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Opera Star Behrens Dies

Emily Langer, an opera enthusiast who works in The Post's Outlook section, writes:

Hildegard Behrens, one of the finest opera singers of her generation, died at a Tokyo hospital on Tuesday after suffering an aortic aneurysm. The German-born soprano, 72 years old, was still performing--she was in Japan to give a recital and master classes--and her death represents a huge loss for the opera world.

Today I spoke with Ken Noda, Ms. Behrens's longtime accompanist and a musical coach at the Metropolitan Opera, where Ms. Behrens performed in 15 roles and 171 performances. Noda spoke movingly about the passion Ms. Behrens brought to her music, both in fully staged operas and in her recitals. He said that Ms. Behrens would mediate for hours before performances; it was her way of connecting with her characters before introducing them to the audience.

Both Noda and Anthony DelDonna, the Georgetown musicologist quoted in Ms. Behrens's obituary, noted that although Ms. Behrens was best known for her Germany repertory--she was the Brunnhilde of the 20th century--she was just as magnificent in Puccini's Italian opera "Tosca."

Fortunately, Ms. Behrens's performance of "Tosca" at the Met in 1985 is preserved on video. Below you'll find a clip with her "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore," the big soprano aria from Act II.

The song is actually a prayer: As Tosca considers her lover Mario's sad fate--he is in the hands of the evil police chief Scarpia--she asks God how he could let her suffer so terribly. "I never harmed a living soul," she says. "In my hour of suffering, why are you paying me back like this?"

"Vissi d'arte" is one of the most important arias in Italian opera, one that any soprano would be proud to sing as an encore. But modern-day sopranos have a lot to live up to. Probably the most famous Tosca of all was Maria Callas, who was also known as "La Divina," which tells you everything you need to know.

Noda said that Ms. Behrens had enormous respect for Callas and that she studied her "Tosca" deeply. So before you watch the video of Ms. Behrens, watch Callas at London's Covent Garden, the first video below. Watch the expressiveness in her face, the despair in her eyes, and, at around 2:40, her absolute abandon as she moves into the end of the aria:

And now, here is Ms. Behrens. Some critics said that her voice didn't have the lyricism needed for Italian operas such as "Tosca"--that she was better suited to the more muscular roles in Wagner and Strauss--but as you'll see in this video, Behrens made up for it with the depth of her acting.

If you've ever been to the Met, you know how thunderous that applause must have felt.

One note: We were unable to obtain a complete list of Ms. Behrens's survivors before our deadline yesterday. In addition to her two children, Philip and Sara Behrens, and two grandchildren, survivors include two siblings. Ms. Behrens married Seth Schneidman in 1985; they divorced in 2003, according to her son.

By Adam Bernstein |  August 20, 2009; 5:05 PM ET
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