrive at the Met every morning at 8 AM ready to work, after having taken her daughter Sara to school, and would continue until 11 AM without a break. As she was still living in Manhattan at the time, every time she was in town between engagements, we would resume our work. I don’t know many singers who would be so conscientious as to start preparing for an engagement five months beforehand. And ERWARTUNG was not new for her; she had already performed it in the l980s with Abbado and Mehta, among other distinguished conductors.
Eventually Hildegard invited me to accompany her in recitals in Athens, Washington DC, Salzburg, New York, Birmingham (England), Oviedo (Spain) and Philadelphia.Each one was always a special event. She gave so much of herself on and off the stage; I remember treasuring our conversations as much as our performances. Occasionally I would travel first to Vienna to rehearse with her before an engagement in Europe; she made one of her homes there, and those visits were magical as they were often interspersed with her performances at the Staatsoper. I recall one December in l996 when I heard her in two WOZZECKs after which she loved nothing more than to go out in the snow and walk to a favorite Italian trattoria for a late-night pizza. I also remember a most memorable early-June luncheon at her dear friend Lotte’s which consisted entirely of giant white asparagus (Spargel, it is called in German) and huge strawberries for dessert, all topped off with crème fraiche. Another time in May 2000, I went to Munich to rehearse what turned out to be her last recital program in New York (at the Met Museum) – and had the thrill of seeing her in THE MERRY WIDOW, which was a new departure for her. Her portrayal of Hanna Glawari was revolutionary and as Hildegard was herself, totally unconventional. As always, she redefined just who the character was and what her “innere Triebe” (inner voices) were – and made her so infinitely deep.
Most of all, I admired Hildegard for raising her two extraordinary children, Philip and Sara, as she did. To write that I respect Philip and Sara as the rare individuals they are as much as their mother…is as much a tribute to both of them as to Hildegard. Long may she live through them and send her “good vibes” – a favorite phrase of hers – throughout the planet. Here’s to Hildegard – with love forever!
A tribute from Maestro LORIN MAAZELHildegard Behrens was an artist of passion and commitment. I treasure the memory of our collaboration in the Munich Residence Theatre production of Tristan and Isolde, and the Elektra in Salzburg. Those were magnificent performances… vibrant, compelling, memorable. May her spirit continue to inspire us all.
Remembering Hildegard Behrens (2014)
Today is the fifth anniversary of the passing of one of my favorite artists, someone who pulled me into the world of opera at an early age and whose memory and artistry I still treasure: Hildegard Behrens.
As a teenager, I’d known and loved Strauss’ “Salome,” but it was the Behrens’ recording for EMI with von Karajan (along with Jose van Dam, Agnes Baltsa, et al) and the Vienna Philharmonic that turned this opera into a lifelong obsession. With her open, silvery top notes, an actor’s attention to text and Strauss’ placement of it, Behrens creates the most vivid interpretation I know of Strauss’ Judean Princess. No other Salome for me wavers so instantly, so convincingly between the wild, dramatic outbursts and the delicate musings of this most disturbed of heroines.
There are so many unique touches Behrens brings to the role, it’s difficult to single them all out. One of the most vivid moments of all is her approach to Jochanaan’s severed head first rising from the cistern: “Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen, Jochanaan!” Most Salome’s deliver it either with a sense of exaltation or horror each effective, yet Behrens manages to combine both, naturally to absolutely chilling effect. Her singing is filled with these well thought out touches that, for me, makes her work so unique and special.
I own many recordings of this opera, finding much to love in most of them. Some having even become favorite recordings, yet none moves me quite as powerfully as does Madame Behrens in this recording.
Thank you again, great lady. You are missed.
Remembering Behrens on her Birthday (2014)
Today would have been Hildegard’s 77th birthday. Few singers have influenced my life and love of singing as much as this great lady. It’s hard to believe that this August she will have been gone five years from us.
But this is not a mournful post, but rather a celebration of her birth of one of those singers who became a polarizing force in the world of opera. People loved her, people loathed her and, often there was not much room in between.
For me, Behrens’ voice was one-of-a-kind; instantly recognizable and, as with the most committed of singers, always in search of how best to serve the composer. It’s interesting to me how, a few years now after her death, whenever I play her recordings for friends, the almost universal comment is, “I don’t remember her voice being this beautiful,” a sentiment I, who have always
found that voice so beautiful, have difficulty fathoming. But, I’m just glad they do.
There were so many roles I adored her in, but none so much as the one that introduced me to her:Salome. While I grew up on other singers of the role – great ones to be sure – Behrens was the very first who made me see and hear the depraved Judean princess as a girl, and that, my friends, changed everything. There were so many touches I’d never before heard, and I recall
anticipating how she would belt out that first great phrase when her bloody prize emerged from the cistern. “Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund,” – here, most sopranos deliver the moment with either a sense of exaltation or horror movie terror . . . effective either way but with Behrens you get both . .. each one simultaneously in an explosion of sound that, naturally, changes the course of the rest of the opera. Throughout Strauss’ remarkable music Behrens sweeps through combining exquisite, silvery lyricism then ramping it back up with dramatic explosions of near volcanic proportion.
I’m ranting on (as usual) wanted something up here today to honor the birthday of this amazing singer who, right up until the day she was taken from us, was still filled with the joy of music, singing, working and teaching young singers.
If anyone finds themselves with a moment to spare today (or the next few), I hope you’ll do yourself a favor and listen to the final scene from that legendary EMI recording with Hildegard (here along with Karl-Walter Bohm’s Herod) under Herbert von Karajan.
You may be gone, but Happy Birthday, Hildegard . . . and danke danke schon, dear lady.
Remembering Hildegard (2012)
When we love an artist throughout most of our lives, it’s often difficult to believe when they’ve left us that they are really gone. Different than family or friends we don’t (or generally don’t) have the luxury (or desire) to “know” them intimately other than through their artistry, so their departure hits us differently.
I was 18 when I first heard the voice of Hildegard Behrens – in the now, classic EMI recording of “Salome” under von Karajan. I knew Salome pretty well (for a teenager) but primarily through Nilsson’s recordings and the Stratas film under Bӧhm, and as much as I enjoyed them, Salome had never quite come alive to me as she did in that Behrens recording.
Listening to her this early in her career, one is reminded of the often ravishingly beautiful quality of her singing that those who came to know her only later, never seem quite to understand or appreciate. The top of her instrument (particularly then) was simply glorious – possessing a shimmer I’ve always compared to spun silver. When reviewing the re-mastered, release on
the EMI Great Recordings of the Century series, I shared:
“The scene in which Salome anxiously awaits her prize has rarely had this level of involvement, this sense of one utterly deranged. A barely whispered “Es ist ein kein Laut zu vernehmen” is so full of anticipation and intensity Behrens makes the moment as beautifully unbearable for the listener as it is for the girl herself.
As here recorded, the boomy explosion of sound as Jokanaan’s head is lifted from the cistern is one of the most chilling sounds committed to disc. Most Salome’s deliver that first big “Ah!!!!” following that moment with either a sense of terror or exultation – effective either way, but with Behrens you get both.
And so it goes for the rest of her mad scene – alternating between floating childlike sounds of silvery sweetness to unbridled eroticism – often within the same bar. When Salome asks for her prize, Behrens continues pouring out this liquid sound of innocence that makes the ensuing, more deranged outbursts all that more horrifying. Listening to her dispatch this intense, nearly impossible music one marvels at the precision and youthfulness of sound – a far cry from the threadbare, breast-bearing, busted voiced shrews one is more than likely to encounter today.”
I recently spent two days watching the 1994 telecast of her Met “Elektra” – which remains at the top of my favorite videos of all time. In the documentary celebrating his 40 years at the met, James Levine reminisced about this production, saying:
“When we taped this performance, she was in a kind of extraordinary, transcendental form. She had acquired a physique du role where she actually looks hollow and emaciated and worn out onstage . . . She captures the whole range of emotions . . . Everything is as though it were actually happening in front of your eyes. She looks so ravaged and yet so beautiful . . . (she was) so incredibly moving.”
All I can say to that is: amen.
Often criticized for having a voice too small for the roles she took on, I simply never found this to be the case. It wasn’t the BIG sound of the great dramatics of yore, but it lacked neither power nor placement, and for many of us, was deployed with elegance and intelligence, slicing through the orchestrations not like the Nilsson laser, but more gently, with more warmth and an upper voice which offered singing far more beautiful in sound than most who took on Salome, Isolde, Brunhilde or Marie. Along with Farrell, (with less than idiomatic German and less precision on the sprechtstimme) and Jurinac, Behrens presented the most beautifully sung Marie I know.
I’m planning my annual viewing of the historic 1990 Met telecasts (in preparation for the new LePage DVDs soon to be released), and already anticipating the rush that all – particularly – Behrens – provides in this series. Ironically, one of my favorite moments in the production has Behrens silent – as Wotan (Morris) bids his favorite child farewell. Behrens’ wet, liquidy and enormous eyes, her gentle expression . . . she melts my heart every time. When she rests her head on her father’s chest, well, I pretty much fall apart; the combination of Wagner’s perfect music, the intimacy of this moment in a larger-than-life epic, and Behrens’ brilliant personification of Brunnhilde captures, (I like to imagine), Wagner’s dream.
While it’s still hard to believe she’s been gone from us for three years now . . . there is still much to recall, to be grateful for, and to celebrate. Thank you, great lady.
TRIBUTES (January – March 2010)
She has not died – she, the greatest Brünnhilde of all time is riding towards Walhall…
You gave more than any other artist on the stage. Like Wotan and with tears in my eyes I only can say to you:
Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!
Du meines Herzens heiligster Stolz!
Leb wohl! Leb wohl! Leb wohl!
I had the immense fortune of seeing and hearing Behrens in Salome -London, 1977, Tristan und Isolde -Munich, 1982, and Tosca. She came to Santiago, Chile, in 1997, to sing Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Siegfried. The press and public thought she was a bit wasted and perhaps too old to sing such a role, but all who saw her were overwhelmed by such fabulous interpretation. Behrens also gave a symphonic concert singing Isolde, Elisabeth, Salome and Senta and the Teatro Municcipal became delirious. I had no idea she had died. Fortunately, I preserve as a treasure many of her recordings which testify to her unique, superb, breathtaking voice. Her role as the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten, conducted by Solti, opposite Julia Varady, Plácido Domingo and José van Dam is almost unbelievable.
Ma belle amie est morte
Je pleurerai toujours
Sous la tombe elle emporte
Mon âme et mes amours.
Hildegard, you will be sorely missed.
HER SHINING SOUL
It is the fairy dust of stars
that falls onto her shoulders;
When she lights onto the stage,
The butterflies support her feet
And the heartbeats carry her
onto the mountaintops.
She is the stuff of dreams.
She holds her hands to her waist
So her straight torso
can turn like a queen
And touch the nobleman
with ancient wings of desire.
She steps lightly but proudly;
her feet are small.
It must be said, if one asks,
Why is this artist different,
greater than the rest?
Say her shoulders are perfect;
Her eyes are as large as God’s,
Her face perfect for noblest life,
And why would you say that she
should be remembered?
For wisdom and justice and vulnerability,
And she is the Golden Eye.
We are the bearers of that gold.
She is the Fullest Heart.
And we are the bearers of that heart.
She gives her All.
And we remember All she gives.
She gives her Shining Soul.
And we lift up her light.
TRIBUTES (August-December 2009)
What Behrens gave to her audiences was always masterful. Whether a God or a mortal, sensitive or insane, gentle or profoundly strong, what she did was presented with artistry and integrity. Her inspiring interpretations will live in my heart and soul forever. My profound condolences to her family and to all those who loved her.
Beloved opera star was passionate, kind
She was far from looking like the stereotypical Wagnerian soprano. Over the decades, from cartoons to real life, the image of the rather portly, hugely endowed soprano singing Richard Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle” with breast plates and armor and spear became so popular that everyone has come to use the phrase whether for music or even a baseball game: “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”
Hildegard Behrens, who sadly passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last week at 72 after arriving in Tokyo to give master classes, was anything but the typical operatic “diva.” She was slightly built and was a kind, generous and passionate personality who as a mother and grandmother was one of those few artists who was able to combine a fabulously successful international career with a rewarding and devoted family life.
She defied the image of the Wagnerian soprano, for despite her smaller stature, she possessed a fabulously lyrical yet powerful voice able to soar above a huge fortissimo in the orchestra.
She put an amazingly human touch on all her roles that made audiences react and feel with her.
In the final scene of “Die Walkure,” perhaps the single most human and emotionally gut-wrenching moment in the entire “Ring Cycle” of Wagner, when a father must say goodbye to his favorite (but disobedient) daughter forever, she sang with such warmth and emotion that she became James Morris’ favorite Brünnhilde at the Metropolitan Opera. As Wotan, the King of the Gods, Jim was able to pick up and carry Hildegard over the rocky precipice on the stage to put her into her magical sleep on top of the mountain surrounded by a magic fire. It always brought tears to my eyes as well as to thousands of others.
Even though Hildegard was older than Jim, she was able to portray so sensitively and tenderly the loving and special daughter that Brünnhilde was, and audiences would absolutely melt. You believed she was Brünnhilde! And anyone who was a father in the audience had tears well up in their eyes.
I had the good fortune to work with Hildegard in Munich a few years ago when we were mounting a new production of Lehar’s operetta masterpiece, “The Merry Widow,” at the Gärtnerplatz. Hildegard wanted very much to try her hand in operetta and agreed to sign on and play the lead for the first time in her career. She was so much fun to work with and worked as hard as any of the young cast members to make it the special event it was. Long, six-hour rehearsal days were the norm, and she regularly joined other colleagues for meals in the Kantine between rehearsals.
All of Europe turned out to hear her in this unexpected role, and her charm won over the audience at every performance over the three years that she sang with us. She even threw in a couple of “Ho jo to hos” (Brünnhilde’s battle cry) in one dialogue scene, to the surprise and delight of everyone.
On a personal note, my opera-loving father was always a tremendous fan of Hildegard’s Isolde, Brünnhilde, Salome and other roles. He idolized her, and he and my mom always went to the Met to hear her. So a few days before our “Merry Widow” premiere in Munich, he called me and said to book him a room, as he was flying over from New York in two days to hear the premiere. He couldn’t believe that his son was actually working with his idol.
So when he was 82, he finally met Hildegard Behrens at the after-performance reception and blushed a color of red that I have never seen before or since.
What a shock it was for me to find, after watching Levine’s DIE WALKÜRE on DVD and wanting to learn more about the wonderful, beautiful Brünnhilde that I saw, that Ms. Behrens had passed away earlier this year. As I write this, I am listening to the Bernstein TRISTAN AND ISOLDE that this great artist sang as Isolde. Hildegard Behrens will forever be for me, as I am sure for countless others, the consummate Wagnerian heroine. And I am sure that Wagner himself would have been a devoted admirer.
I wrote this a few days after I found out that Hildegard Behrens had died: A Mysterious way to know Hildegard Behrens. And it must mean something.
Three months ago I saw Die Walküre for the first time, on DVD of the Metropolitan in NY. It was the first time I saw and heard Hildegard Behrens. Her Brünnhilde was the most touching opera performance that I had ever seen.
On September 18th I played my DVD again, for the second time… because I had it present inside me. So I watched it again – the third act of Die Walküre. I was so moved by Hildegard Behrens’ interpretation that I went to the web to find out about this opera singer. And I found that she passed away exactly one month ago by then. My God! I couldn’t believe it. I knew about her that day and, at the same time, I found her away above us. What a coincidence!! My heart just couldn’t contain the pain. The coincidence moved me, the “bad news” touched me… it brought tears to my eyes as I listened to the DVD, having just realized that it was a really sad coincidence. And I thought that it must mean something!!!
So, before I came to write this, I read some reviews about her career and watched some videos on the internet. And reading about her life, I found an exquisite parallel with my life. What a coincidence, isn’t it?
I read that she did not begin vocal studies, at the Freiburg Academy of Music, until she was 26. And she debuted at the age of 34. What a surprise!… a beautiful one!: I am 29, and I started my vocal studies 2 years ago… I am a theater actress, but I always loved lyrical singing and wanted to sing opera, so 2 years ago I decided to start it. Knowing this about Hildegard Behrens has just injected into my life a breath of hope. I don’t think I’ll be a professional opera singer, but it definitely gave me an example for my own life: it is possible, no matter when you start… you just must love it with your heart. I found this discovery to be a gift from God. And I also must say “thank you” to her!
It is very sad to know about her after her death. It is very sad, the feeling that I knew her late. But it is very moving and incredible, the feeling that that night, she kind of spoke to me. Maybe, all this wasn’t a regular coincidence. Actually, I think it was meant to be that I knew about Hildegard Behrens for the first time in my life one month after her death. On her first month anniversary of her death I “met her”… and discovered her as an example for those who start their vocal studies later than most opera singers. So I thank you Hildegard Behrens!
I must say that definitely my relationship with opera has been one of the most mysterious and magic things that I have in my life. This kind of coincidence has set a mark for me along the way, a clue that says to me I am on the right path.
Now Hildegard Behrens has become a point of reference to me… not only because of this story, but also because of her skills in sharing that kind of feeling as she interprets the best Brünnhilde ever. She was a singer and an actress… with the strength of the sun (the shiniest star)… and from
the depth of the soul. Behrens singing/acting is pure truth and sincerity…
PS: Excuse my English… it is not my first language!
Unfortunately I am too young to have seen Mme. Behrens on stage in her prime, but through her recordings and her videos – which very fortunately, especially for us listeners, preserve her achievements – I have become a huge fan of this woman who had one of the most sensitive, womanly and, quite simply, human voice and artistry.
Behrens exuded feminine beauty and an intense humanity even in the most tragic or raging moments of the roles she sang. She seemed to understand how complex feelings are, so that her Brünnhilde was a heartbroken woman in huge pain, even in the famous Vengeance Trio; and we could feel intense pity for Elektra even in her most angry moments in the opera. Besides, she had a voice of utter purity, a combination of youthful, silvery tones with the necessary heft and metal for a dramatic soprano: there we had a dramatic soprano who was convincing as a powerful yet fragile heroine, as are most opera heroines (in fact, most real people).
My condolences to her family – from Brazil, where opera fans like me truly idolize her many recordings and videos. May the much beloved Hildegard Behrens rest in Peace and bring intensity and human fire to Heaven, where certainly she is now rejoicing in the beautiful, unforgettable work she left on Earth.
When each of us estimates the value, the worth of another human being, we do so by several criteria. There is the value this person has to the world at large, then to the more specific “world” they inhabited, and then – more personally – the value they had to us as an individual.
Though I never met her in person, Hildegard Behrens is one of the most important people in my life. She has been–since I was a teenager and first opened that EMI recording of her as Salome back at the start of her career–and my obsession. To say that her death has had some effect on me would be an understatement. Her larger-than-life personality, her artistry, the integration of everything she was and had into one of the greatest and most challenging, thrilling artists to have graced the stage in the past century – it is these things I choose to concentrate on, to celebrate, and to remember.
I remember that very first time hearing her Salome, placing those black vinyl discs onto my father’s turntable and dropping the needle. For the next two hours our living room became the ancient Judean court of Herod and his household. (The fact that our house was surrounded by cedars and cypress trees giving off their scent on that warm afternoon only added to the sense of occasion, the mystery, and the allure.) By the end, my entire body was covered in gooseflesh, my heart was pumping wildly, and I could almost feel the blood coursing through my veins. Who was this woman?
Over the ensuing decades, I was transported by “this woman’s” performances and recordings. When she brought her Brünnhilde to the Met – I remember watching the telecasts, every night, eschewing invitations from friends so I could make sure my VCR was loaded with tapes enough to not miss a beat. Few evenings in my life had been as thrilling, moving, and enthralling as those four nights in front of my television set in my little DC basement apartment.
Elektra, Elettra, Marie, Leonore, Senta, Isolde, Tosca . . . Tosca? Yes, Tosca. Though audiences seemed divided (and wildly so) on Behrens as this most Italianate of characters, Behrens remains one of my favorite Toscas. Every note, every gesture, those amazing, beautiful, liquid eyes (which would, in a few more years make the world weep as Wotan bid farewell to his daughter), the violence – wild yet fully feminine, and the most spectacular leap any diva made from a parapet, thrilled me as Tosca should. I recall the first time seeing that leap of hers – I’d never seen a Tosca jump UP from the parapet, and Behrens’ Roman diva – for a moment, made me think she was willing her ascension to heaven for that meeting with Scarpia and God . . . and then the violent plunge down to earth. Brava, diva!
Not everything went swimmingly for this great lady, and I recall how, when the Met presented its new Elektra, Behrens was found wanting. A “disaster,” claimed many – saying she left the house in shame never to return. Ha! Behrens was to make one of the greatest triumphant returns any singer had to that august company – and in the same role and production. I recall listening to the Saturday broadcast, and the roar that went up as the lights came back, nearly obliterated my speakers. When it was telecast, I realized I was probably watching THE video I would review and obsess over the most for the rest of my life – or at least a good part of it. Few performances of anything I’ve witnessed have been as emotionally raw, as heartstoppingly beautiful and terrifying – and as cathartic as “Hildegard Becomes Elektra.”
A year or two after the actual event, a friend dropped in to watch this with me one hot summer night, and he used a phrase I’ve grown to love “Paolo, she’s singing like there’s no tomorrow!” That phrase describes this lady to the teeth: singing like there’s no tomorrow!
Recently I watched the now legendary Met Ring and could only sit in wonder and awe, just as I had in my youth. Perhaps more so. The entire thing moved me, but nothing more than Behrens’ Brünnhilde. I wavered back and forth between which I loved more, her Walküre or Götterdämmerung, and realized: I don’t have to choose. Saying that, however, I can think of no more tender, beautiful scene in all of opera than Wotan’s Farewell, and here, Behrens, not singing a note – turned this scene into a visual duet as James Morris – simply remarkable as Wotan – bade farewell to his beloved child. Though far from home, I watched that scene last night via the miracle of the internet – and its poignancy, its genius from composer and artists alike – shattered me in that way that only the greatest works of art can do.
There is so much more to say about this great lady, so many memories flood my mind and make my heart race, but they don’t need to be said – they’ve been felt. They’ve been felt down to my marrow. She will always be with us and her legacy shall ever speak for itself.
Thank you, Hildegard, for the abundant joy you brought to my life. Your loss is so difficult to take, but your life and light they will continue to burn, to warm, provoke and thrill. Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott.
Hildegard Behrens – such an artist, a singer self-giving to the art she loved so much. We’re going to miss her fire and her love for opera. Her voice will sound on our stereos so loud that she’ll be able to listen to herself from heaven!
Her interpretation of her many roles filled my life with joy and showed me that art is still among us, that we must believe and give ourselves to what we really care about. Rest in Peace Diva Behrens! We’ll miss you.
In 1976 (I believe I have the correct year) I ran into a friend who worked at Covent Garden. She grabbed my arm and told me she had just heard the most remarkable new singer, and I should do anything I had to do to get a ticket for the new Leonore in Fidelio. This singer was the extraordinary Hildegard Behrens, and I was left speechless, elevated, exalted by her talent. I still have the silver poster from her Brünnhilde, and was fortunate enough to be in the chorus for her stunning Elektra at London’s Royal Festival Hall. I treasure her recordings and the memories of her performances.
Hearing the news that Ms Behrens has died saddens me immeasurably – a remarkable stage presence, a generous personality, and a unique talent has left us. My thoughts are with Ms. Behrens’ family, friends and colleagues at this time.
To the family of Ms. Hildegard Behrens:
I was so saddened to read of your mother’s passing. I had read an article that she had passed and was interested in knowing how she was. I had never heard of your mother before. Going onto this web site I was amazed at her spirit and how beautiful she was. Looking at her pictures, I could tell she was so full of life and had such a passion.
I went onto YouTube and listened to her singing. Your mother had the voice of an angel and I am sure a beautiful spirit. I am going to go on Itunes and get some of her music! I hope you know that while your mother’s singing is amazing to listen to, at least for me, it is her spirit and how beautiful she was that will stay with me and inspire me in my own life.
God bless all of you,
Although I never heard Behrens during what was truly her prime, I was lucky enough to hear her in two of her very greatest roles, early on in my opera-going days. She first came to my attention in a collection of interviews with various famous divas, so by the time I got to a theatre to hear her, as Elektra in 1997 at the Royal Opera in London, I already knew she was a star. I was 17 years old and, so far, not a terribly perceptive listener, and while I wish I could say my memory of her actual singing was clearer, my lack of familiarity with the score at that time seems to have prevented me from hanging on to much of it. I will never forget the experience as a totality however, by which I mean that I can remember how I felt, which was utterly gripped, and on the edge of my seat throughout. I remember the pitiful desolation she communicated during her monologue, how thoroughly shocking she was in her audacious scene with her mother, and her macabre, naïve joy as she ran around the stage at the end covered in the blood which was oozing from the palace walls.
Shortly afterwards, when the Royal Opera presented its semi-staged Ring Cycle at the Royal Albert Hall, I remember being very disappointed that we hadn’t been able to book for Behrens as Brünnhilde in Siegfried or Götterdämmerung, but I did get to see her in Die Walküre. She was almost unbearably moving, using her highly expressive chest voice and plangent top to great effect and being, I think it is fair to say, more inside the character than any other artist I have ever seen in any role.
I saw Behrens one more time, in a concert performance of Schönberg’s Erwartung at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The sheer size of her voice really hit home to me on this occasion. I will never forget her hitting a climactic top note which, in truth, Schönberg probably never expected to be heard, since he appeared to accompany it with the entire orchestra playing fortissimo. Behrens was perfectly audible, and not in a laser-like, cutting through sense either. It was more that her voice was just so naturally big that it could surround and envelop you without any effort being apparent in the sound. For this reason, I refute those claims that she was not a true dramatic or hochdramatische soprano. Her voice may not have had the colour or inherent thrust we are used to from sopranos on whom we bestow that title, but in Behrens’s case this was surely an asset. She absolutely had the requisite size of voice, and the fact that she had more flexibility with it, particularly at the top, and more freedom to colour it how she felt was most appropriate to the role, allowed her to deliver more complete portrayals of her characters with more absorbing and moving results than many of her colleagues and predecessors. For me, the uniqueness of that size of voice with such a natural, pliable, soft-focussed timbre meant that she was every bit as much of a vocal phenomenon, in her own way, as the likes of Sutherland, Nilsson and Corelli.
Like many others, I cherish her recordings and those of her performances which are preserved on DVD. I doubt whether anybody has ever come closer to being the ’16-year old with the voice of Isolde’ that Salome requires. That wonderfully touching, child-like quality in her voice suited the role so well. Her Dyer’s Wife for Solti is heart-breaking in its poignancy. I love the abandon of her Elettra in Idomeneo. But I think her Isolde for Bernstein is the one I cherish above all others. As with so many of Behrens’ roles that we are used to hearing from the more stentorian throats of others, it was the beauty and humanity of the character which Behrens was able to do like nobody else. The rage and fury of Act I wants for nothing in her hands, but the wonders of Acts II and III gain so much from that other-worldly beauty in her voice, and her unbeatable dramatic and interpretative gifts. Somehow, she always makes me fall profoundly in love with her, every time I hear her voice.
Thank you, Hildegard Behrens, for enriching the world with your wonderful artistry. May you rest in peace.
She was and is the greatest Brünnhilde. She appears Christlike as she enters the stage in the swearing scene in Götterdämmerung. She shows us the meaning of tender, holy, childlike-pure-womanly passion as she stretches more than humanly possible in Senta’s role in the final scene of the Savonlinna Der Fliegender Hollander. She teaches us the meaning of triumph and lifted soul, LIFE! itself!, at the end of her performance of Elektra. She breaks our hearts with love with her valiant, exquisite tenderness when she perceives the nobility of Siegmund’s love and embraces him and tells him “Tomorrow I will fight for you!” She breaks our hearts when the viewer sees the tear in her eye as she is in her father’s arms at the end of Walküre. She thrills us unforgettably with the greatness of her closing anthem from Götterdämmerung. She is Victory of Samothrace when she moves with all her strength and shoulders and glorious head, swirling with power first one way and then with great power reversing direction in the final scene of Siegfried.
I met her after she sang Marie in Wozzeck at the Met in 1999. Her ringing, shining unforgettable warmth and kindness, her genuine softspokenness and joyful quiet modesty, her mother-tenderness filled the dressing room with a magical tender, kind aura: We were in the spell of a great, unique, soul who was so very kind and who blessed each of us.
I send my prayers and deepest sympathy to her family and to all who mourn her and to all who will hold her memory inwardly eternally. I thank God with all my heart for the gift of her life and work. I miss her more than words can say.
Much has been already written about the glorious voice, and the beautiful memories warm my devastated heart. But my most cherished memories of Hildegard are above all of her humanity; and never more than in two of her earliest roles, where she forged the stage archetypes that would later inform her monumental portrayal of Brünnhilde.
The first is Marie in Wozzeck, when she receives the silver coins from Wozzeck. There was an unforgettable picture of pain, anguish, need, and ultimately terrible guilt. The act of “taking” deeply pained her, and every bone in her body showed that ambivalent conflict within herself, as the poor girl that wanted to be better but couldn’t because we are all so, so flawed… And in the end “it will all go to hell anyway,” as she would always tell, talking about the Bible scene. Never anyone infused so much pain on the stage picture while portraying the misery of the human condition.
At exactly the opposite end, was her Leonore, once again my most indelible memory is of her desperately searching for some crumbs of bread in her pocket, and then so humbly offering them, hand outstretched in agonizing pain, to the poor man lying half dead in front of her. She would never tire of telling me, “Leonore offers the bread to ‘the man’, it no longer matters whether it is her husband or not, she must save him because he is a fellow human. And that’s the critical moment when Leonore becomes the universal goodness, not just the faithful wife, but the eternal life-affirming goodness, that will save the world from evil.
Behrens felt that Leonore was doing the most magnificent deed a person could do, the act of “giving”. But her stage demeanor was one of abject humility; she was “begging” Florestan “please accept my help for your salvation”. In so doing she encompassed again, in her slight little frame, all of humanity’s suffering, in one single person. I have kept that picture of her hand outstretched with a crumb of bread, forever etched in my mind, because THAT was also Behrens the person, my dear and generous friend. And as I imagine how she entered the gates of heaven, I know for sure that she was Leonore, and presented herself to God, exactly the same way, hand outstretched with a few crumbs of bread, head bowed in humble offer, but fully knowing that her mission had been accomplished, as she faced her God.
As I write this, I wish I could listen to her sublime rendition of “Bist du bei Mir”, but I cannot bear to hear her voice. So I am listening instead to “Blute Nur du Liebes Herz!”……… Rest in Peace Beloved Hildegard.
Begin meiner Studienzeit in Deutschland, anfang der Spielzeit 1979 /80 der Bayerischen Staatsoper München habe ich erste Begegnung mit Frau Behrens als Leonore im Fidelio unter der Leitung von Dr.Böhm gehabt . Seitdem ist sie meine ideale dramatische und auch lyrische Soprandarstellerin geblieben. In 1980 war sie ihre erste Isolde auf die Weltbühne aufgetreten. Unter der entsetzlichen Regie von Everding war sie die einzige und ewige Isolde in die Opernwelt gerufen worden. Anschließend folgte die legendäre Tristan Produktion mit Bernstein und BR. Wenn sie auf der Bühne stand, war sie immer treue Existenz und hat eine einmalige Fraunfigur gezeigt. Ja ewig und treu ist sie als eine Wahrheit. Daß sie als Gast in Japan in meinem Land zu plötzlich auf den Himmel gefahren ist, ist mir eine unvorstellbare Tatsache. Tausendmal Danke schön und Requiescat in pace, meine Leonore, Frau Behrens!
When I was a budding opera fan in the late ’80s I would tell people I liked everything “except Wagner.” That was until the Met Ring was broadcast over four consecutive nights on TV. From that telecast I became a fan of Wagner and of Hildegard Behrens.
The only time I heard her live was as Elektra at the Met on 6 January 1994. That performance remains for me to this day the most exciting, moving, life-altering musical experience of my life. I’ll be forever grateful to Hildegard Behrens for that night.
I came late to opera (as did Ms. Behrens, who began her formal studies at age 26, after having earned a law degree) so I just missed Behrens’ heyday in the 80’s, but her Brunnhilde (Levine/Metropolitan Opera Orchestra—DG 1994) is a favorite in my music collection, and I was riveted by her intensity and dramatic commitment in the title role of Strauss’s Elektra.
Critics have said Behrens pushed her instrument too far, and that she damaged her voice by her choice of repertoire. I’d like to think that Ms. Behrens’ late start in opera (her professional debut didn’t occur until 1971, when she was 34) gave her a heightened awareness of the incredible gift she possessed, and its transitory nature. Perhaps this was what made her so willing to take chances with it by singing the roles that interested her rather than those that might have been easier for her to sing.
G-d is a fickle gift-giver, as even the greatest singers come to discover, and the whips and scorns of time will eventually whittle their gifts to mere echoes. Some singers attempt to forestall this inevitability with careful hoarding of what is known as “vocal capital,” but not Hildegard Behrens. She spent every dime, and if her voice eventually became less than it had been, her willingness to explore the outer reaches of both her vocal capability and the dramatic possibilities of any role made the sacrifice all the more precious to those who had the good fortune to benefit from it.
A great artist, a great woman and a great loss to the world. However such greatness is never forgotten and lives on to inspire and enliven our lives and those of future generations.
What a shock. Had not thought of her much lately, or knew what she was up to. But she was one of the great divas of my opera-going life. She was the Brünnhilde in the first integral Ring my partner and I saw at the Met 20 years ago! Her performance was truly galvanizing. Every moment on stage projected truth, drama, love, jealousy–all conveyed with consummate musicality. No, her voice was not always conventionally beautiful, but combined with her incredible body language and facial expressiveness, she was the total embodiment of each character she portrayed.
We also heard her in the Ring in San Francisco, the centerpiece of a glorious trip to that city. Our favorite moment: one afternoon we were passing the opera house on our way back to the hotel, and there she stood at the curb, waiting for her son to pick her up. We approached and started a conversation that lasted about 15 minutes. She was so down-to-earth and gracious, never haughty or condescending. Later we visited her backstage in Houston where she sang unforgettable, hair raising performances of Salome and Elektra. I have photos taken of her at an HGO event smiling, radiant and relaxed. Off stage just a charming lady, on stage a blazing star. I’ve heard all the great ones, but Hildy was special and left me some indelible memories.
It cut to my heart to learn yesterday that Hildegard Behrens had died in Tokyo. She was the greatest post-Nilsson Wagnerian soprano of the late 20th century. She did not have the size and piercing quality of Nilsson’s voice, but her voice was strong enough, and she was a far greater and more intense actress. You could see it when you witnessed her on the stage. I, to my great regret, never saw her “live.” But I did see her stage performances on television, most memorably Elektra, and I will never forget it. In short, Ms. Behrens was the Maria Callas of Wagnerian opera in the 20th century. There is no greater tribute an opera lover (esp. a Wagnerian) can offer.
It happens that in seven weeks I will be visiting Vienna. If you can tell me where she will be put to rest, I would like to visit the site and place a rose there in tribute to her.
What a terrible loss! May she rest in peace. I had the privilege of seeing her as Elektra and as Cassandra in Les Troyens. Pity that we don’t have a recording of the divine Behrens in this role. Her delivery of French was suprisingly idiomatic and she was in demented form. The character really became Elektra-like. I also heard her in recital in an open theater with difficult acoustics and she projected beautifully.
With the loss of such people I always feel terrible because it’s like losing a member of the family. The great moments she gave us during all those years made me feel like she was family.
Sing with the angels, Hildegard. Your voice and artistry remain with us forever.
Last night I was watching a DVD of the Met’s Der Ring Des Niebelungen, and revelling in the performance by Hildegard Behrens in the role of Brünnhilde. This morning I learned of the death of Ms Behrens- I am truly shocked and saddened by her passing.
The world of music, opera and indeed the world generally has lost a great artist. Ms Behrens followed her inner self and showed what a talented woman she was. Her recordings and performances stand in testament of her. I join the world in mourning her passing.
“Schlaf wohl, du kuehnes,herrliches Kind.”
“Heute sind Sie in Wallhall”
My sincere sympathies to all of Ms Behrens’ family.
I am a 67 year old retired Haematologist, who is a lover of the Wagnerian operas and the Wagnerain singers. I discovered Hildegard Behrens many years ago, and have enjoyed her singing since. My greatest and most exciting experience was to see the entire Ring when performed in Adelaide in 2004. Bayreuth was always an unobtainable dream. The advent of DVDs enabled me at long last to see Hildegard perform in the Levine Met production. This fulfilled yet another dream. I mourn the loss of Hildegard.”
I was captivated by Hildegard when I first heard her recording of Salome. After this I listened to and recorded every broadcast I could get my hands on. Most of them are worn out but fortunately available on CD with a few exceptions. It would be wonderful to have the Paris Die Frau Ohne Schatten in decent sound, where she sang the Empress. Hildegard’s first Munich Isolde and her 1987 Brünnhilde are indelibly etched in my memory.
I only ever saw Hildegard on her infrequent visits to the UK. Twice as Elektra in 1989 and 97 respectively. She was stunning at the Royal Festival Hall with Ozawa conducting, but the Royal Opera production in 97 didn’t suit her – it was an ugly set and she wasn’t well. Hildegard bravely soldered through a concert at the Royal Opera House in 1990, again when she wasn’t well. I finally witnessed her Brünnhilde in the flesh when the Royal Opera was exiled to Birmingham in 1998. It was quite a cast with John Tomlinson, Siegfried Jerusalem, Ekkehard Wlaschiha and the young Petra Lang. By the beginning of Götterdämmerung, the atmosphere in the hall was palpable with expectation. I turned to one my friends and said, “I think we’re in for something really special”. And it certainly was. Hildegard sang and acted – even though it was a concert performance – with such concentrated energy and fierce commitment that the audience went crazy at the end of act two. Another friend couldn’t bring himself to watch for fear of breaking down. An audience member told me at the end that he cried through the second half of the same act. At the end we stayed to meet the singers. Finally about to meet Hildegard, I suddenly became tongue tied and could only say, “That was awesome – I have waited 15 years to see you do Brünnhilde”. Hildegard was extremely gracious and kind, replying, “It’s never too late for anything”, then chatted briefly about how far I had travelled to see the Ring and her plans for the future. She signed my programme – “With my best thoughts and wishes for you! Brünnhilde 10.10.98″.
My deepest and heartfelt condolences to Hildegard’s family and friends.
To take a break from gathering some data for a project, I visited YouTube to find some opera videos. I got a list of results from one search, including a link that read “Hildegard Behrens (1937-2009).”
I did a double take. This couldn’t mean what I imagined. Hildegard Behrens? Gone?
I confirmed the sad and shocking news from various news sources, including Anthony Tommasini’s obituary, as well as Alex Ross’ brief but respectful tribute with the finale from Behrens’ breakout recording of Salome. I clicked under the photo of her in costume to listen, with Behrens still defiantly alive in the guise as Strauss’ anti-heroine. And me, trying to process the news.
How could this be? Behrens was so young, or at least youthful. I remember reading that she had begun taking excellent care of her health since her accident at the Met in 1990. What’s more, she was one of the few singers who could combine analytical and emotional intelligence in bringing many opera characters to life. I can only wish that I was one of the lucky people to have seen her perform live.
At least Behrens’ legacy will continue to live on, whatever the medium. Her complete Salome on an iPod, or excerpts of her Isolde on YouTube. And then there are the people she touched on a personal level, as attested to here. It is difficult to top a legacy like hers.
I saw Ms. Behrens perform at the Met in 1980 or 81 when she was pregnant with her daughter, Sara. It was Beethoven’s Fidelio, and I will never forget how moving she was. Every time she stepped on a stage, or made a recording, you were always aware of the tremendous commitment to the character she was portraying. Of course, let’s not forget how exciting she was! And boy, was she exciting!
I’ve never met Ms. Behrens, but have been told she was very kind and appreciative of her fans. I shall miss her greatly.
Ich habe meine schönsten Erinnerungen an Opernabende dieser wunderbaren Frau und Sängerin zu verdanken! Ich kann nicht glauben, dass Sie nicht mehr unter uns ist…
Mein tiefes Mitgefühl ihrer ganzen Familie!
Sitting in the first row in the Prinzregentheatre in München in 1999 I was touched by Hildergard Behrens in her role as Isolde. It was my most exciting opera experience ever. Frau Behrens sang wonderfully, and for me it was a reason to buy some other “Behrens performances”. A great singer and warm woman has passed on too early.
Thank God for Hildegard Behrens. She gave such joy with her singing. She will always be my prototypical Brunhilde against which all other singers are measured, and fail
I am privileged to have a DVD recording of Hildegard Behrens singing the role of Brunnhilde which was filmed at the New York Met under the directorship of James Levine. She will be much missed by her family, friends and her many fans from around the world. But, her legacy will live on in the numerous CD and DVD recordings which will continue to be listened and viewed for many years to come.
A great singer and performer who will be loved and admired always.
We’ll never forget her “Dich, teure Halle” at the Opening Night Gala of the Boston Symphony Orchestra season in 1999. Danke, Hildegard!
[Note: Because of its length, the remarkable tribute below that spans almost the entirety of Ms. Behrens’ brilliant career has been condensed. Read full text HERE.]
In Memoriam: Hildegard Behrens (1937-2009)
“Zu Wotans Willen sprichst du, sagst du mir, was du willst; wer bin ich, wär’ ich dein Wille nicht?”
These are the words that the Valkyrie maiden Brünnhilde implores Wotan with to confer the inner turmoil wrought by the adverse vicissitude of events that unfold in Wagner’s Ring. Only a scant few other scenes in the epic tetralogy exhibit Wagner’s ability to create moments of such poignancy and intimacy in a world of primordial chaos…. While the role of Brünnhilde is stereotypically awarded to stentorian sopranos of colossal instruments, scenes like this lend truth to anecdotal recollections of Wagner’s instructions: to play sensitively and with clarity, and for the singers to understand the character above all else…. More often than not, because of the demands of the roles, singers up to task muster the minimum requirement of singing over the oceanic waves of orchestral water, leaving little more than rudimentary snippets of character and drama that Wagner incorporated into his work.
In the Ring’s pivotal role of Brünnhilde alone, history books will tell us that Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, and Astrid Varnay are the Wagnerian paragons who have transformed the role into a figure of the greatest indelibility. However stellar their performances were, listeners of this generation will remember another soprano who accorded the character with the intimacy and the abandon that has become a hallmark of her career: Hildegard Behrens….
Madame Behrens, although remembered today as a premier interpreter of the great Wagnerian and Straussian roles, did not always set her sights on a career in music. After graduating with a degree in law from the University of Freiburg, she worked as a junior barrister prior to committing herself to developing her voice with a teacher in her alma mater. There, she met a group of friends who urged her to pursue music due to her innate skill and passion for the art. In 1971, Mme. Behrens debuted in the role of the Countess in a Freiburg production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. A year later, she was inducted as a member of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein; from there, her career continued to blossom.
Although small roles constituted her repertory during these embryonic years, Mme. Behrens gradually equipped herself with the stamina and the endurance required to sing the larger roles. During the years of her Düsseldorf incumbency, she had become an outstanding Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio and a harrowing Marie in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. On the 15th of October, 1976, the Metropolitan Opera contracted her to play the violent character of Giorgietta in Puccini’s Il Tabarro. By then, Hildegard Behrens was forging her way through the glamorous world of operatic stardom…
Prior to the 1977 Salzburg Festival, Europe’s musical Kaiser Herbert von Karajan scouted the German lands for an ideal Salome: a gleaming dramatic soprano voice with a kittenish allure and a puerile sadism encased in a streamlined body….. While rehearsing the part of Marie with her company, Karajan found her so arresting a singing actress that he hired her to perform Salome in Europe’s most celebrated music festival. It was this unforgettable production of Strauss’ Biblical drama that catapulted Hildegard Behrens to the limelight of the operatic world.
Engagements in the most prestigious European and North American houses awarded the singer the chance to enchant and captivate audiences….. Podium luminaries like Herbert von Karajan, Sir Georg Solti, Karl Böhm, James Levine, and Leonard Berstein engaged her on many an occasion to critical acclaim. Dr. Böhm, a fastidious conductor who held only the greatest respect for the best singers, called Behrens his “last great Leonora.” A 1978 recording taped from the Bavarian Opera showcases the communicative rapport between conductor and singer—indeed, out of all the recorded live performances of Beethoven’s sole stage drama, this one comes close to the top.
Claudio Abbado, a podium master with an Italian heart and a German intellect, created with her as Marie today’s definitive recording of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Leonard Bernstein, the North American Grand Pooh-bah of classical music, asked Mme. Behrens to honor him the privilege of committing Wagner’s seminal music drama, Tristan und Isolde, to record. The product of this venture is one of the most febrile and narcotic recordings of the opera. Though Lenny employed some of the most glacial tempi in his vision of Wagner’s metaphysical tragedy, Behrens valiantly sailed through this extremely exposed and strenuous role, finally capping it with a Liebestod that transcended the boundaries of time and space. But she can sing French characters quite well too. A recording long overdue for rerelease, Albéric Magnard’s Tristanesque Guercoeur with Michel Plasson conducting, Behrens as Giselle, and Jose Van Dam as the eponymous character, evinces her artistic malleability for wearing different linguistic and musical guises.
When the legendary centenary Ring production at Bayreuth closed its curtains in 1980, the new producers of the next cycle and its conductor, Sir Georg Solti, were looking for a Brünnhilde who would don a black leather costume with sequined studs while hurling battle cries and ruminating long and drawn Schopenhauerean soliloquys. Hildegard was at the time rehearsing in a production of Puccini’s Turandot when the feisty Hungarian maestro pulled strings and transferred her to Bayreuth to be its next Brünnhilde…. Behrens triumphed and was decorated with massive standing ovations, extolling reviews, and bouquets of flowers that threatened to overfill her dressing room. A new Brünnhilde was born.
It was during this decade that Mme. Behrens intermittently spent time in Europe and North America, by then flashing a spanking new calling card with Brünnhilde written all over it. One of Austria’s most renowned producers of opera, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, picked her as his Brünnhilde of choice to star in two of his Ring productions: a premiere with Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Bavarian State Opera, the other with Sir Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco War Memorial Opera.
In the fall of 1986, the Met unveiled a production that was to become a musical Mecca for Wagner lovers of the next two decades…. The Brünnhilde was none other than Hildegard Behrens. This production, and the part that she played in it, was the crowning glory of her illustrious career in music. Captured on video and broadcast on PBS, Behrens’ Brünnhilde was for many the first to wean several neophyte operaphiles and soon-to-be Wagnerians of that generation with the wonders of the Ring saga…. Hildegard Behrens enchanted her new audiences in video and surround sound with her unique interpretation of Wagner’s greatest and most noble heroine…. Brian Large, the video director who filmed the Ring…. Upon completing his filming of Brünnhilde’s revenge pact in second act of Götterdämmerung, he exclaimed that his finest work was finally completed.
When discussing an artist like Hildegard, it is essential that one judge her not as a singer perfect in all musical respects, but as an artist who encompasses the entire operatic macrocosm within her performances—an understanding of humanity within the role, so to speak. Once compared to the enigmatic Italian thespian Eleonora Duse, Mme. Behrens was one such person who never sacrificed dramatic verisimilitude for a criminal blandness that affected the bygone performances of an earlier era. She threw herself into her roles with such feral abandon that one forgets that she is an opera singer thrashing about onstage…. In 1992, after having essayed multiple Brünnhildes, she entered into her last recorded operatic venture with Sir Georg Solti, playing the shrewish Dyer’s Wife in Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten. When compared with other singers who have played the part, Behrens’ wispy timbre, willowy countenance, and dramatic bite come close to perfection. She is indeed, the Färberin personified. During the same year, Otto Schenk’s realist Elektra production showcased the singer in poor form, only to have this phoenix of a soprano revive her musical powers two years later in the same production with one of the most tumultuous ovations in Metropolitan Opera History.
The vestiges of a great career in opera had the singer spending her final days as a master class instructor and a Lieder recitalist. Her innate love for music, her feel for its enchanting undulations, her penchant for verbal communication, her intelligence both onstage and off, and her generosity have preserved her art as a paragon of the school of singing actresses. Like her predecessors Maria Callas, Magda Olivero, Renata Scotto, Martha Mödl, and Leonie Rysanek, it was through her imperfection that she struck the stage as a character of the first order. Like Tosca, she lived for art, and she lived for love—a love for the music that she served during her thirty years as a veritable prima donna without the saccharine antics.
Richard Wagner, during the first Bayreuth Festival of 1876, mastered all aspects of stage and musical production for his groundbreaking production of the Ring cycle. He oversaw the costumes, the music making, the acting, and the singing. He stressed clarity from his orchestra, telling the musicians never to drown the singers so as not to sacrifice the depth of the written drama. Turning to his singers, he stipulated that the sounds they produce should not be anything less than conductive to enhancing the audience’s understanding of the text. One must wonder, had he been born a hundred years later, what he would have made of Hildegard Behrens—a stage actress who committed herself to his cosmic Gesamtkunstwerks with the rare commitment, the sincerity, and the abandon that characterize only the finest artists in this arena.
Rest in peace Madame Behrens. You will be missed.