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 Hildegard Behrens : an appreciation by Göran Forsling (GF)

Truly great dramatic sopranos – especially exponents of the heaviest Wagnerian roles Isolde and Brünnhilde – tend to emerge only one or two per generation. Frida Leider, who dominated the roles during the 1920s and 1930s, was succeeded by Kirsten Flagstad from the mid-30s, who in her turn abdicated in the mid-50s, when Astrid Varnay and Birgit Nilsson were ready to step into her shoes. Nilsson at least reigned well into the 1970s and by then Hildegard Behrens was fully fledged and remained at the top of the trade for another two decades. Without in any way belittling the achievements of some other highly accomplished singers, I think it is fair to say that when she passed away at the age of 72 in a hospital in Tokyo on 18 August, she was the last in the royal line of great dramatic sopranos from the 20th century.

Like most of her predecessors, with the exception of Astrid Varnay, her international recognition came at a relatively mature age. Before embarking on a singing career she studied law and graduated as a junior barrister from the University of Freiburg. Her professional debut was as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro in 1971. She was then already in her mid-30s. After that she sang mainly minor roles at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf until she was discovered by Herbert von Karajan, who was looking for a Salome. He brought her to the Salzburg Festival in 1977, where she was a sensation, and from then on she was the dramatic soprano of her generation.

She sang at most of the leading opera houses of the world, including the Metropolitan, N.Y, where her debut role, somewhat surprisingly, was Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il tabarro. She sang other Italian roles as well and was among other things a great Tosca. But it was in the heavy German roles that she excelled. Her Leonora in Fidelio was one of her great impersonations and she was an Electra to reckon with. She may not have had the steely power of Birgit Nilsson but she is certainly one of the few truly great dramatic sopranos, enthralling audiences also through her acting ability.

Her recorded legacy comprises many of her most important roles and my personal choice would be Salome with Herbert von Karajan (EMI), Tristan und Isolde with Leonard Bernstein (Philips) and Der Ring des Nibelungen with James Levine (DG). These interpretations must be counted among the very best ever and will stand as a worthy memorial of Hildegard Behrens for generations to come.

Göran Forsling


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