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Now, Voyager

MATTHEW SIGMAN checks in with Barbara Hendricks — soprano, mother, author and ambassador.

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Visiting Malian refugees in Damba camp in Burkina Faso, 2012
© UNHCR/H. Caux 2014
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© BALLESTEROS/epa/Corbis 2014
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Performing at "Jazz à Vienne," in Vienne, France, 2009
© David Redferns/Redferns 2014

Over the phone, from her home on a quiet island some ninety minutes from Stockholm, the voice of Barbara Hendricks comes as a surprise. Despite decades of global acclaim, there is none of that as-if-she-were-from-somewhere diva affectation one often hears, particularly from those for whom the pursuit of art is an act of self-creation. In Hendricks's voice, the foundational elements of her youth still softly resonate — honeyed notes of a rural Arkansas childhood, tempered vowels from her formative college days in Nebraska, and the vivacious confidence of her early professional years in New York City. Even after more than thirty-five years of living in Europe, there is not a soupçon of pretense. When, in Lifting My Voice, her soon-to-be-published memoir, she writes, "I become closer to little Barbara Ann with each passing day," you get the sense that she was never really all that far away.

What has kept her grounded, she says, is the role of a lifetime — mother. "I've been very fortunate to have a loud inner voice, so that all the noise about who I should be didn't get in. I have had a normal family life. My kids kept me real."

The rural family into which she was born and the musical family she embraced were great sources of joy as her career blossomed in the 1960s and '70s, but whether under the wing of her beloved teacher and mentor Jennie Tourel or in the headlights of a Callas master class, Hendricks saw the loneliness encountered  by women of that generation as they aged, having put career before all. Hendricks did not see a life in full — marriage, children, a proper home — as a tradeoff for a life on the stage. Her story played out in the traditional manner — two children, now young adults, with her first husband, Martin Engstrom, from whom she was amicably divorced in 1996. Since 2003, she has been married to Swedish lighting designer Ulf Englund. Her passion for France began with the classic student route to European summer master classes — a cheap plane ticket, a Eurorail pass and a small hotel in the Latin Quarter. Later, with her star-making Aix-en-Provence debut as Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro in 1978, televised live, her love affair with the French public began. She has remained a fixture in France as a performer, most recently with her "Blues Everywhere I Go" tour.

Still, there was a price to pay. Her decision to settle in Europe elicited an unhappy reaction from powerbroker Ronald Wilford at Columbia Artists Management, she writes, and she was soon passed over for ideal roles and lost favor on the CAMI roster. She eventually found other representation, and through shrewd logistical strategies and a constant dedication to expanding her repertoire, she has been able to maintain a busy schedule of opera, orchestral and recital performances and recordings. Like Jennie Tourel, she cherishes musical adventure. Early in her career she was warned away from recital work — then, as now, singers were groomed for opera stardom — but she was enthralled by the recitals of Victoria de Los Angeles, Elly Ameling and Jan DeGaetani. She has continued her musical explorations, embracing jazz, blues and spirituals. Lately she has been refining her Berlioz, focusing on the songs he wrote for his repeated attempts at the Prix de Rome.

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In Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, 1986, with Brigitte Fassbaender (Octavian)
© Beth Bergman 2014

Though Hendricks grew up in the segregated South, her story does not follow a deprivation narrative. "I always had support, family and teachers who affirmed that if you were intelligent and studied you would succeed," she says. "One of the positive parts of segregation is that there was a whole community behind me. There was nobody saying success couldn't happen." She was her high school's homecoming queen and received her bachelor's degree in chemistry and mathematics from University of Nebraska.

But, she hastens to add, "there wasn't anybody saying I could be an opera star." Growing up, she sang in the church choir, but she didn't have her first voice lesson until college. She entered the Metropolitan Opera statewide competition for Nebraska on a lark and, to her shock, won first place. From there it was a quick ascent to a summer at Aspen, to Juilliard to study with Tourel, and to major opera houses, concert halls and recordings. There were European and U.S. debuts throughout the 1970s in Baroque works and standard repertoire — ravishing performances of Mimì in La Bohème and Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro — a Met debut in 1986, as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, and long orchestral associations with Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein.

Hendricks has had to push through the occasional racial barrier (she declined an invitation to sing in South Africa under apartheid, even when offered the charming privilege of being named "Honorary White" for the occasion), but as a youngster in the constellation of great twentieth-century African–American stars that began with Marian Anderson, she acknowledges how the accomplishments of others paved the way. "It was a generation of enormous excellence, when the rosters were filled with black women," she says, insisting that intimations of rivalry among them in their glory days were fictional media projections. "I was proud of my sisters who made it. I knew how hard it was to come where we came from," she says. The only time she was diva-dissed was at a Clinton inaugural event at which she performed. The rude mezzo was Barbra Streisand.

In 1987, Hendricks took on a major new role as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (She is now Honorary Ambassador for Life.) Founded after World War II to assist displaced European refugees, the UNHCR expanded to serve the victims of conflicts in Asia, Latin America and Africa. The soprano has no interest in being "a jewel hosting a televised benefit." She has landed in a Cessna on a darkened African airstrip and eaten among the locals in Cambodia. She performed in Dubrovnik amid snipers and bombings, but nowadays she limits her UNHCR singing to a cappella spirituals for hungry, stateless children. She does not enter a refugee camp as an artist. "I am there as an ambassador," she says. "I am there to take their message back to the media." And the message is clear: beyond food and shelter, she says, "What refugees want most of all is to go back home to their land, their culture, their family." A stateless child has no hope for an education, no expectation of a future.

But as she moves from their world back to hers, is the transition painful? On the contrary. "I go between the two worlds, and I am very clear what they are," she says. "Coming back and seeing the pettiness and the things people fight over is more difficult. In refugee camps, you see solidarity and dignity. Women who never left home without a male member of the family have now crossed the country with their children to save their lives. The frustration is that we didn't do what was necessary to keep them from getting there and we don't do enough to get them home." 

Despite her busy schedule of performances and recordings (and her newest role — grandmother), her work for UNHCR remains a priority. Last year, she was in Burkina Faso; this year she plans a trip to the Ivory Coast. "Until I die," she says, "they have me, and I have them." spacer 

MATTHEW SIGMAN is editor of Opera America magazine. A three-time winner of the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism, he has written for American Theatre, The Voice and Symphony. 

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6