Brigitte Fassbaender was born in Berlin on July 3, 1939, the daughter of screen actress Sabine Peters and the celebrated German baritone, Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender. Growing up in Germany, Brigitte's first love was not music, but theatre. She longed to become an actress like her mother, and it wasn't until the family settled in Nuremberg after World War II that she began to secretly experiment with her voice. When she felt confident enough, she made a tape of arias and lieder and sent them to her father, who was then the head of the opera department at the Nuremberg Conservatory. Domgraf-Fassbaender promptly took his daughter on as a pupil, and she studied at the conservatory as a mezzo-soprano from 1958 to 1961.
In April 1961, Domgraf-Fassbaender heard that the Bavarian State Opera in Munich was looking for a young mezzo-soprano, he recommended his daughter, who joined the company shortly after. She made her debut in Munich as the Page in Wagner's Lohengrin, which led to other small roles in various operas. Later in 1961, she made what she considers to be her real debut, as Nicklausse in Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann. During the next twelve years, Fassbaender learned the difficult and demanding art of singing on stage. In 1970, she was given the Bavarian honorary title of Kammerägerin. In Munich, she appeared as Hansel in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Fatima in Weber's Oberon, and Narciso in Handel's Agrippina. The role she is most famous for, though, is Octavian in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, which she first sang in 1967.
Octavian launched her international career when she appeared in Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) in London in 1971. It was also as Octavian that she made her Metropolitan Opera debut, on February 16, 1974. She sang Octavian for for more than 20 years, and then retired the role from her repertoire in 1988.
As Fassbaender's career took off, she began to add many new roles to her repertoire. She has appeared as Clairon in Capriccio, the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, Fricka in Die Walküre, Carmen in Carmen, Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus, Amneris in Aïda, Maddalena in Rigoletto, and Eboli in Don Carlos. More recently, she added the role of Klytemnestra in Strauss' Elektra.
Fassbaender has also been successful as a lieder singer. In 1987, she won a Gramophone Award for her Deutsche Gramophon disc of songs by Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss. She has also recorded Schubert's song cycle Winterreise, as well as Brahm's Die Schöne Magelone and Karl Loewe's little-known Frauenliebe cycle.
Today, Fassbaender is a teacher of solo vocal music at the Musikhochschule in Munich and a fellow of Manchester's Royal College of Music. Fassbaender is divorced (she was married to Gerhard Weitzel) and lives in the country, between Munich and Salzburg, with her pets. She is also a passionate sketcher and painter and has begun directing opera productions.