Hildegard Behrens (born 1937) was a German soprano noted for her highly dramatic performances, especially as Wagnerian heroines. She developed a vocal technique called "chest singing" which audiences and critics outside of Italy occasionally found disturbing and controversial.
Hildegard Behrens was born in Varel, a small town in northern Germany on February 9, 1937. Both her parents were doctors, and she was the youngest of their six children. She studied piano and violin as a child, but she had no professional aspirations. Instead, she went to the University of Freiburg in southern Germany to study law. Despite her intended career, she found herself spending most of her time at the school of music in the school chorus. She sat in on master classes as a spectator and had a boyfriend who was studying the violin and who later played with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Behrens decided upon a singing career at the comparatively advanced age of twenty-six. After three years studying law, she had passed her examinations but had already decided to pursue a career in music and to fall back upon the practice of law only if it were required. With a determination that she hoped would make retreat unnecessary, Behrens secured a teacher, Ines Leuwen, at the Freiberg Conservatory and studied with her for four years. Behrens had difficulties as a vocal student and Leuwen commented that she had "a beautiful voice but no talent." It was only after Leuwen advised her to give up singing that Behrens, with nothing left to lose, relaxed and displayed her abilities. Leuwen admitted her mistake and resumed the task of seriously training her unusual pupil. The four years at the Freiburg Conservatory are the only formal training and, even more unusual, the only regular coaching the independent-minded singer received.
In 1971 Behrens joined the Düsseldorf opera studio as an apprentice, despite which status she debuted in Osnabrück in the role of the countess in Mozart's opera, The Marriage of Figaro, in February. She was then given full membership in the parent company, the Deutsche Oper, in Düsseldorf. Among other roles, she gave a notably intense performance as Marie in Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck. Herbert von Karajan, the famous conductor that regularly presented relatively obscure new performers in full-scale productions, placing them in sudden, risky opportunities for complete success and often ushering them into international careers as a result, heard her performance in this role in Düsseldorf. Behrens was in her early 30s when von Karajan scheduled her in 1972 for the 1977 Salzburg Festival production of the Richard Strauss opera Salome. On the basis of that future production, Behrens received invitations to perform on the international opera circuit. In 1976 she sang the role of Leonora in Beethovan's Fidelio at Covent Garden in London; she appeared as Giorgetta in Il Tabarro in her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City; and she sang in Janacek's Katya Kabanova at the National Theatre of Prague.
In the summer of 1977 at Salzburg, Behrens made her scheduled appearance in the title role of Salome with von Karajan conducting and achieved great success in the role, thus consolidating her international reputation. She appeared as well in Mozart operas at this time and did Fidelio at Salzburg, but had a temporary falling out with von Karajan. Against her own concept of the logic of the role of Salome, the conductor had someone else do the dance in the performance, a liberty with the drama of which Behrens did not approve. She resisted his offers for a performance of Elektra and a misunderstanding arose which temporarily placed them at odds. Behrens insisted upon her own interpretations of roles and expected respect for her capacity to immerse herself in an interpretation through clear thought regarding the role's musical and dramatic nature. She was open to guidance from a director, but wished the dramatic and musical interpretation she envisioned to be given preference. She and von Karajan agreed to film and record a performance of Salome after first developing a theatrical performance of the work. In 1992 she performed in Elektra, this time directed by Otto Schenk, in New York, finally bringing her hard-fought interpretation of the character to the stage.
In 1979, Behrens sang the title role in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, conducted by Karl Böhm. Behrens appeared throughout the world as both an opera performer and orchestral soloist. Among her many additional roles, she performed, and made her own, the Wagnerian heroines: Elisabeth, Elsa, Senta, Sieglinde, and, perhaps definitively in contemporary opera, Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera, and Brünnhilde in a highly individualized interpretation at the historic 1983 performance of The Ring at Bayreuth, conducted by Sir Georg Solti. This was a role she would repeatedly return to, most recently in April of 1997, where Behrens portrayal of Brünnhilde, this time conducted by James Levine, was not as acclaimed, but she nevertheless captivated audiences by bringing her own individualized portrayal out for all to see.
In 1985 she performed in the title role of Tosca in a performance that was televised throughout the world. This performance placed her among the heavy-hitters in opera and theater in the 1980s.
Performances in The Ring (1983, 1990, 1997), Tosca (1985, 1991), Fedelio (1992, 1995), Elektra (1992, 1993, 1994), as well as a collage performance of musical numbers in her 1996 recital with pianist Christoph Eschenbach, have kept Behrens extremely busy over the years. She has weathered it all—bad reviews, disagreeable directors, and artistic differences—to become one of the most renowned performers of our time.
Behrens developed the employment of the chest voice, the use of the tenor range by a female singer, which she exploited fully, a technique disturbing to American, English, and German opera audiences. She practiced in this tenor range, as well as in the customary soprano range, and employed it freely in her performances. She also believed in the power of her mind's determination in a given role to transform even the effect of her appearance upon the audience, through her concentration and clear thoughts about a given character.
Behrens was interviewed by T.P. Lanier in the February 2, 1980 issue of Opera News in an article entitled "Free Spirit; Soprano Hildegard Behrens talks about her choices in life and work." Her art is discussed in "Hildegard Behrens: eine Hommage, " by O.F. Schuh, in the 1982 issue of Opernwelt. Her career and performances are dealt with in "A Very Special Tosca, " by Will Crutchfield, in the March 10, 1985 issue of The New York Times Magazine.
Behrens discusses her passion for music in the Deborah Seabury article "Hunger For Work, " which appeared in the February 27, 1988 issue of Opera News. Behrens is profiled in "Bold and Back, " by Hugh Canning, in the May 26, 1989 issue of the Guardian. Her 1997 performance in The Ring was reviewed in the April 29, 1997 issue of The New York Times. □