Born November 20, 1948, in Stephens, AR; daughter of M. L. (a Methodist minister) and Della (a schoolteacher) Hendricks; married Martin Engstrom (her manager); children: Jennie, Sebastian. Education: University of Nebraska, B.S., 1969; attended Juilliard School of Music, 1969-71. U.S. opera debut, San Francisco, 1975; Berlin Opera debut, 1978; New York Metropolitan Opera debut, 1986. Goodwill Ambassador to United Nations High Commission for Refugees, beginning 1987; appeared in film La Boheme, 1988. Addresses: Management-- Columbia Artists Management, Inc., 165 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019; Opera et Concert, 19 rue Vignon, 75008 Paris, France.

Although soprano Barbara Hendricks stepped onto the opera stage later in life than most of her peers, her inherent musical talent has made up for lost time. She began her vocal training in 1968 at the relatively advanced age of 19 and went on to make her American opera debut with the San Francisco Opera in 1975, in her late twenties. Seven years later, Hendricks made an impressive showing in Paris singing the female lead in the opera Romeo et Juliette.

A master of French art songs and nineteenth-century German lieder, Hendricks has become an international celebrity. She has more than 50 recordings to her credit and has sung with almost all of the world's major orchestras. Though she has downplayed her reputation, Hendricks has received widespread critical acclaim for her voice and has worked with such noted conductors as Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Georg Solti, and James Levine. According to Ebony, von Karajan compared Hendricks to the legendary Maria Callas "in passion and interpretive possibility."

"When the lyric soprano Barbara Hendricks sings, the first word that comes to mind is not powerful but beautiful or even pretty," proclaimed Dennis McFarland in the New York Times. "What you hear is near perfect intonation, clear diction, and the lovely variety of colors that characterizes a pleasant speaking voice.... You have the feeling that Ms. Hendricks is singing with the voice she was born with, not with the one she has made for herself."

Hendricks, who is noted for her down-to-earth demeanor, is the daughter of a Methodist minister and a schoolteacher. She grew up in segregated Stephens, Arkansas, in the 1950s. Her musical experience was limited to the church choir, playing the piano, and singing hymns to her mother at night. Although she was clearly gifted vocally, she aspired to become a doctor or a lawyer.

Hendricks chose to attend the University of Nebraska, where she studied mathematics and chemistry, subjects in which she had excelled during high school. The watershed event of Hendricks's early professional life occurred during her junior year at Nebraska when a member of her church choir asked her to sing at a civic-society meeting. A trustee of the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies heard her sing and encouraged her to attend the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. In the summer of 1968, Hendricks's career path turned firmly toward music.

In Aspen, Hendricks met Jennie Tourel, the great Russian mezzo-soprano. Tourel invited Hendricks to study with her at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Hendricks returned to Nebraska to complete her bachelor's degree and joined Tourel at Juilliard in 1969.

Her lack of formal training left her feeling handicapped at Juilliard, where some of her classmates had been studying music since the age of six. But Tourel's constant support helped Hendricks through. She told Opera News contributor Barrymore Laurence Scherer: "Tourel assured me that with my voice I could have a career, and having had a normal upbringing, I was less hysterical about 'making it' than a lot of people. I was realistic enough to know that if it wasn't going to happen, I could do other things to make my contribution--medicine was one, and I was also interested in law." It soon became clear, however, that these career contingency plans would prove unnecessary.

In the 1970s, Hendricks began a European odyssey. She spent her summers touring the Continent with Tourel, who was teaching masters classes. They always began in France, which would later become the singer's home. In 1971 Hendricks won the Geneva International Competition and the following year brought home the first prize in the International Concours de Paris. She performed in recitals and European operas throughout the early 1970s but did not make her American opera debut until 1975, when she played Drusilla in the San Francisco Opera's production of Claudio Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea. During the summer of 1975, Hendricks sang the role of Clara in the complete recording of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess with the Cleveland Orchestra under Lorin Mazel.

In January of 1977 Swedish-born Martin Engstrom, Hendricks's European manager and friend since 1973, invited her to Europe for auditions. Following a two-day courtship, Hendricks agreed to marry Engstrom, and by April, they had made Paris their home.

Proximity made it easy for Hendricks to schedule more of her appearances in France, and the French seemed happy to adopt the American soprano. She made her Paris Opera debut as Juliette in Romeo et Juliette in 1982.

In 1986, she became the only non-French singer nominated for the French Grammy Awards; she received the award for best French performer in the classical music category. Also that year, the French government named Hendricks Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres.

Hendricks made her New York Metropolitan Opera debut as Sophie in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier in 1986. Since her initial appearance in San Francisco, she has performed with major opera companies across the United States and Europe, including the Boston Opera, the Houston Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, the St. Paul Opera, Berlin's Deutsche Opera, de Nederlandse Operastichting, and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Hendricks has also worked with a variety of international symphony orchestras, including those in Chicago, New York, London, Berlin, and Vienna. In 1988 she extended her skills to film, singing the role of Mimi in Luigi Comencini's version of Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme.

Although Hendricks made regular appearances in the United States during the early 1980s, most of her exposure there was as a recitalist. Her few operatic appearances were with the Boston and Santa Fe Opera companies. In 1990 she appeared as a guest on NBC-TV's Christmas in Washington and on the PBS broadcast of Boston's Christmas at Pops. According to New York Times contributor McFarland, "Probably thousands of American viewers of these programs were asking themselves, 'Who is that beautiful woman with the beautiful voice?'"

Hendricks has put great effort into culturing her voice's natural sound. She reportedly values rehearsal time above all and disdain's its lack in today's opera--part of the reason she rarely performs more than five operas a year. She devotes most of her time to concerts and recitals, "where I can really pare things down to essentials, just me and the accompanist," she told Scherer in Opera News.

Hendricks's preference for music in its purist form is also reflected in her belief that bigger sound is not necessarily better. "Rather than oversinging, I try to pull the voice back, to refine and control it, to see how little I can sing while still making it go out into the house," Hendricks explained to Scherer. "It's the difference between a Mack truck and a Maserati--one can haul a load, but the other can take the curves."

While the passionate singer's impact on the world of music is unquestionable, her voice has also made a significant, if not as celebrated, difference in the lives of countless refugees. As a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Hendricks is as devoted to humanitarian work as she is to her music. Since her appointment to the post in 1987, Hendricks has visited countless refugee camps in Africa and Asia. Working 18-hour days in the most primitive living conditions, she tries to give hope to the displaced men, women, and children of the camps. "I do not fool myself by thinking I'm changing the world, but I know I'm touching something, if for no other reason, for the fact that I represent hope," she told McFarland. "They know that I'm on their side. I see that in their eyes."

In addition to visiting refugee camps, Hendricks's responsibility as a Goodwill Ambassador includes heightening awareness of the plight of refugees. Through benefit concerts and public announcements, Hendricks strives to educate others about the refugee dilemma. And though the artist is truly committed to her musical pursuits, she has a pragmatic view of how they fit into the greater scheme of things. "I'm very sincere about my humanitarian activities," she said in Ebony. "I really rely on my concert appearances to further the cause of human rights. It's not a duty; it's a need. Besides," she added with typical modesty, "you only have to read the front page of the newspaper to put my concert reviews in proper perspective."

By the early 1990s, Hendricks and her husband had established a residence in Switzerland with their two children, Jennie, named after the singer's beloved early mentor, and Sebastian. Hendricks limits most of her performances to Europe, where she can easily fly home to Switzerland between appearances. Despite her rigorous schedule, she places great value on time with her family. "For me there is no conflict between profession and home, no sacrifice," she told Ebony. "My children need me, so I have to make it all work."


Barbara Hendricks's Career

Barbara Hendricks's Awards

First prize, Geneva International Competition, 1971; first prize, International Concours de Paris, 1972; French Grammy Award for best French performer of classical music, 1986; named Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, 1986.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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