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Hildegard Behrens (Soprano)

Born: February 9, 1937 - Varel, Oldenburg, Germany
Died: August 18, 2009 - Tokyo, Japan

The noted German soprano, Hidegard Behrens, was born in Varel-Oldenburg, a small town on the northern coast of Germany. She graduated from Law School at the University of Freiburg. Subsequently she studied voice with Ines Leuwen at the Freiburg im Breisgau Staatliche Hochschule fur Musik.

In 1971 Hidegard Behrens made her operatic debut as W.A. Mozart's Countess at the Freiburg im Breisgau City Theater. That that same year she became a member of the opera studio of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, becoming a full-fledged member of the company in 1972. She also sang in Frankfurt am Main. It was at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf that Herbert von Karajan discovered the young singer and engaged her as his Salome for a recording of the opera. In 1976 she made her debut at London's Covent Garden as Giorgetta in Il Tabarro. In October 1976, she made her first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York singing Dich teure Halle from Tannhäuser in a marathon concert, returning to make her formal debut there as Giorgetta later that month. But it was her interpretation of Salome at the Salzburg Festival in 1977 that that launched her brilliant careern and projected her into the top ranks of the world's sopranos.

While Hildegard Behrens returned to Salzburg the following years to sing Leonore in Fidelio under Herbert von Karajan and the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos under Karl Böhm, she made a triumphant "second" debut at the Met in 1978, again as Leonore under Karl Böhm. In 1980 she sang the Kaiser in in Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten in Paris and her first Elektra in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Idomeneo in 1982. Of this performance, TIME Magazine's music critic Michael Walsh wrote that "she even managed to upstage Pavarotti". In subsequent seasons, she returned to sing such roles as Fidelio, Elettra, Sieglinde, Isolde, Donna Anna, Brünnhilde, Alban Berg's Marie, and Tosca. She made her New York recital debut in 1985.

Though she sang her first Isoldes in Zürich and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, her 1981 recording of the work under Leonard Bernstein in Munich is a milestone. For Leonard Bernstein, Tristan was the "central work of all music history", and he decided to tackle it in a concert version with live telecasts, one act at a time, in January, April and November of that year. "Bernstein's partnership with Hildegard Behrens, his exceptionally gifted Isolde, was one of the most thrilling sights ever witnessed on a concert platform", writes Humphrey Burton in his biography of Leonard Bernstein.

Following her triumphant debut as Brünnhilde under Sir Georg Solti at the Bayreuth Festival in 1983, Hildegard Behrens received tremendous acclaim for her portrayal of Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera. These two landmark engagements established her as one of the leading Wagnerian sopranos of the 1980's. She has sung Brünnhilde in complete Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Met and the Bavarian State Opera, both of which were televised world-wide. Of her Brünnhilde, her signature role, the Wall Street Journal wrote: "You could wait a lifetime for singing as stirring and beautiful as this."

Referred to as "the greatest living Brünnhilde" in Opera News, this status has been reaffirmed recently after performances in London of "pearly singing that ravish the senses" by the public's "football-crowd roar, quadruple fortissimo" (The Times), and immediately after in Vienna, with the press describing her performances as "grandiose", "astounding" and "singing of immense power". The acclaim she has received for her electrifying Brünnhilde has indeed been far and wide, with praise ranging from "allsurpassing" for her first assumption of the role at the Bayreuth Festival in 1983, to her being rendered "the legitimate heir to the greatest Wagnerians of the century" by La Nacion of Buenos Aires in 1998, while her Metropolitan Opera assumption merited The Wall Street Journal to write: "you could wait a lifetime for singing as stirring and beautiful as this".

In 1996, Hidegard Behrens performed her legendary interpretation of Isolde in August Everding's new production of Tristan und Isolde, opening the newly rebuilt Prinzregententheater in Munich, Lorin Maazel conducting, recorded and televised live across Europe. An immensely acclaimed Lieder piano recital at Carnegie Hall accompanied by Christoph Eschenbach followed as well as her debut in the role of Kundry in Wagner's Parsifal, performed in concert in Cologne. Then, in the summer of 1996, she closed the season with one of the most important musical events of the year - the new production of Elektra at the Salzburg Festival with Lorin Maazel conducting. Her performances were described by critics as "phenomenal," "unforgettable," "incomparable," "the musical event of the century," and "[demonstrating] that Hildegard Behrens is the greatest Elektra in the world." She was also declared "Festival Artist of the Year" in 1996 by the German opera magazine Orpheus.

As Elektra, Hidegard Behrens dazzled audiences with her dramatic coloraturas; as Elektra, she overwhelmed them with her unflagging intensity. The Strauss role seems to have been written for her, and it is one of her favorites. She has sung it in Paris, in Otto Schenk's production at the Met, in Athens, Houston, Munich, Vienna and elsewhere. Her portrayal of this role in Otto Schenk's Metropolitan Opera production was described by New York Newsday as "a drop-dead performance that had the house standing, stomping and cheering from the moment the music stopped". The performance was telecast across the USA on PBS.

Along with her regular performances at the major opera houses and concert halls around the world, Hidegard Behrens' calendar over the past few seasons featured the world premiere of Cronaca del Luogo, a new opera composed specifically for her by Luciano Berio, which opened the Salzburg Festival in the summer of 1999. Furthermore, her tour through Japan with a series of gala Wagner concerts under Seiji Ozawa, as well as her debut at the Los Angeles Opera with Salome in make further special highlights in 1998-1999. In 1997, her return to the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Covent Garden Royal Opera House in the role of Elektra met tremendous success as did her appearance at the Houston Grand Opera in a new production of Salome conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Performances of Salome, Marie in Wozzeck and Brünnhilde in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen followed in Vienna. She also reprised her unforgettably moving portrayal of Brünnhilde in two cycles of the Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Metropolitan Opera. In 1997 she was declared "Singer of the Year" by the German opera magazine Opernwelt.

Hidegard Behrens' versatility as an artist is demonstrated by her forays outside of her German repertoire. She performed Tosca opposite Plácido Domingo in a new Franco Zeffirelli production for the Metropolitan Opera (recorded and televised worldwide) as well as with Luciano Pavarotti at the Opéra de Paris. Additionally, she has starred as Emilia Marty in Janácek's The Makropoulos Affair and Katerina Ismailova in Dmitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mzensk, both new productions mounted for her by the Bavarian State Opera, the first direby her husband Seth Schneidman, the latter by German film director Volker Schlöndorff. She also performed Giorgetta in Puccini's Il Tabarro for her debut at the Metropolitan Opera and Cassandra in Berlioz's Les Troyens in Athens. She is an accomplished recitalist with a repertoire ranging from J.S. Bach and W.A. Mozart to Wolf and Edward Elgar, and in November 1995 at Montpellier, she sang the world premiere of the song cycle Le Cercle Kleist, dedicated to her by the French composer René Koering.

At the Salzburg Summer Festival 2001, Hidegard Behrens made her debut in the role of Kostelnicka in a new production of Leos Janácek's Jenufa staged by film director Bob Swaim under the bâton of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung applauded her in this production: "Hildegard Behrens, a true event as the Kostelnicka". In October 2004, she brought this role to a new production by Nicolas Joel, marking the reopening of the Théatre du Capitole Toulouse. March 2003 saw her perform for the first time at Den Norske Opera with her role-debut as Ortrud in Wagner's Lohengrin.

Characteristically of her expanding repertoire, Hidegard Behrens' upcoming projects include debuts in Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Gottfried von Einem's Besuch der alten Dame, a reprise of Luciano Berio's Cronaca del Luogo, Janaceck's The Makropoulos Affair as well as a recording project with the extraordinary Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin.

In recognition of her contributions to German culture, Hildegard Behrens has been awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz by the Federal Republic of Germany, as well as the Bayerischer Verdienstorden from the state of Bavaria. The Bavarian State Opera awarded her its highest honor by naming her Bayerische Kammersängerin. The Republic of Austria bestowed upon her the correspondent honor by awarding her the title of Österreichische Kammersängerin of the Wiener Staatsoper. In June 1998, she was awarded the most prestigious 'Léonie Sonnings Music Prize 1998' of Denmark, joining great musicians as Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, D. Shostakovich, Yehudi Menuhin, Nilsson, Benjamin Britten, Messien, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Stern, Pierre Boulez, and Georg Solti who have received the award since 1959. "Today at the end of the 90's she stands as her generation's ideal, setting the standards of interpretation of the great dramatic roles" (Copenhagen's Berlingske Tidende). In 1999 she was honored with the "Lotte Lehmann - Gedächtnisring" at the Wiener Staatsoper. It was the late Leonie Rysanek who had chosen Hildegard Behrens to be her successor in upholding the unique ring. In April she was awarded the "Prix Herbert von Karajan - Orphée d'Or de L'Academie du Disque Lyrique" at the Opéra Bastille.

Known for her unforgettably exciting stage presence, and the powerful radiance of her voice, Hildegard Behrens is widely regarded as "one of the finest singing actresses of our day." "Here is a soprano," writes The New York Times, " who has it in her to evoke an elemental response in opera lovers, to send electric shocks through the house - a heroine in whose performances the crowd can abandon itself, for whom it can shout itself hoarse at the end."

Hildegard Behrens continues to sing Wagner - Tristan und Isolde in Munich and Houston, Der Ring des Nibelungen's Brünnhilde in Vienna - as well as other celebrated roles such as Leonore (Vienna) and Elektra (Berlin). Among her recent concert activities was a lieder recital at Carnegie Hall with pianist Christoph Eschenbach. She continues to enthrall listeners with her strong personality, her fine psychological nuancing and her singing which, in the end, is simply and utterly beautiful.

Hildegard Behrens' discography includes releases of Deutsche Gramophone audio and video recordings of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen with James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera, a recording of Alban Berg's Wozzeck (also available on video) with Claudio Abbado, and a recording of Franz Liszt songs. On EMI she is again featured in audio and video releases of the Der Ring des Nibelungen with the Bavarian State Opera under Wolfgang Sawallisch, recorded in High Definition (HDTV) by NHK; Salome with Herbert von Karajan; Great Scenes and Arias from Wagner Operas; and a recital disc including Robert Schumann's cycle Frauenliebe und Leben and songs by Johannes Brahms, J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, and E. Elgar. Philips has recorded her Isolde under Leonard Bernstein, and Elektra, under Seiji Ozawa. Her Decca catalogue includes Der Freischütz, with Rafael Kubelík; Der Fliegende Holländer with Christoph von Dohnányi; both L.v. Beethoven'S Fidelio, and Die Frau ohne Schatten (dyer's wife) under Sir Georg Solti; and the recently released compilation on the Grandi Voci series, including a most distinct recording of Berlioz' Nuits d'Été and Ravel's Shéhérazade with Francis Travis conducting. Also available, on video only, are productions of Der Fliegende Holländer from the Festival of Savonlinna, released by Teldec/Warner Classics; and Idomeneo as well as Tosca, both from the Metropolitan Opera, available by Pioneer. She can be seen and heard in Unitel's recordings "Leonard Bernstein at 70" and "Sir Georg Solti - A Portrait".

More Photos

Source: Unitel Website (by Roger Clement, 2004); RuhrTriennale 2005-2007 Website; Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997); FanFaire Website (Photos); Photos by courtesy of Marcelo Galvao
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (October 2005); Manfred Krugmann (May 2011)

Recordings of Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works




David Syrus (Piano)


V-1 (1995): BWV 508

Links to other Sites

Heldegard Behrens - A voice of passion and ecstasy turns 60 (Unitel)
RuhrTriennale 2005-2007 - Hildegard Behrens
Hildegard Behrens (Mild und Leise) [German]

Hildegard Behrens, Dramatic Soprano (FanFaire)
Hildegard Behrens, Dramatic Soprano (Official Website)

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