There’s a recording of Barbara Hendricks singing Maurice Ravel’s “Vocalise en forme de habanera” with the National Orchestra of Lyon, France, on New Year’s Eve 1988. Even at two-and-a-half minutes — a breezy length, by classical standards — it’s a staggeringly difficult piece to sing, with fluttering trills and virtuosic leaps and rapidfire swoops up and down the scale. Chances are, if you’re harboring a flaw or two in your technique, Ravel’s brief and wordless wonder will find that flaw and crack it wide open for all to hear. No such thing happened on the last day of 1988. Hendricks’ soprano glides around seductively and deftly, seeming to change colors in midair — voluptuous and warm one moment, feathery and delicate the next. It’s an electrifying sample of what she can do vocally, and a three-minute master class in human agility.
It’s also but one of the ways she has used her voice over her lifetime. Now 72 years old and a Swedish citizen, Hendricks has carved out parallel paths as a world-class lyric soprano and longtime ambassador of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She’s been speaking out against oppressive political systems for longer than many of us have been alive — and at a time when celebrities weren’t necessarily expected to do so. Once, in her operatic heyday, a journalist asked her why she had stopped singing to devote her time to working for refugees. She explained that she had, in fact, not stopped singing at all, and was fully booked. “I assumed that since my career was going full blast,” she said, “and I was singing for full halls in Europe, North and South America and Asia, I did not need the publicity for myself. … I prefer that my career serves this important cause and not vice-versa.” When I spoke with her from her home north of Stockholm earlier this year, she made it clear that she’s come to see her activism as a calling, one she answered because of where she was born, when she was born, and to whom she was born.
Hendricks’ voice was heard for the first time in 1948, at her grandparents’ farmhouse in rural Stephens (Ouachita County), where she was born. She remembers her childhood as pastoral, if regimented. Calendar years were marked by week-long church revivals in the sweltering Arkansas humidity, oranges at Christmastime and the seasonal rhythms of the family’s subsistence farm. Her father, Malvin Hendricks, was a gifted preacher in what was then called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, and his advancement within the ministry meant that Barbara and her siblings — Geneice, Malvin Jr. and Michael — were exposed to Black communities beyond rural Ouachita County, worshipping at some of the same churches that would become spiritual cornerstones for the civil rights movement in the South. The spirituals they sang, she said in her 2014 memoir, connected her to the emotional landscape of American chattel slavery. She counts her father’s sermons, on the other hand, as her first experiences of theater — “in no way fake or make-believe,” but punctuated with the elements of a great drama: electrifying descriptions of heaven and hell, call-and-response improvisation and impassioned monologues followed by musical interjections.
In 1957, the Hendricks family was living in Pine Bluff where her mother, Della Mae, taught school. When classes ended, they’d pile into a black Ford and spend the summer break in North Little Rock, where Malvin preached at Miles Chapel CME Church. Hendricks doesn’t remember exactly why they were still in North Little Rock on Sept. 4, 1957 — Jefferson County started their school later, perhaps? But she was. The Hendricks family didn’t own a TV, but the neighbors did, and catching glimpses of the violent clashes at Little Rock Central High on the news that month changed her entire life’s trajectory. “I began to understand what that ominous cloud was about, what the adults were sometimes whispering about,” she said. “Yet I understood nothing at all.” She pieced together the story of Emmett Till from snippets of overheard conversations and magazine articles in Ebony and Jet. Later, she’d incorporate “Strange Fruit” into her concert repertoire, and said she thinks of Till every time she sings it.
Subject to the ministry’s call, the family moved to Chattanooga, then to Memphis, then back to Little Rock. There, Hendricks landed in the soprano section of the choir Art Porter led at Horace Mann High School. She was an honor student who harbored a preacher’s daughter’s penchant for rebellion; despite the disdain she’d developed for beauty contests as a budding feminist, she was crowned homecoming queen in 1964 after entering on a dare.
Equipped with years of experience looking after her younger brothers, Hendricks got a gig babysitting the Porters’ four children — one of whom would become a heralded jazz saxophonist — while the Art Porter Trio played jazz sets in hotels and nightclubs. Once the kids were asleep, she dug into the Porter family’s record collection while she studied, discovering Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and Count Basie.
Hendricks left home in 1965 for Lane College, a CME school of her parents’ choosing in Jackson, Tennessee, selected in hopes that Hendricks’ strict upbringing could continue, isolating her from the social awakening happening on campuses elsewhere in the country — SNCC’s sit-ins and voter registration drives, dissent against the Vietnam War, the rise of psychedelic experimentation and Bay Area counterculture. It didn’t stick.
Hendricks, who had studied a year at Nebraska Wesleyan University through an exchange program with Lane, attracted the attention of university officials connected to the nine-week Aspen Music Festival and School in Denver, Colorado, and was offered a full scholarship to study there with an acclaimed mezzo-soprano named Jennie Tourel, despite not being a music major. At Tourel’s invitation, Hendricks fast-tracked her degree in chemistry and mathematics so she could start her undergraduate music studies from scratch at New York City’s Juilliard School. In New York, she earned rent money by working at a shoe store, then at an insurance company. She’d sign up to work fundraisers and receptions at Juilliard for extra cash, and took in as many theater and dance performances as she could afford, relying on friends who worked as ushers at Carnegie Hall to help her slip into an empty seat at the last moment before the hall’s doors shut, or scouring the Village Voice for free workshops and off-off-Broadway shows.
Most importantly, she soaked up several years of instruction from, and companionship with, her teacher, after whom Hendricks would name her second child. Tourel, a Jewish refugee from Russia, employed the sort of no-nonsense instruction that shaped Hendricks into a formidable lyric soprano — one who had no qualms about speaking up in rehearsal about matters both ethical and artistic, and who eschewed any whiff of celebrity-fawning in favor of fastidious score study. Before Tourel died, she gifted Hendricks a copy of Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin’s autobiography, a passage of which Hendricks has said she memorized and adopted as a personal mantra:
My life has as its leitmotif the struggle against:
The sham glitter that eclipses the inner light
The complexities that kill simplicity
The vulgar externals that diminishes true grandeur.
By the mid ’70s, Hendricks was singing under the batons of George Solti and Herbert von Karajan, interpolating chamber works and contemporary oddities with the conventional opera canon. And, it became increasingly clear, she was not a wallflower. Conductors either loved or hated the fact that she wasn’t a sycophant. Hendricks stood up to venerated soprano Maria Callas after Callas put Hendricks on probation for an upcoming master class, apparently not having been greeted with enough reverence at their first meeting. Hendricks’ career blossomed anyway, particularly in Europe. Her 1994 recording “La voix du ciel,” which ranges from aria to Lieder to spiritual, went double gold. She’s made over 100 classical studio recordings, and in more recent years has delved into recording blues and jazz. She’s performed at pretty much every major opera house on Earth. And she’s nurtured collegial relationships with dedication. When Porter’s lung cancer was in its late stages, Hendricks visited Porter at his home in Little Rock, lamenting that they’d missed one another during the Clinton inauguration festivities at which they both performed. Hendricks invited Porter to her upcoming Duke Ellington tribute at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1994 — her “first real jazz performance,” she called it — but Porter died in the interim.
And, as her career unfolded, she fell in love with a Swedish pianist and opera house director named Martin Engstrom, with whom she had two children, Jennie and Sebastian. Hendricks worked through both pregnancies at a 119-year-old festival called Choregies d’Orange, singing Micaëla in Bizet’s “Carmen” while she carried Jennie, Pamina in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” while she carried Sebastian.
Her political involvement deepened over time, too. In New York in 1970, she’d joined a bus of students traveling to D.C. to protest in the wake of the Kent State shootings. She’d begun to identify with critics of the Vietnam war. She sported an Afro and blue jeans instead of the fur coats her colleagues suggested might behoove an opera diva. She became increasingly interested in anti-apartheid movements and other social justice issues outside the United States, and spoke out about her political opinions in media interviews, a habit the classical singing world has historically frowned upon. And in 1987, Hendricks became a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations’ refugee agency. That same year, Hendricks guest edited an issue of French Vogue, insisting that a letter she’d penned campaigning against apartheid be included along with her curated collection of interviews with Maya Angelou and Italian conductor Riccardo Muti. It was published.
In May of 2020, Hendricks appeared on French television ahead of a fundraising concert for the agency, and spoke about the ways in which COVID-19 lockdowns gave privileged people a fleeting sense of what it felt like for refugees “all of the time. They’re wondering, ‘When will our kids get to school again? What’s our life going to be like? When can we start a normal life?’ ” At one point, the broadcaster asked about the Martin Luther King Jr.-inspired concert title, “The Road to Freedom,” and Hendricks seized the chance to drop into the conversation the names of women who, she points out, also shaped the civil rights movement: Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer and Daisy Bates, who Hendricks’ parents knew and worked with in Little Rock during the school desegregation crisis. Hendricks is now the longest-tenured ambassador in the agency, and quite possibly the only opera singer who carries a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in her purse.
“Our mandate in the UNHCR,” Hendricks told me earlier this year, “is that we take care of people once the conflict has begun, we’re an emergency organization. We’re like the fire department — we come after the fire has started.” In recent decades, she’s become increasingly interested in what lights the match to begin with, but as any expert in international relations can tell you, that part can be wildly complicated.
The last refugees Hendricks spoke to before the pandemic were in Greece. They’d come from Istanbul, fleeing Syria. Hendricks was taken with a young mother of three children, all under the age of 10. The woman, a clothesmaker by trade, had reached Greece on her third attempt to flee by boat. Neither she nor any of her children could swim. Another woman, also from Syria, told Hendricks she often dreamed of the garden she left behind when she fled, and how the smell of oranges wafted through it.
“When we look around us,” Hendricks told me, “we’ve all come from somewhere else.” She remembered her teacher Tourel, a refugee herself. “Just knowing how enriching the refugees have been to society and culture and science! People don’t flee from their homes unless they have no other choice. … . Most refugees are in countries that are bordering their home, and they’re hoping to get back. They’re just waiting for that moment when somebody says, ‘It’s OK, it’s safe to come home.’ ”
When it comes to refugee advocacy, and humanitarian work in general, Hendricks says, it’s important for her feet to be on the ground in affected countries. COVID-19 halted that, and she missed the schedule of in-person visits she kept before the pandemic, because talking with real people allowed her to be a better advocate. “As opposed to saying, ‘Today we have 80 million people who have been forced to flee.’ That number is so daunting to us. You have to think about individual families. Individual people. I never met a refugee mother who didn’t want the same things for her children that I want for mine.”
Geographical distance aside, there’s a direct line for Hendricks between refugee advocacy and life in Jim Crow-era Arkansas. “For all intents and purposes,” Hendricks said, “I was born a refugee in my own country — born without the same protection under the law that the Constitution afforded every white girl born that day.”
In the spring of 1994, Hendricks found herself at a Catholic mass in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa. She was in Africa for the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela, attending as an ambassador for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the French ambassador had suggested they attend the mass directly from the airport. When the choir began to sing, Hendricks was stunned. “I did not know the music,” she said, “but recognized immediately the way of singing and harmonizing that I’d heard so many times in my father’s rural churches.” At the priest’s behest, she sang two spirituals — “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Glory Hallelujah” — and whenever she’d sing in her higher register, the congregation would answer her with “high-pitched sounds that resembled birdcalls.” In those cries, Hendricks said, she “was able to make a trip that spanned two centuries and crisscrossed an ocean from Africa and back again.”
Hendricks is 72 now. She lives in Norrtälje, Sweden, north of Stockholm, with her second husband, Ulf Englund, a guitarist and lighting designer whose work ranges from the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm to collaborations with Hendricks in Paris and Barcelona and beyond. The two met in production meetings for a 1994 Christmas program tour through Europe, shortly after Hendricks’ divorce from Engstrom. Both fresh out of relationships and not anxious to get into another one, Hendricks’ and Englunds’ bond was an unexpected one. Just as unexpectedly, Englund proposed to Hendricks on a scenic observation deck overlooking Stockholm after buying her an ice cream cone.
Hendricks still gives concerts, albeit at a less breakneck pace. She has a vegetable garden with a greenhouse Ulf built to accommodate the short Swedish growing season, and she took up growing flowers last year after her longtime local florist retired. She gets up early and meditates and does yoga or a workout — “adjusted for my age,” she added. Her now-adult children give her flack for ironing the dish towels after they’re laundered, exclaiming, “They’re gonna be wet in five minutes!”
She steers clear of social media, but keeps up with the news. On Jan. 6, when insurrectionists raided the nation’s Capitol, she and Ulf watched in horror. “I still believe in the idea of that Constitution, which didn’t include me,” she told me, “and didn’t include women, period, and that was written by men who were flawed. But there was still something that touched me.” She and Ulf watched Biden’s inauguration, too.
When Lady Gaga sang “and the flag was still there,” Hendricks remembered, she got choked up. “Because it’s even bigger than the country,” she said. “Bigger than the politicians. As a child, I felt unprotected by it, but the idea of everyone being created equal and that we’re all in it together is something that is the foundation of my work and why I do the work I do. There is some meaning that I was born in Stephens, Arkansas, to the parents I was born to.”
“Between these toes, there is still the dirt of Arkansas, and it will always be there. That’s where I’m grounded. That is who I am. That little girl makes me the woman that I am.”