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An 'Ageless' Salome?

Opera: Hildegard Behrens, 61, will make her L.A. Opera debut in the role of the 16-year-old heroine that helped launch her career two decades ago.

January 15, 1998|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is a role, the critics say, that requires the mature and powerful soprano of a Brunnhilde in Wagner's "Ring Cycle" but the body of a 16-year-old girl. Such is Salome, title character in the 1905 Strauss opera that stunned audiences and censors in its day, and which opens tonight at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The role of Salome was a career-maker for German-born dramatic soprano Hildegard Behrens, who first performed it in Salzburg, Austria, in 1977, tapped for the role by conductor Herbert von Karajan after seeing her as Marie in "Wozzeck."

"Certainly, it is the one that made my fortune," said Behrens in a pre-rehearsal conversation in her dressing room at the pavilion. "And because Karajan chose me three years in advance, word got around, and I got other offers. It got me a lot of mileage, and certainly launched me on the international scene."

Her subsequent career of Salomes, Maries and Brunnhildes made her a legend in the world of opera. Her reviews are peppered with the words "shocking" and "electrifying," and the New York Times has described her as "a heroine in whose performances the crowd can abandon itself, for whom it can shout itself hoarse at the end."

Now, just over 20 years after "Salome" launched that triumphant career, Behrens, 61, will make her L.A. Opera debut in the role, attempting to capture once again the spirit of the 16-year-old.

While many of the sweet young things of the opera stage are essayed by mature women, Behrens breezily acknowledges that the generation gap looms a little wider now than it did in 1977.

And more so with this opera, an interpretation of the biblical story, based on Oscar Wilde's notorious play. In "Salome," the young heroine performs the provocative Dance of the Seven Veils, which, one by one, come off--leaving Behrens onstage for a brief moment in a body stocking, creating the illusion of nudity.

L.A. Opera, which first presented "Salome" in 1986 under the direction of Peter Hall, set a standard for onstage realism when it presented the opera again in 1989. In that year, Maria Ewing's Salome ended the dance clad in nothing but a golden G-string.

When Behrens first performed "Salome" in 1977, maestro Karajan hired a professional ballet dancer to step in for Behrens during the dance. In a more recent production in Houston, she says, the director's vision included using a video of Salome as a child on a swing, with the actual dance performed by a dancer in silhouette behind a screen.

Behrens, noted throughout her career for her daring physicality onstage, prefers to do the dance herself, although she believes that actual nudity onstage can destroy the magic of the moment.

"The closer I came to doing the [1977] production, the more I disagreed with Karajan, but I couldn't say anything, because this was his condition from the beginning," she says. "But I missed doing the dance. When [the character] ends the dance, she is not composed, she is out of breath. Then I came out, and since I had not done the dance, I had to fake being out of breath.

"I am expressing with my body the whole evening, so it is a bit schizophrenic if suddenly another individual comes in. I think it's wrong. [Salome] can't separate her body from her soul.

"I concentrate on that image, and trust that the physical will follow. As long as I am up to it, as long as the make-believe works, fine with me. It is make-believe, opera. It is larger than life."

Peter Hemmings, L.A. Opera executive director, said age never entered his mind when he first entertained the idea of bringing Behrens here in "Salome." "Ms. Behrens is ageless. I am never conscious of age when I see her. She is in pristine voice," Hemmings says.

Indeed, Behrens has always defied expectations when it comes to matters of chronology.

The daughter of two physicians, Behrens didn't begin training as a singer until age 26, after completing law school at the University of Freiburg in Germany. But during her 4 1/2 years of legal studies, she sang in the student chorus and sat in on classes at the university's music conservatory, where her brother studied the violin.

"It is the most beautiful way of learning, without having it in your mind that you want to exploit it for yourself, without having any pressure or examinations, just for fun," she says. "And when I started to [formally] study music at 26, I had a lot of stuff in my"--she says in her whimsical English--"my bumblebee pants. I mean, I had collected a lot of pollen!" In about four years, it paid off with a job with the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf, where Karajan discovered her.

Always athletic, Behrens pursued gymnastics and other sports in school, and occasionally works out with her grown son, an amateur bodybuilder (she lives with a teenage daughter and husband Seth Schneidmann, a filmmaker, in Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown). She became particularly health-conscious after an onstage accident in 1990.

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