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Commentary

Hildegard Behrens
20 May 2011

A Fond Remembrance of Hildegard Behrens

Hildegard Behrens died in August of 2009. Considered one of the great Wagnerian sopranos of her day, many tributes were pubished acclaiming her virtues and accomplishments on and off stage. Previously unknown information, however, has come to light concerning her personal life that spans from before the flowering of her career and thereafter. This is an informal account of events by Charles Pratt as told to Shirley Hessel.

A Fond Remembrance of Hildegard Behrens

An account by Charles Pratt as told to Shirley Hessel

Above: Hildegard Behrens

 

Did you know that a young US Air Force radio operator, serving in post WWII Germany, was once engaged to marry renowned German opera soprano Hildegard Behrens?

I’m Charles Pratt, a retired businessman now living in Denver, Colorado. Of course, Hildegard is no longer with us, having died 2009 at the age of 72. Our love affair, for we didn’t have “relationships” in those days, spanned two continents and three decades.

It began in 1955. I was a USAF basic airman on a train, looking forward to visiting a young lady. Hildegard was on that same train, on her way to Paris to visit friends. Fate intervened, and we met, and were instantly attracted to each other.

We were both very young. I joined the Air Force at age 17, just after high school graduation in Strahan, Iowa. Going through basic training at California’s Parks Air Force Base and Biloxi, Mississippi’s radio operations training, I was off to Bremerhaven, Germany.

Hildegard was still in high school when we met. What a lovely livewire she was, highly intelligent and precocious. She spoke English, French, German, and Greek and could converse in Latin. She was a people magnet, very outgoing and dramatic, even flamboyant, with a flair for creating fun. I was drawn to her warm, outgoing personality. I’m the opposite, very quiet and taciturn. Hildegard impatiently urged me to talk more! In fact, she teasingly called me “The Quiet Man,” from the 1952 romantic comedy-drama film starring John Wayne.

In Varel, Germany, Hildegard grew up as the youngest of 6. Both her parents were physicians and their offices were in their large home. At first I stayed in a hotel not far from their home.Later, they made room for me in their home. It was devoted to music, Dr. Behrens being an avid amateur musician. Many evenings the family gathered for classical music radio broadcasts. All the Behrens children studied the piano and violin or cello from a young age.

I purchased a car. Hildegard’s sister Isa would hop in the car with us, and I naively thought she was bored and wanted an outing. Only later did I learn she was our chaperone! That changed once we became engaged.

Many times, our destination was the Bremerhofen base service club. Hildegard’s brother Wilhelm, a concert pianist and music professor at the University of Freiburg, sometimes came along. He generously played the piano at the base, giving the gift of sing-alongs and jazz sessions .

The next two years were full of memories. I remember a coat that Hildegard hand stitched, so intricately and precisely detailed that it could be worn reversed. This attention to detail carried through all Hildegard’s life endeavors.

Christmas at the Behrens’ home featured a very tall, live tree sparkling with real candles and tinsel. After Christmas Eve church services came the gift exchange. I gave Hildegard’s mother a bottle of Joy perfume and her dad a box of Roi-Tan cigars.

There was teasing, too. Hildegard’s brother Otto, Hildegard and I needled Frau Dr. Behrens who presided over the dinner table. My role was to emit very loud burps while the others snickered. Frau Dr. Behrens would lower her head to her hands, satisfactorily shuddering at my bad manners. Later, as a gift, Otto gave me a pewter mug engraved with “Burpy.”

In the spring of 1957, Hildegard and I became engaged. We announced this to Hildegard’s mother first, by taking her to lunch. Otto came along as spokesman to explain our wish to marry. Hildegard’s father was told that evening and then an announcement was posted to friends and relatives, and to the newspaper.

Following German custom, I gave a gold ring to Hildegard who wore it on her left hand; with marriage she would switch the ring to her right ring finger. Luckily, this custom was known to me because Hildegard’s brother, DiDi (Dietrict) had gotten engaged and married prior to this and I was his best man.

Then, everything changed. In May 1957, my tour of duty ended and I returned to the states. Regretfully, I listened to my father who convinced me to break the engagement with Hildegard, and I sent a “Dear Jane” letter to my fiancĂ©e. Hurt and feeling heartbroken, Hildegard wrote to my mother of a desire to do away with herself.

Instead she became a riveting soprano opera star, famed for a warm, textured voice and top notes that sliced through heavy Wagner orchestras. Had our breakup not occurred, would she have achieved all that she did? I’ve wondered.

I finished college and married in 1959. My business adventures were too far ahead of their time to be successful--ethanol production, an electric car, wind turbines, and a commercial environmental garbage disposal. My marriage faltered when my two girls were teenagers.

Hildegard had earned a law degree and then started vocal studies, at the age of 26, at the Freiburg Academy of Music. At the age of 34, she debuted in a lyric soprano role as the countess in The Marriage of Figaro.

I decided to contact Hildegard about this time. Her father, who I got out of bed when I called to trace her, said she lived in Dusseldorf and was beginning an opera career. She was also a single mother, raising a five year old son, Philip.

We had many long transatlantic phone conversations before deciding that Hildegard would fly to visit me in New York City, where I had an office. She obtained her opera company’s permission for the visit and I met her plane at JFK Airport.

Hildegard brought only winter clothes and the New York weather was warm, so our first stop was Honeybee, a boutique near my office, for a new wardrobe. Once she was comfortable, we headed for a piano bar to just talk. It was as if we had never been apart. The next days were full of sightseeing and an evening at the Metropolitan Opera House where we had orchestra seats. Hildegard, who knew the lead Mexican tenor, wanted to send him flowers. I suggested a magnum of champagne instead. We shouted “Bravo!” to him at the stage door and then we all went for drinks. That evening I told Hildegard that she would one day sing at the Met. She told me that she loved the challenge of opera music because of its complexity. She did sing at the Met 171 times as well as other worldwide venues.

Our visit was wonderful. After that, I made many trips to Germany, once staying five weeks. I met her little boy, Philip, and heard Hildegard sing in both Frankfurt and Dusseldorf. I met her friends and went to Varel to see her father. Hildegard’s mother, tragically, was killed in a car accident. Hildegard and I traveled all over Europe — Barcelona, Geneva, Amsterdam, and elsewhere.

Hildegard visited the states again and met my mother in Omaha, Nebraska. She visited my home in Denver where she enjoyed the beauty of the Rocky Mountains but acknowledged that her first love was the sea.

And our love? After seeing each other across the continents, it became clear that our worlds were far apart. She asked me to be her manager but I knew so little of opera; how could I be what she needed? And her son was there in Germany; my family was here in the states.

We affirmed our love for each other, our first and most precious love that nothing could ever replace. Such a warm and fiery woman, she was my “little one” and I was her “poodle.” After a few more phone calls across the ocean, we each went on with our separate lives in our separate worlds.

Most people do not get a second chance to re-kindle a love relationship that, powerful and exciting, is not meant to be permanent. I am so thankful for twice having a love affair to remember.

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