with HILDEGARD BEHRENS
This conversation took place on the occasion of the release of Ms. Behrens'
historic live recording of BEETHOVEN'S FIDELIO with the legendary
conductor KARL BÖHM (a Gramophone Magazine Editor's Choice
- Feb '02).
FF: Ms. Behrens, good morning.
Thank you for this special interview as FanFaire celebrates your second Fidelio CD. Released by Orfeo D'Or as a tribute to the great conductor, Karl Böhm, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his death, we are glad it has been made available to the public. An outstanding CD, it deserves to be in every music lover's home.
It is a live recording of your debut with the Maestro at the Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich) where, it was said, your glowing performances led the Metropolitan Opera to invite you to sing the role with Karl Böhm, and then later with another great conductor, Erich Leinsdorf. You were the legendary Maestro's "last great Fidelio" - following Leonie Rysanek and before her, Birgit Nilsson, to name greats of earlier days.
HB: And don't forget Martha Fuchs about whom Karl Böhm spoke to me as a mezzo-soprano who was obsessed to sing Leonore even if it would ruin her voice. She was a mezzo, and Böhm had warned her. But she told him, "Even if it should cost my whole career, I don't care. I have to sing Fidelio." It may have ruined her voice, but Böhm was still in awe about her determination and passion.
FF: Was this your Bayerische Staatsoper debut as well as your Fidelio debut?
Zurich was the place of my Fidelio debut in 1975. After that came Frankfurt,
Covent Garden, Munich, Salzburg Easter Festival, Metropolitan Opera, and many
When I learned about the Fidelio project with Karl Böhm in Munich, I had already been "discovered" by Herbert von Karajan who had attended an orchestra rehearsal of Wozzeck in Düsseldorf in 1974. But even before the Salzburg Salome in 1977 I had already received a lot of attention and offers. 1976, Covent Garden Fidelio, my debut in Munich as Sieglinde in '76 when I stepped in for Ingrid Bjorner and my debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the Fall of '76 as Giorgetta in Il Tabarro.
FF: Tell us a bit about the Maestro. What made him a great artist and a special person to you? He was well known for being able to "coax each phrase in an aria or part of an ensemble into the most beautiful shape." How did he do it?
HB: Karl Böhm was never a showman, not excessive, rather sober, and very economical in his musical gestures. He listened to the singers, and sometimes seemed to "follow" the singers. I was persona gratissima from the first day we met. I could do no wrong and he pampered me. I never heard a harsh word from him. He, his wife Thea and I met quite often in Munich, and New York. We also had wonderful times with his son Karl Heinz Böhm who inspired me to come up with a magician number for Böhm's big official 85th birthday party in the Kleinefestpielhaus. I was "assisted" by my son Philip who was 9 years old then and who did some bold improvisations in our performance.
FF: Did you perform other operas with him?
HB: Ariadne in Salzburg 1979 was my present for his 85th birthday. I only sang it because it was his wish and I never sang it again. Böhm gave me all the freedom one could wish for when we performed Fidelio and Ariadne.
FF: Might he still be remembered for his works a hundred years from now?
HB: If the world is still turning around a hundred years from now and if human society is still comparable to what it is today, I think music lovers will remember Karl Böhm.
FF: While there is no question that Fidelio is among the world's great operas, a masterpiece, some experts maintain that it is "flawed" because Beethoven didn't quite have it together, so to speak. They say, for example, that the light and comic, if not frivolous, Singspiel scenes early in Act One musically and dramaturgically give no clue about the soaring, at times solemn, music and the intense drama that unfolds in the rest of the opera. But, they hasten to add, weaknesses such as these are quickly overshadowed by the sheer beauty and magnificence of the music. Are these, now largely academic issues, of interest to you as an opera singer and did you give any consideration to them when you first took on the role of Fidelio?
I get very touchy when it comes to these "expert" statements or
criticisms about Fidelio. Let me remind you of Beethoven's answer to
a violinist's complaint that the music score was unrealizable. He said, "What
do I care about your poor miserable violin?" Also, he didn't change a
note on the request of Madame Anna Milder who was his first Leonore. He complained
about her unwillingness to commit herself and to act. Actually he thought
that the missed success of his early performances was due to her lack of commitment.
Indeed, would Beethoven have cared about our bad taste and ignorance?
The argument that Beethoven didn't have it quite together, that the light, trivial nature of the Singspiel in the opening scenes takes away from the solemnity or intensity of the big drama that follows is absolutely wrong. It's there for more than one reason. Even popular rock or pop groups engage "warm-up groups" to do the opening numbers and to build up the energy for the main program. But more than that, in Fidelio these opening scenes set the milieu and time in which the drama plays, which is crucial to our understanding of what the opera is all about. - ©FanFaire 1997-2009
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