Born in Den Helder, a city in northern Holland, Gré Brouwenstijn studied at the Amsterdam Muzieklyceum: first with Jaap Stroomenbergh and subsequently with Boris Pelsky and Ruth Horna. Although she made her operatic stage début in 1940 as one of the Three Ladies/Die Zauberflöte, for most of World War II she was active as a concert singer, while also singing in operatic radio broadcasts and as a member of the Hilversum Radio Choir. She joined the Netherlands Opera in 1946, making her début as Giulietta/Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Other rôles there included the title rôle in Tosca and Santuzza/Cavalleria rusticana.
Brouwenstijn’s long association with the Holland Festival began with her first appearance there in 1949, when she sang Leonore/Il trovatore. Her other rôles at this important Dutch cultural event included Amelia/Un ballo in maschera, the Countess/Le nozze di Figaro, Desdemona/Otello, Iphigénie/Iphigénie en Tauride, Leonore/La forza del destino, Senta/Der fliegende Holländer, Tatyana/Eugene Onegin, and what was to become one of her signature parts, Leonore/Fidelio. Lord Harewood was especially impressed by her interpretation of the title rôle in Jenůfa at the 1951 Holland Festival, and invited her to appear in London at the Royal Opera House with the Covent Garden Opera Company.
Thus Brouwenstijn’s international career took off in 1951 when she appeared in London as Aida, with Sir John Barbirolli conducting. At Covent Garden she became a greatly admired and most welcome guest. Here she participated in two notable new productions: as Desdemona in Otello (1955), conducted by Rafael Kubelík and directed by Peter Potter, and as Elisabetta in Don Carlos (1958), conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini and directed by Luchino Visconti. Critics were unanimous in their praise of her performances on these occasions, in terms both of vocal security and stylishness, and of complete dramatic credibility.
Between 1954 and 1956 Brouwenstijn sang at the Bayreuth Festival, as Elisabeth/Tannhäuser, Freia/Das Rheingold, Sieglinde/Die Walküre, Gutrune/Götterdämmerung and Eva/Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; but after 1956 she gave preference to her appearances at the contemporaneous Holland Festival and so was no longer invited back to Bayreuth. Wieland Wagner did however invite her to sing in operas which he directed elsewhere, such as Leonore in his controversial production of Fidelio at Stuttgart in 1956. In the same year she first appeared at the Vienna State Opera, singing there regularly until 1964. Brouwenstijn became a favourite of the conductor Herbert von Karajan and her account of Amelia in 1958 under his baton received great praise from the Viennese critics.
Brouwenstijn’s South American début came in 1958, as Leonore/Fidelio at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting; and she first appeared in North America during the following year as Jenůfa in Chicago. At the Glyndebourne Festival she sang in 1959, 1961 and 1963, in each year as Leonore in the production of Fidelio by Gunther Rennert. Her farewell performance as Leonore/Fidelio was given in Amsterdam with the Netherlands Opera in 1971.
The possessor of a beautiful lyric soprano voice, with ample reserves for her more vocally demanding parts such as Amelia, Elisabetta and Leonore/Fidelio, Brouwenstijn was also able to generate a sense of dramatic conviction on stage, giving her performances great power. In the words of the critic Paul Korenhof: ‘As a contemporary of Callas, Olivero, Rysanek, Varnay and Mödl and influenced by many great conductors and directors of the fifties, she realized that beautiful singing alone did not make an opera, but that the singing must emanate from the character being portrayed.’ Brouwenstijn made few studio recordings, although all are very fine, such as the RCA 1961 studio account of Die Walküre conducted by Leinsdorf in which she sang Sieglinde. Many live recordings of her stage performances have appeared. Of especial interest are her Bayreuth Meistersinger, her Buenos Aires Fidelio, her Covent Garden Don Carlos and Otello, and her Vienna Tannhäuser.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist