Barbara Hendricks

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Barbara Hendricks

Portrait of Barbara Hendricks in a black dress and necklace against a solid, white backgound.
Photo by Mattias Edwall

Barbara Hendricks, today one of the world's leading lyric sopranos, came to Lincoln in 1968 as an ambitious young woman from Stephens, Arkansas, and a likely future research chemist. That fall, she transferred to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln to finish her degree in chemistry and mathematics. What she found here was the path that would take her to some of the great concert halls of the world.

At Nebraska, she developed as a non-music-major member of the University Singers. Before long, Richard Smith, a Lincoln lawyer and a board member of the Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado, had heard Hendricks sing at a Lincoln event, and arranged for her to spend nine weeks in Aspen honing her voice, guided by the mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel. Tourel, suitably impressed, offered to sponsor Hendricks’ application to the Juilliard School in New York.

As exciting as that glittering path was, Hendricks' parents had instilled in her a deep practicality. Even as a young woman, she was driven to finish what she’d started, and that thing in the fall of 1968 was a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics. The chemistry and math faculties were quickly aware of her unusual musical talents and her coming audition at Juilliard, and space was made in her studies for Hendricks to work with Dale Ganz, a member of the Nebraska vocal music faculty and the choir director at St. Paul United Methodist Church downtown; Hendricks' Juilliard audition would be a team effort.

Meanwhile, her star ascended, and transcended, in university and city concert venues. Hendricks' vocal prowess was not to be denied. Lincoln audiences were treated to performances featuring her in a scene from Bizet’s “Carmen” and in Verdi’s “Masked Ball” at the university, as a soloist with the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra, and in church. The headline over the account of the Verdi performance, in which many singers had performed, dispensed with pretense: “Barbara Hendricks Sparkles in Aria,” it read.

Newpaper clipping with headline that reads, Barbara Hendricks Sparkles in Aria.

By the time she was due to receive her Bachelor of Science degree in August 1969, Lincolnites had come to love their budding opera star. The Journal Star sent a reporter to get an interview with her before Hendricks boarded a train for New York and Juilliard. In that article, she reminisced on her meteoric local rise, as she had only begun formal voice training two years earlier, and in typical form, left some warmth behind: “I’ve loved every minute of my life in Lincoln.”

It is no source of drama in this story that today’s world-renowned soprano passed that Juilliard audition. Through the first years of the 1970s, she remained a student of Tourel and accompanied her on summer tours of Europe, receiving further mentorship from opera greats, including Maria Callas. Before long, Hendricks had won vocal competitions in Geneva and in Paris, in addition to her numerous performances.

She would gain her fame as a principal singer in opera houses worldwide, and would also lend her voice to passions such as jazz, blues, American classics and a rich catalog of religious hymns and spirituals. Today, her discography is staggering, at over 100 albums, and counting.

Given her vocal power, it would be enough to know her as one of the world's premier sopranos. But growing up in Jim Crow Arkansas, and experiencing the ferment of late-sixties campus activism against the Vietnam War and for women’s rights here at Nebraska, had infused the great singer with a sense of mission. In 1987, that sense of mission found a home, as she accepted a one-year appointment as a Goodwill Ambassador with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).

That one-year appointment has now stretched to almost 40. Early on, Hendricks took on the role with determined purpose. Her UNHCR work has taken her all over the world, to refugee camps where optimism and humanity is often and improbably alive despite sometimes miserable conditions. Of her work, she said “I don’t look at the numbers, I look at the faces.”

She is today UNHCR’s longest-serving Goodwill Ambassador. On the occasion of her then-15 years of dedicated service, in 2002, UNHCR named Hendricks as Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador. Hendricks remains the first and only person to be recognized with that title.

In addition to her earned Bachelor of Science degree from Nebraska, Barbara Hendricks also holds an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from the university, awarded when she came back to where it all began, as commencement speaker in 2015. True to the supreme emotion that comes through on her recordings and in live performances, and in her work as a humanitarian, Hendricks offered these words as she ended her address: “Above all else, see the truth and seek it from your heart. Have faith and never lose sight of the power of love.”

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