Did you know that a young US Air Force radio operator, serving in post WWII
Germany, was once engaged to marry renowned German opera soprano Hildegard
I’m Charles Pratt, a retired businessman now living in Denver,
Colorado. Of course, Hildegard is no longer with us, having died 2009 at the
age of 72. Our love affair, for we didn’t have
“relationships” in those days, spanned two continents and three
It began in 1955. I was a USAF basic airman on a train, looking forward to
visiting a young lady. Hildegard was on that same train, on her way to Paris to
visit friends. Fate intervened, and we met, and were instantly attracted to
We were both very young. I joined the Air Force at age 17, just after high
school graduation in Strahan, Iowa. Going through basic training at
California’s Parks Air Force Base and Biloxi, Mississippi’s radio
operations training, I was off to Bremerhaven, Germany.
Hildegard was still in high school when we met. What a lovely livewire she
was, highly intelligent and precocious. She spoke English, French, German, and
Greek and could converse in Latin. She was a people magnet, very outgoing and
dramatic, even flamboyant, with a flair for creating fun. I was drawn to her
warm, outgoing personality. I’m the opposite, very quiet and taciturn.
Hildegard impatiently urged me to talk more! In fact, she teasingly called me
“The Quiet Man,” from the 1952 romantic comedy-drama film starring
In Varel, Germany, Hildegard grew up as the youngest of 6. Both her parents
were physicians and their offices were in their large home. At first I stayed
in a hotel not far from their home.Later, they made room for me in their home.
It was devoted to music, Dr. Behrens being an avid amateur musician. Many
evenings the family gathered for classical music radio broadcasts. All the
Behrens children studied the piano and violin or cello from a young age.
I purchased a car. Hildegard’s sister Isa would hop in the car with
us, and I naively thought she was bored and wanted an outing. Only later did I
learn she was our chaperone! That changed once we became engaged.
Many times, our destination was the Bremerhofen base service club.
Hildegard’s brother Wilhelm, a concert pianist and music professor at the
University of Freiburg, sometimes came along. He generously played the piano at
the base, giving the gift of sing-alongs and jazz sessions .
The next two years were full of memories. I remember a coat that Hildegard
hand stitched, so intricately and precisely detailed that it could be worn
reversed. This attention to detail carried through all Hildegard’s life
Christmas at the Behrens’ home featured a very tall, live tree
sparkling with real candles and tinsel. After Christmas Eve church services
came the gift exchange. I gave Hildegard’s mother a bottle of Joy perfume
and her dad a box of Roi-Tan cigars.
There was teasing, too. Hildegard’s brother Otto, Hildegard and I
needled Frau Dr. Behrens who presided over the dinner table. My role was to
emit very loud burps while the others snickered. Frau Dr. Behrens would lower
her head to her hands, satisfactorily shuddering at my bad manners. Later, as a
gift, Otto gave me a pewter mug engraved with “Burpy.”
In the spring of 1957, Hildegard and I became engaged. We announced this to
Hildegard’s mother first, by taking her to lunch. Otto came along as
spokesman to explain our wish to marry. Hildegard’s father was told that
evening and then an announcement was posted to friends and relatives, and to
Following German custom, I gave a gold ring to Hildegard who wore it on her
left hand; with marriage she would switch the ring to her right ring finger.
Luckily, this custom was known to me because Hildegard’s brother, DiDi
(Dietrict) had gotten engaged and married prior to this and I was his best
Then, everything changed. In May 1957, my tour of duty ended and I returned
to the states. Regretfully, I listened to my father who convinced me to break
the engagement with Hildegard, and I sent a “Dear Jane” letter to
my fiancÈe. Hurt and feeling heartbroken, Hildegard wrote to my mother of a
desire to do away with herself.
Instead she became a riveting soprano opera star, famed for a warm, textured
voice and top notes that sliced through heavy Wagner orchestras. Had our
breakup not occurred, would she have achieved all that she did? I’ve
I finished college and married in 1959. My business adventures were too far
ahead of their time to be successful–ethanol production, an electric car, wind
turbines, and a commercial environmental garbage disposal. My marriage faltered
when my two girls were teenagers.
Hildegard had earned a law degree and then started vocal studies, at the age
of 26, at the Freiburg Academy of Music. At the age of 34, she debuted in a
lyric soprano role as the countess in The Marriage of Figaro.
I decided to contact Hildegard about this time. Her father, who I got out of
bed when I called to trace her, said she lived in Dusseldorf and was beginning
an opera career. She was also a single mother, raising a five year old son,
We had many long transatlantic phone conversations before deciding that
Hildegard would fly to visit me in New York City, where I had an office. She
obtained her opera company’s permission for the visit and I met her plane
at JFK Airport.
Hildegard brought only winter clothes and the New York weather was warm, so
our first stop was Honeybee, a boutique near my office, for a new wardrobe.
Once she was comfortable, we headed for a piano bar to just talk. It was as if
we had never been apart. The next days were full of sightseeing and an evening
at the Metropolitan Opera House where we had orchestra seats. Hildegard, who
knew the lead Mexican tenor, wanted to send him flowers. I suggested a magnum
of champagne instead. We shouted “Bravo!” to him at the stage door
and then we all went for drinks. That evening I told Hildegard that she would
one day sing at the Met. She told me that she loved the challenge of opera
music because of its complexity. She did sing at the Met 171 times as well as
other worldwide venues.
Our visit was wonderful. After that, I made many trips to Germany, once
staying five weeks. I met her little boy, Philip, and heard Hildegard sing in
both Frankfurt and Dusseldorf. I met her friends and went to Varel to see her
father. Hildegard’s mother, tragically, was killed in a car accident.
Hildegard and I traveled all over Europe — Barcelona, Geneva, Amsterdam, and
Hildegard visited the states again and met my mother in Omaha, Nebraska. She
visited my home in Denver where she enjoyed the beauty of the Rocky Mountains
but acknowledged that her first love was the sea.
And our love? After seeing each other across the continents, it became clear
that our worlds were far apart. She asked me to be her manager but I knew so
little of opera; how could I be what she needed? And her son was there in
Germany; my family was here in the states.
We affirmed our love for each other, our first and most precious love that
nothing could ever replace. Such a warm and fiery woman, she was my
“little one” and I was her “poodle.” After a few more
phone calls across the ocean, we each went on with our separate lives in our
Most people do not get a second chance to re-kindle a love relationship
that, powerful and exciting, is not meant to be permanent. I am so thankful for
twice having a love affair to remember.
product_title=A Fond Remembrance of Hildegard Behrens
product_by=An account by Charles Pratt as told to Shirley Hessel
product_id=Above: Hildegard Behrens