NPR logo Soprano Hildegard Behrens Dies At 72

Soprano Hildegard Behrens Dies At 72

One of opera's finest voices fell silent yesterday. German soprano Hildegard Behrens died unexpectedly of an apparent aortic aneurism while traveling in Japan. She was 72 years old.

Hear Behrens Sing

Salome, opera, Op. 54 (TrV 215)

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Salome, opera, Op. 54 (TrV 215)

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With her powerful voice and sharp acting, Hildegard Behrens made characters come alive in searing performances in operas by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. EMI Classics Archive hide caption

toggle caption EMI Classics Archive

With her powerful voice and sharp acting, Hildegard Behrens made characters come alive in searing performances in operas by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.

EMI Classics Archive

For more than 30 years, Behrens sang many of opera's most difficult, loud and lengthy roles, including Strauss' Elektra and Salome and the lead in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

It was all the more amazing to hear such a huge voice emanate from the small-framed soprano. Behrens also portrayed more subtle characters: the countess in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, and Emilia Marty in Janacek's The Makropulos Case.

But Behrens will probably be best remembered for her portrayal of the armor-clad Brunnhilde (all three roles) in Wagner's Ring Cycle, when the 15-hour epic was first televised on PBS in 1990.

In her prime, in the 1980s and '90s, Behrens was hailed as one of the greatest living Wagner singers, with the New York Times saying, "There does not seem to be another Brunnhilde to match her vocal authority, expressivity and dramatic perception."

Behrens was on track to become a lawyer, earning a degree from the University of Freiburg. But she dropped the law books for music, singing small roles at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, in Dusseldorf. That's where conductor Herbert Von Karajan discovered her, in the mid-1970s, while rehearsing Alban Berg's Wozzeck. The influential maestro asked her to audition for the demanding role of Salome, which she sang under his direction at the 1977 Salzburg Festival. She recorded the role with Karajan shortly afterward.

Behrens became a star Wagner singer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she sang until 1999, and at Germany's Bayreuth Festival. Although her voice did not possess the laser-like power of the famed Birgit Nilsson, Behrens' insightful dramatic skills helped make her one of the best loved Wagnerians of her generation.

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