1937 – 2009
Her Life Affirming Art
February 9th marks the birthday of the renowned opera singer, Hildegard Behrens. The German soprano sang an immense range of roles but was best known for her interpretations of the works by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. I wrote the following after learning of Ms. Behrens death in August of 2009.
One of the greatest memories of my life was attending a performance of the Richard Strauss opera “Elektra” at NYC’s Metropolitan Opera in 1994 with Hildegard Behrens in the title role which was globally televised. The opera is around 100 minutes and performed in one act with no intermissions, with each note building with immense tension to reach the piece’s abrupt ending when Elektra drops dead in redemptive bliss. Ms. Behrens not only embodied that sentiment with her voice which was a beacon of sound perfect for expressing Richard Strauss’ fully orchestrated score, Hildegard’s interpretation of the role was executed with the physical stamina of an Olympic decathlete as well.
As the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra boomed the triumphant chords reflecting Elektra’s ecstatic joy upon hearing of the death of her mother, Ms. Behrens lost all abandon. The soprano proceeded to use every part of her body as she went into a Victory Dance that was so demanding and COMMITTED, one could see how with each blissful stomp Elektra was sacrificing a beat of her living soul, rendering her lifeless as the last note of the opera was being played. Unlike any other operatic stage, the Metropolitan Opera has the capability of having their massive stage curtain close exactly in synch with the final note of any given opera being performed there and the last thing that could be seen as the curtain drew to a close that memorable night was Ms. Behrens throwing herself on the ground in a lifeless heap as her character’s body expires.
The entire audience was so completely overwhelmed by this fusion of Greek tragedy, sublime singing, and hyper realistic acting not a sound could be heard when the curtain closed. And as the audience was still taking in everything they had witnessed with this display of artistic mastery, the curtain went back up revealing a lone spotlight which shone upon Ms. Behrens standing on stage alone.
The giant theater remained silent. I must add that I was very close to the stage on the far left hand side with a great view of Ms. Behrens’ profile. Suddenly it was as if the audience remembered where it was since a spotlight had gone on and standing beneath it was one of the greatest interpreters of “Elektra” we had just witnessed. A ROAR of explosive applause and cheering erupted as if those of us present tried to make up for lost time by expressing our wholehearted thanks and marveled adoration simultaneously.
The delayed reaction must have come down upon Ms. Behrens like a tidal wave of blaring sound all at once because from where I was positioned, I saw her wince and jolt backwards in surprise. The soprano was literally taken aback and not prepared for the audience to show their thanks so viscerally.
The cacophony of overjoyed approval remained consistently strong in volume for at least the next 4 minutes, which in operatic applause time is quite the rarity. The audience not only cheered and clapped, many took their programs and proceeded to slap them on their seats to express their appreciation. As this occurred Ms. Behrens repeatedly bowed and when there showed no sign of the frenzied pitch of praise remotely dissipating, the vocalist like no other lowered her head. When she lifted her face back up to the audience to display her unforgettable beaming smile, streaming tears could be seen. The phenomenal artist shed tears of uncontrollable joy which in turn made me weep as well. I stood there cheering, crying and banging my program on any hard surface nearby thrilled to be a witness to Hildegard Behren’s life affirming art.
I truly felt human during those glorious moments. Being a member of that performance’s audience we were recognizing Art itself and that these are the things that make us write poetry, sing operas, and believe in God.
I wrote about this experience after learning of the incomparable singer’s sudden death of an aneurysm in August of 2009. I was incredibly humbled and honored to later be informed that same piece ended up being quoted in Ms. Behrens’ obituary.
In 2016 when an opportunity came to adopt a pet, I seized it and was blessed to have my cat enter my life, a tortoise shell feline with quite the spitfire personality whose name is naturally – Hildegard.
Perpetual light shine upon your soul, Ms. Behrens, and I thank you for giving me that wondrous moment in time which I will always carry as one of my most treasured possessions.
Hildegard Behrens sings the role of Elektra in a live televised recording of Richard Strauss’ opera “Elektra” which Brad had the blessed fortune to attend.
Top photo – Hildegard Behrens as the character Brunnhilde in Richard Wagner’s opera, “Die Walkure” or “The Valkyrie” from San Francisco Opera, 1990
*Brad Kronen’s book “Love in the Stars” published by Llewellyn Worldwide, Inc. is available for purchase at your local book seller or online at amazon.com at the link listed below.