Behrens was born in Varel, Germany in 1937 and was graduated from the University of Freiburg as a junior barrister before becoming serious about her talents as a singer, studying at first with Ines Leuwen at the Freiburg Academy Of Music. Her debut was as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro in Freiburg in 1971 and the following year she became a member of the Deutsche Oper. On 15 October 1976 she made her American debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Giorgetta in Il tabarro.
She began her musical career singing small roles at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf where she stayed for six years during which she graduated into bigger roles. Then in the 1975–76 season, while rehearsing Wozzeck, she was "discovered" by Herbert von Karajan, who was then looking for his new Salome. She was summoned to Berlin to audition for the role. Karajan liked what he heard and invited her to portray the role at the 1977 Salzburg Festival.
Behrens was the recipient of many awards - among them the highest civilian honors given by the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesverdienstkreuz or Order of the Merit Cross of the Federal Republic) and by the state of Bavaria (the Bayerischer Verdienstorden), and the titles of Bayerische Kammersängerin and Österreichische Kammersängerin bestowed by the Bavarian State Opera and the Vienna State Opera respectively. In 1998, she received Denmark's most prestigious Leonie Sonning Music Prize and in 1999 the Vienna State Opera honored her with the Lotte Lehmann Ring, bequeathed to her by the late dramatic soprano Leonie Rysanek.
- 1989 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording: Richard Wagner's Die Walküre, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
- 1991 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording: Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
- 1992 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording: Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
- Sonning Award (1998; Denmark)
Performances on video
Available on DVD:
- Der Ring des Nibelungen, with James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, in the "classical-manner" production by Otto Schenk, from 1989 to 1990. Deutsche Grammophon 073 049-9.
- Tosca, with Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting the Metropolitan Opera in the celebrated Franco Zeffirelli production from 1985, also starring Plácido Domingo. Deutsche Grammophon 073 410-1.
- Idomeneo, performed at the Met with Luciano Pavarotti, production designer Jean Pierre Ponnelle, conductor James Levine. Deutsche Grammophon ASIN: B000E5KOJI.
- Elektra, from the Met, January 1994. With Brigitte Fassbaender, James King, Donald McIntyre, conducted by James Levine. ASIN: B0064SBBA0.
- Wozzeck, from the Vienna State Opera, 1987. With Franz Grundheber, Aage Haugland, Heinz Zednik, Philip Langridge, conducted by Claudio Abbado. ASIN: B00005M206.
- Anthony Tommasini, Hildegard Behrens, Soprano Acclaimed for Wagner, Is Dead at 72, New York Times (obituary), 2009/08/19.
- Reuters, "German soprano Hildegard Behrens dies aged 72"
- Notice of death of Behrens Archived 2011-07-23 at the Wayback Machine
- Warrack, John and West, Ewan (1992), The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5