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August 19, 2009

Hildegard Behrens, dynamic German soprano, dies at 72

Hildegard Behrens died Tuesday in Tokyo of an apparent aneurysm at the age of 72.

The exceptional German soprano, highly valued for the strength and beauty of her voice, as well as for her intensity of expression, was especially successful in the works of Wagner and Strauss. She sang the music of Mozart, Puccini, Janacek and others, as well. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1976 and was a frequent performer there over the years (in 1990, she was injured by prematurely descending scenery during the finale of "Gotterdammerung" at the Met). I've posted the AP obit at the end of this entry.

The artistry of Hildegard Behrens is preserved on many recordings and filmed performances. To salute her memory, I chose this example of the soprano, at a peak of vocal and interpretive warmth, singing the ...

"Liebestod" in a performance led by one of ardent admirers, Leonard Bernstein:

TOKYO (AP) — Soprano Hildegard Behrens, one of the finest Wagnerian performers of her generation, has died while traveling in Japan. She was 72.

Jonathan Friend, artistic administrator of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, said Tuesday in an e-mail to opera officials that Behrens felt unwell while traveling to a festival near Tokyo. She went to a Tokyo hospital, where she died of an apparent aneurism.

Friend's e-mail was shared with The Associated Press by Jack Mastroianni, director of IMG Artists.

Her funeral was planned in Vienna.

Organizers of Behrens' visit said she was in Japan to perform at a music festival and then give lessons at a hot springs resort.

Miyuki Takebayashi, an official at the Kanshinetsu Music Association, said Behrens was taken to a hospital Sunday night and died there Tuesday.

"Her son and daughter were at her bedside when she passed away," she said.

Behrens was among the finest actors on the opera stage during a professional career that spanned more than three decades. She made her professional stage debut in Freiburg as the countess in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" in 1971 and made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Giorgetta in Puccini's "Il Tabarro" in 1976.

One of her breakthrough roles came the following year, when she sang the title role in Strauss' "Salome" at the Salzburg Festival in Austria.

She sang 171 performances at the Met, where she appeared until 1999. She was most acclaimed in the late 1980s and early 1990s for her portrayal of Bruennhilde in the Otto Schenk production of the Ring Cycle, the Met's first televised staging of Wagner's tetralogy.

"She is the finest Bruennhilde of the post-Birgit Nilsson era," Associated Press critic Mike Silverman wrote in 1989. "Though she lacks the overpowering vocal resources of a great Wagnerian soprano, she makes up for that with dramatic intensity as she changes before our eyes from a frisky young Valkyrie to a passionate and then betrayed lover, and finally to a compassionate woman whose sacrifice returns the ring to its rightful owners, the Rhinemaidens."

A dramatic soprano, her Met career included Elettra in Mozart's "Idomeneo," Isolde in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," Senta in "Die Fliegende Hollander," Donna Anna in Mozart's "Don Giovanni," Santuzza in Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana," the title roles in Strauss' "Elektra" and 'Salome," and Puccini's "Tosca," and Marie in Berg's "Wozzeck."

She was injured during the final scene of Wagner's "Goetterdaemmerung" at the Met on April 28, 1990, when Valhalla collapsed prematurely and an overhead of foam rubber landed on her. Behrens walked off the stage under her own power and was taken to Roosevelt Hospital.

She missed subsequent performances because of the injury, and later sued the Met, according to a 1995 article in The New York Law Journal.

According to Behrens' Web site, she was born in the north German town of Varel-Oldenburg. Her parents were both doctors and she and her five siblings studied piano and violin as children. She earned a law degree from the University of Freiburg, where she was also a member of the student choir.

She received Germany's Bundesverdienstkreuz (Order of the Merit Cross), Bavaria's Bayerischer Verdienstorden service medal and was honored by both the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and the Vienna State Opera.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:50 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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