Barbara Hendricks is a world class opera singer from Arkansas who has garnered critical acclaim and performed in opera houses around the world, from New York City to Paris.
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Barbara Hendricks was born on November 20, 1948, in Stephens, Arkansas, to Malvin and Della Mae Hendricks. As a child, Hendricks and her three siblings Geneice, Malvin Jr., and Michael, spent a lot of time at church meetings and revivals all around Ouachita County since her father was a well-respected minister in the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. They even attended some of the churches that would play a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement. Hendricks found her introduction to music through the Negro spirituals and lyrical quality of call-and-response Southern preaching.
While in elementary school, her family moved to Pine Bluff where her mother taught school. By 1957, the family was commuting to Little Rock on Sundays where Malvin preached at Miles Chapel CME Church. Hendricks saw the extreme violence by white citizens which unfolded during the integration of Little Rock Central High School. As hard as this was to watch, this experience left an indelible mark on Hendricks' mind that would serve as the driving force for her activism in later years.
Shortly after Hendricks began attending Merrill High School, the family moved to Chattanooga, then Memphis, and back to Little Rock as a result of Malvin’s work as a minister. Once back in Little Rock, Hendricks became a soprano in Art Porter Sr. 's choir at Horace Mann High School. (Art Porter Sr. was a jazz musician who played piano, composed, conducted, and taught music throughout his lifetime.) While babysitting Porter’s four children, Hendricks fed her love of music by exploring his music collection, and discovering artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Count Basie.
Hendricks left for Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1965 but soon transferred to Nebraska Wesleyan University as a chemistry major. She was set on pursuing a traditional career. Things changed unexpectedly, though, when a choir member invited her to sing at a civic event where a trustee from the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies heard her sing and encouraged her to sing at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado.
While in Aspen, Hendricks met Jennie Tourel, a well-known Russian mezzo-soprano. Tourel invited Hendricks to study with her at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York. In 1969, Hendricks joined Tourel at Juilliard after earning her bachelor’s degree in Nebraska. Tourel’s constant and regimented support allowed Hendricks to thrive at Juilliard where most students had been studying music all their lives.
She earned a degree in voice from Juilliard in 1973, and in the 1970s, she toured Europe with Tourel winning several vocal competitions. She made her American opera debut in 1975, playing roles in Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and George Gerswhin’s Porgy and Bess. She even performed under notable conductors like George Solti and Herbert von Karajan. Hendricks traveled the world, garnering success and critical acclaim for her opera performances in San Francisco, California, Paris, France, London, England, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
In 1978, Hendricks married Martin Engstrom, a Swedish pianist and opera house director. The couple had two children Jennie (named after her mentor) and Sebastian, before they divorced in the 1990s. Over the years, Hendrix has made more than 100 acclaimed classical recordings. Among these, her 1994 recording La voiz du ciel went double gold. She has received five Grammy nominations in the U.S and numerous other awards for her performances.
In 1987, Hendricks became a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees after years of activism, including protests during the anti-apartheid movement. In 2003, Hendricks married Ulf Englund, a guitarist and lighting designer, and the two now live in Norrtälje, Sweden. In 2000, she received an Honorary Doctor of Music from Juilliard and was later inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame. In 2014, she published her memoir, Lifting My Voice, which contains an introduction by Kofi A. Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Hendricks is now 72 and still just as passionate about helping refugees, opera music, and the role her upbringing in Arkansas has played in her life-altering musical success.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard