How We Met: Bernard Kouchner and Barbara Hendricks

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The Independent Culture
Opera singer Barbara Hendricks, 45, was born in Arkansas. She has appeared with the Glyndebourne, Paris and New York Metropolitan operas, and performed at President Clinton's inauguration. She is married with two children. Bernard Kouchner, 54, trained as a doctor. After working for the International Red Cross, he founded the medical task force Medecins Sans Frontieres. He was the French minister of humanitarian policy from 1988 to 1993. Divorced, he has three children. Hendricks and Kouchner recently launched the Association for Humanitarian Action.

BARBARA HENDRICKS: The first time I saw him was on 7 Sur 7, a French television show that people would appear on to comment on the news of the week. I remember being so impressed by the sincerity of what he had to say, and how he talked about the Third World in a practical, realistic way; he was not starry-eyed.

In 1987 I was asked to be the guest editor for the Christmas issue of Vogue; it was the first time they ever published anything on human rights. I wanted to have Bernard interview Mother Teresa, but that was not possible, and it was decided that he should interview l'Abbe Pierre.

The contact was by letter and phone, but then I saw another television programme with Bernard in it and, I don't know why, but I called him up and said: 'I just was so moved by what you had to say.' I invited him to my next concert in Paris and he couldn't come - he was secretaire d'Etat at the time - and he said: 'Why don't you come by the house afterwards and have dinner?'

That was the first time we had a real meeting, face to face. I found him far more direct than I usually find French people I meet for the first time. Clear, direct, funny - you don't often find Frenchmen who make fun of themselves. He was taking his work very seriously, but not taking himself too seriously. He was someone whom I felt would be a friend. I knew that I wanted to work with him. I felt an immediate contact.

As we were leaving, he said: 'What are you doing for vacation?' and I said we were thinking of going to Corsica. He said: 'Well, why don't you come to us?' So we have been going to them for years and staying with his family. After that summer our paths were continually crossing.

In 1990 there was talk about doing a fund-raising concert in Dubrovnik, and Bernard wanted to take over the project - I said okay. We had lots of problems, orchestras cancelled. Finally, he called me in New York and said: 'We have no orchestra, what shall we do?' and I said: 'Well, if you think we can still physically do it, I'll sing alone.' I think the concert in Dubrovnik really cemented our friendship - the difficulty of that situation, and the fact that I'd made it clear that I had every intention of going through with it, even though it was frightening.

The friendship developed out of this mutual support and confidence. We share some of the same beliefs, although we have a very different outlook. His position in the French government was a very tricky one; he didn't have all the support he could have used, because he was an outsider - he's always been an outsider in politics. That is one of the things we have in common - in my own profession my career is very singular, always with one foot a little outside of the centre, which can be very scary but at the same time gives you freedom and strength to stay your own course. I give him my support and tell him the truth, which is not something he's used to getting from everybody around him. He listens to me.

There are two lives he lives; his

life in Paris and his life in the field. He is two people. It sometimes makes him look a little less serious about what he's doing because of that part of him that makes fun of himself - it enables him to stand the suffering that he sees.

I've always had close men friends, right back since high school. Eventually girlfriends and wives accept that that's all it is. That's not very common. Friendship is very important, it's not something I can fake. I have very little time to spend on that. Your friends accept you for who you are - this kind of friendship without the other person wanting anything back is very difficult to establish. What you give to your friends is the best of who you are - not something you offer to an acquaintance, it's very precious capital. I know that against all odds when I need him he's going to be there, and I think he knows that whatever happens I'm always on his side. Seeing each other as we really are is important, and I see through his public persona to something really valuable, something very touching.

BERNARD KOUCHNER: She was editing a special magazine issue on human rights - she wanted me to interview Mother Teresa. Instead of Mother Teresa I had an interview with l'Abbe Pierre. We met for the first time after that call.

She was singing in Paris, and then Barbara and her husband, Martin, came home after the recital. I was

very impressed because of her beauty and the way she is a perfect angel.

At the same time I was surprised because she is not only an angel, but she is very determined.

We were friends from the first word. Sometimes to meet people is difficult. Not with Barbara. Of course there is still a lot for me to discover about her. But we were immediately very close, as if we had been friends always. Why? Because we were both militants. We are on the same level of mutual comprehension, completely open. That's why it was so easy between us. The concert in Dubrovnik was a very important step. This was three years ago. We organised it in one month in my ministry, with Barbara and Martin. We had booked the London Symphony Orchestra, but then they said no because of the insurance and the co-ordination, and then a lot of people resigned. It was very difficult but Barbara was determined.

We think along the same lines

but we are not similar at all. We are both idealistic, but I am not as idealistic as you think. She is very practical and I am very lucid, always pessimistic, always thinking that the worst could arrive. And it arrives. But sometimes some good things arrive and that is a good surprise.

Sincerity makes a friendship work, sincerity and openness. You are not obliged to think exactly the same thing at all, but you are obliged to

tell the truth.

We used to see each other very

frequently. Not so frequently now,

because she is singing all over the world. We meet once a month or so. Not as frequently as we want. She is not free, I am not free. But we phone each other of course.

We still have much work together. It is not business, it is morality and duty. What we have is friendship and determination. She says she must do it because of her children.

That's not to say we are completely single-minded. We ski, we laugh, it's fun. Our families are good friends. She spends holidays in our place in Corsica with her children and our children. I am the only one who can sing with Barbara. In Corsica a few years ago we had a party with friends - that night was full of stars, we were looking at Saturn and I asked Barbara to sing. She sang all the night and I sang with her - old popular songs.

Some people are very superficially intelligent. Barbara is very intelligent, but profonde. Maybe it comes from her youth, it was very difficult in Arkansas during the segregation period. Hers is a very deep intelligence, founded on her experience of life.

People criticise stars because they believe that they are acting through selfishness - to be more popular, for publicity. Disgusting people say that. It is as though people who are artists have no right to be involved. In fact this involvement is more admirable coming from Barbara than from some little debutante. She is really deeply engaged, not superficially.

When I am very, very depressed because things are going wrong, I phone Barbara to ask her what we can do, she always finds an answer, it's a very particular talent. To be so close, so friendly, this is very precious.

She can be difficult. She is a diva. But we are equal partners. This is friendship and friendship is not so frequent. When you consider your life you can be sure you will have only a few real friends. Friends are very rare. Barbara is one of the most wonderful ladies of the world. -

(Photograph omitted)