Hildegard Behrens: Operatic soprano celebrated for her interpretations of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss

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The German soprano Hildegard Behrens was a magnificent interpreter of the heroines of Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner. At the beginning of her career she sang several Mozart roles and such German classic staples as Agathe in Weber's Der Freischütz, but as her voice grew stronger and her acting talents increased she seemed irresistibly drawn to characters such as Strauss's Salome and Elektra, Wagner's Isolde, Senta and Brünnhilde, all ladies who had very powerful feelings of one sort or another. Though she did not command the opulent tones of the usual Wagnerian soprano, she had such a keenly focussed voice that she could penetrate the loudest orchestral or choral passage, while the dramatic tension of her performances was almost tangible.

Hildegard Behrens was born in 1937 at Varel, near Oldenburg in North Germany, the youngest of six children. Her parents were both doctors, but everyone in the family played the piano and another instrument, in Hildegard's case the violin. She studied law at Freiburg University, where she sang in student choirs, becoming a qualified lawyer before starting seriously to train her voice at Freiburg Music Academy. She made her debut in 1971 at Freiburg as Countess Almaviva in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, then sang the same role in Osnabrück before moving to Düsseldorf, where she sang Agathe in 1973 and the following year, Marie in Berg's Wozzeck. Marie was a dramatic role she continued to sing throughout her career, always with great success.

In 1974 Behrens also sang Fiordiligi in Mozart's Così fan tutte and the title role of Janácek's Katya Kabanova at Frankfurt. Her international career was about to begin, as she sang Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio at Zurich in 1975, and made her Covent Garden debut in 1976 in the same role. Leonora became one of her key roles, a dramatic tour de force that suited her vocal and histrionic gifts quite perfectly; she looked every inch the boy in her disguise as Fidelio, but her femininity was never in doubt, just below the surface.

Behrens returned to Covent Garden later that year as Salome, perhaps her most famous role of all. She could portray the amoral teenager with no difficulty, and 20 years later could still shed her clothes for the dance without embarrassment. Strauss might have written the vocal lines expressly for her, while in the final scene with the head of John the Baptist she exerted an horrific fascination.

Behrens also made her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York in 1976, singing Giorgetta in Puccini's Il tabarro, one of her few Italian roles, returning two years later as Leonore in Fidelio. Meanwhile she scored a triumph at the 1977 Salzburg Festival as Salome in a production conducted and directed by Herbert von Karajan. The same year she gained another Strauss role at Düsseldorf, singing the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten. She repeated the Empress at the Paris Opéra in 1980. Meanwhile in 1977 she also sang her first Senta in Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer at Zurich. Her performance was greatly admired, and she later sang Senta in Paris, Bonn and at the Metropolitan. In 1978 she sang Katya Kabanova with the Frankfurt Opera at the Edinburgh Festival.

Behrens returned to Zurich in 1980 for another new role, this as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Isolde became one of her finest interpetations: she repeated it in Munich that same year and at the Met in 1983. She returned to Munich in 1981 for the title role of Dvorák's Rusalka, then sang Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo at the Met in 1982 before embarking on the enormous project of singing Brünnhilde in a complete cycle of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1983.

Behrens had sung Sieglinde in Die Walküre at Monte Carlo a few years earlier, but Brünnhilde was a different proposition, appearing in three out of the four Ring operas. The cycle was conducted by Georg Solti and directed by Peter Hall. In the event the production was not much liked – Bayreuth audiences are notoriously difficult to please – but Behrens was applauded by critics and public alike, for her magnificent performances.

Behrens sang Brünnhilde four years running at Bayreuth and inevitably her interpretation deepened with each repetition. The bright warrior maiden of Die Walküre became the lover in Siegfried and then the revengeful fury of Götterdämmerung before the resolution of the final scene when all was understood and forgiven. She sang complete Ring cycles at the Met, from 1986 to 1989, when at a performance of the final scene, the scenery collapsed before her exit and she was injured; in Munich in 1987; at the Vienna State Opera in 1992-93; and for the Royal Opera while Covent Garden was being reconstructed in 1998, semi-staged at the Royal Albert Hall and at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

Her next new role was Strauss's Elektra, which she first sang at the Paris Opéra in 1987 and which immediately became one of her favouries. She sang the role in Munich, in London at the Royal Festival Hall, at the Met, in Athens, at Houston, in Buenos Aires, Montpellier and the 1996 Salzburg Festival. In the last three of thsse perfomances, the role of Klytemnestra was sung by Leonie Rysanek (once a radiant Chryso-themis, Elektra's sister), and the scene between mother and daughter was particularly virulent. In 1997 she sang Elektra at Covent Garden and was still in magnificent form, always audible, never shouting, immensely poignant in the scene with her brother, Orestes.

Another new role, which she sang in Munich in 1980, was Emilia Marty in Janácek's The Makropoulos Case in a production directed by her husband Seth Schneidmann. Marty was in every way suited to Behrens, but unfortunately she never had the chance to sing it again.

Another new and equally congenial role was Katerina in Schostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which she sang in Munich in 1993 and 1994. She sang "R", a prostitute, in the world premiere of Berio's Cronaca del luogo ("Chronicle of the Place") at the 1999 Salzburg Festival, Marie in Wozzeck at San Francisco in 2000 and the Kostlnicka in Janácek's Jenufa in the 2001 festival. Behrens taught and gave master classes after her retirement from the stage. In recent years she had attended the Kusatsu International Festival in Japan every August. This year she was taken ill on the way to Kusatsu, and died in hospital in Tokyo.

Elizabeth Forbes

Hildegard Behrens, soprano; born Varel, Germany 9 February 1937; married Seth Schneidmann (one son, one daughter); died Tokyo 18 August 2009.