It was 1980, and Hildegard Behrens was at the Metropolitan Opera singing “Fidelio” with Jon Vickers. Gastón Ormazábal was but a student at Columbia University, where he is today a Senior Research Scientist.
The two were about to meet for the first time. Neither knew that they would develop a friendship that would transcend Behrens’ lifetime.
As Ormazábal, now the President and Founder of the Hildegard Behrens Foundation, noted, that meeting didn’t really turn into much but a deep admiration on the part of the young Chilean.
When she sang in “Idomeneo” in 1982, he attended the premiere and wrote the soprano a note, requesting to visit her backstage.
He met with her and renewed the acquaintance, then proceeded to attend every performance of the run and repeat the post-performance ritual.
“At the end of the run, she told me how pleased she was to see me throughout the run,” Ormazábal told OperaWire in a recent interview. “Then she said, ‘I would like to have dinner with you at some point.’”
Ormazábal recalls giving Behrens his phone number and waiting for the call on his answering machine.
It came six months later.
“She gave me her number and the rest is history. We became inseparable.”
Witnessing Greatness Up Close
So inseparable that Ormazábal witnessed the famed soprano’s highs and lows, remembering in detail both.
His favorite performances of Behrens were her interpretations of Wagner’s Ring cycle, but most especially “Götterdämmerung,” in Bayreuth, which he attended at the soprano’s insistence. He noted that he was finishing up his Ph. D. in 1984, and was asked by the soprano if he would be coming to see her perform.
“I had the usual financial troubles of any student,” he admitted. But Behrens insisted that he come after defending his thesis. He was convinced and she even helped to arrange a hotel for him.
“[Those performances were] when she took a step to the next level and became a truly historic artist,” he stated.
He then noted that she was even “grander” at the Met and expressed the strong opinion that “her voice was made for the Met”.
“The Met is the best house in the world for a well-projected voice,” Ormazábal explained. “The voice carried magnificently.”
Behrens sang three performances of the final opera of Wagner’s tetralogy, as the new production of the Ring was completed in 1988.
Conqueror of Peaks
But the story he remembers with most pride is the buildup to Behrens’ “Elektra” performances from 1994.
The story involves a lowpoint in Behrens’ brilliant career, per Ormazábal. She sang the opening performance of the 1992 “Elektra”, which was produced with her in mind by Otto Schenk. She had not sung at rehearsals and the opening performance, by all admissions, was “a disaster”.
She pulled out of the remaining performances and per Ormazábal, “It looked like she was done singing.”
But she wasn’t. She returned to the same opera in June of that year in Athens. It was a success and “it restored her confidence.”
Then she took on the opera again in October 1993, with Leonie Rysanek, in Houston, for what became “legendary performances.”
And then came the return to the Met, where Ormazábal saw Behrens in action throughout rehearsals.
“The Met return was scheduled for January 6th, 1994. I will remember that day until the day I die.
“There was a lot of trepidation about the performances, after the 1992 mishap,” Ormazábal noted. He stated that Behrens sang full blast during the rehearsals on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday prior to the performance on the 6th of January.
“She sang it in the most spectacular form you can ever imagine,” he enthused. “Everyone around was ecstatic with how she sounded. And I always hoped, ‘If the world could only hear this.'”
The dress rehearsal came on the ensuing Monday.
“I was in the first row of the Grand Tier. And she was even grander.”
And then came the first performance on the sixth.
“That night was considered by many to be one of the greatest nights at the Met. It was pretty amazing, the tumult of the rapturous ovation at the end has become the stuff of legend.”
Behrens held her own for years thereafter, but for many, including Ormazábal, that was one of her finest moments and arguably her greatest triumph. “That night she truly earned her sobriquet as Gipfelstürmerin["Conqueror of Peaks or "Conqueror of Summits].”
Preserving a Legacy
In 2009, the soprano passed away at the age of 72. Ormazábal was heartbroken to lose his dear friend at such an early age. He wanted to do something in her honor, and a close friend also proposed that they do something.
In 2010, they took that step.
It included offering support for the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, an organization that Ormazábal had had a previous relationship with. He had hoped to have Behrens interact and engage with the Youth Orchestra, but it never came to fruition. He felt that offering support would in some way make up for it.
Later the foundation was instrumental in helping to launch The Global Leaders Program, as an outgrowth of the orchestra, an institution dedicated to developing socially-oriented musicians and educators. Behrens’ legacy paves the way for subsequent generations of musicians who aspire to be both world-class artists and committed humanitarians.
But he also got involved with the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, and especially his friend, Musical Advisor Ken Noda, with the intention of providing cash prizes to rising stars.
To do so, however, he would need to create a foundation, and thus came the birth of the Hildegard Behrens Foundation.
For Ormazábal, getting involved with the Young Artist program provided two major benefits for him. Not only was he able to help young singers in the name of his favorite artist, but he was also able to return to the world of opera.
“I had stopped going after she stopped singing. I didn’t really care for Italian opera and I didn’t want to see anyone else in the German operas she performed,” he admitted. “She always scolded me for not going and would tell me about new stars, like Anna Netrebko. Eventually, I did go back”.
“And the Lindemann opened this new window into opera for me also.”
Passing the Torch
Layla Claire was the first recipient of the award and would also be its second recipient, the only time the Foundation’s Hildegard Behrens Prize would be given to the same person more than once.
The third year was given to Emalie Savoy, “a truly fantastic talent.”
The following year, at a Patrons Concert, Ormazábal had the pleasure of hearing a young tenor by the name of Mario Chang perform.
Up to that point, he had felt that to honor Behrens, the prize would only be given to sopranos or even mezzos.
“But I couldn’t believe how powerful of a sound he had and suddenly I decided that we could give it to a male singer as well,” he revealed.
That led to the “great and charismatic” Russian baritone Alexey Lavrov being the fifth recipient of the prize.
The following two years were for the “radiant” lyric soprano Ying Fang, and Michelle Bradley.
In picking Bradley, Ormazábal noted that she was only a few months in the Young Artists Program but came with a major recommendation. At her audition she went in and sang “O Patria Mia” from “Aida.”
“She was so spectacular that I was convinced she was the one,” Ormazábal explained. “I didn’t say anything at first. But by the time she was done with her second aria, I told her, ‘You just won the Hildegard Behrens Prize.’”
Then came the most unusual of circumstances.
In doing fundraisers for the foundation, Ormazábal and company usually bring in past winners of the prize to sing. They had a few artists lined up but scheduling problems forced them out. Ormazábal had already encountered two young prospects from the program and had lined them up to perform instead. The singers were soprano Hyesang Park and tenor Kang Wang.
Their performances, at the Frick Collection, were beyond words for Ormazábal, who noted that they were the easy picks for the following two years, though he found it more difficult to figure out who would get the prize first.
“Hyesang was crazily good for someone that had just been coming to the Lindemann program,” he stated. “And then there was Kang Wang, who was simply the most beautiful tenor voice I have ever heard. I love Jon Vickers and others, but his is the most beautiful sound. It was pliant like DiStefano and Carreras with the size of Vickers. It was astonishing.”
“I simply fell in love with both of them.”
Wang would get the prize in 2017 with Park picked to be the winner in 2018.
The Foundation remains strong to this day with Ormazábal on the lookout for the next prospective winner. The donation space has also been expanded to include other musical institutions here and abroad.
Above all, he knows Behrens would be thrilled with how the foundation is aiding young artists to fulfill their dreams and further their careers.
Behrens, who beyond being one of the greatest dramatic sopranos, was well known as an intellectual of the highest caliber, was fond of quoting Immanuel Kant, when describing her approach to Leonore in “Fidelio”, and Brünnhilde: “Two things fill my mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe… the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me”.
“I would like to think that the work we do with the foundation, in honoring her, is helping in a small way to preserve that spirit, that ideal of humanity’s greatest aspirations” Ormazábal concluded.