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INTERVIEW | Barbara Hannigan: Queen of the New

By Joseph So on November 5, 2017

Barbara Hannigan
Barbara Hannigan (Photo: Elmer de Haas)

When it comes to the arts, we live in an age of hyperbole. Adjectives such as “great” or “phenomenal” or “extraordinary” are bandied about far too often. That said, once in a while, someone comes along and knocks your socks off. The real deal, as they say. Someone who’s truly deserving of such superlatives. One such person is Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, who combines a gorgeous voice, uncommon musicality, exceptional intellect, and an unbridled fearlessness when it comes to tackling new repertoire that is second to none.

A native of the town of Waverly in rural Nova Scotia, Hannigan moved to Toronto at 17 to study voice with Mary Morrison at the University of Toronto, graduating with a Bachelors (1993) and Masters in 1998. It was followed by further training at the Banff Centre, Stearns Institute at Ravinia, Orford Arts Centre, and the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. She made her operatic debut in the 20th-century masterpiece, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

Throughout her career, Hannigan has shown a strong affinity for new music. To date, she has premiered an impressive 80 works, many of them written specifically for her. Based in the Netherlands, Hannigan returns to Canada regularly to perform. Her recent Toronto appearances include the Canadian premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s New Creations Festival in March 2015. In the fall of that year, she made her North American conducting debut with the TSO. Last season, she returned once again Henri Dutilleux’s Correspondences, with a new finale composed for her by Dutilleux.

Currently, on a recital tour Hannigan and her long-time collaborator Reinbert de Leeuw are coming to Toronto Nov. 10 for a Liederabend, singing songs by Schönberg, Berg, Webern, and Zemlinsky the so-called Second Viennese School composers. It will be her Koerner Hall debut. On Nov. 8, she’ll be giving a masterclass at the Royal Conservatory of Music. And to top it off, Hannigan and her former teacher, Mary Morrison, whom the soprano credited with having inspired her to go into new music, will both be receiving honorary degrees from the University of Toronto on Wednesday.

Her upcoming visit represents a perfect time to ask her a few questions about her career trajectory, one that is truly “great,” “phenomenal,” and “extraordinary” — hyperbole? Not a chance!

(Photo: Elmer de Haas)
(Photo: Elmer de Haas)

Tell us about your upcoming recital at Koerner Hall. I noticed it’s part of a tour that’s taking you to Vienna, New York and other places, in a program of Second Viennese School composers like Schönberg, Berg, Webern, and Zemlinsky. I counted a huge program of 30 songs!  Are you singing all of them, or just a selection?

I think it’s 31!  I’m singing all of them! The recital program represents the world of Vienna at the turn of the century, just after Richard Dehmel had written the book Weib und Welt which was such an influential piece of writing for Schönberg, Berg and Webern. At that time, lieder were how most composers developed their harmonic language, and in these early songs of the Second Viennese School, we see the path from Wagner’s harmonic influence through to the suspended harmonies that Webern began to explore and develop. Pianist (and conductor and composer) Reinbert de Leeuw created this program for the two of us about 10 years ago. We performed it in Europe for a few seasons and then left it until this tour. We have changed the order since then, and added the Alma Mahler songs, as she was such a presence in the Viennese world, having studied with Zemlinsky, married Mahler, and acted as patron for Schönberg and Berg. It was an amazing experience to perform this program in Vienna earlier this autumn, in the Wiener Konzerthaus where all these were performed in their time. And I was very touched that the staff of the Konzerthaus recently gave me a Second Edition copy of Dehmel’s Weib und Welt from 1901, which is a cherished gift.

I’m sure you’ve been asked a thousand times – what draws you to new music?  You studied with Mary Morrison, who was a champion of new music in her day. When I interviewed her for an article in Opera Canada when she received the Rubies (Opera Canada Awards), she said you have a real gift in this repertoire. Did she inspire you to go into this rep?

I began my studies with Mary Morrison at age 17 when I moved from Nova Scotia to Toronto. She remains an inspiration to me and to so many other singers internationally and in Canada. She absolutely encouraged me to explore new music. In fact, all kinds of music. She told me to go to the library and read scores, to listen to recordings and to go to concerts. I remember the smell of those old and new scores, as I sat on the floor pouring through their pages in the U of T music library. One of the best music libraries in the world, thanks to librarian Kathleen McMorrow and her colleagues. I think I was at concerts almost every evening when I was a student at U of T. I took advantage of all the opportunities I could when I was studying at the school: the African Drumming Ensemble with Russell Hartenberger, the jazz choir with Phil Nimmons, early music ensembles with Timothy McGee, new music ensembles with Gary Kulesha and Robin Engelman, and of course the art song and oratorio classes with Greta Kraus, Douglas Bodle, Che Loewen, and Rosemarie Landry. Besides the technical work Mary and I did to build a healthy and reliable instrument that can handle the crazy schedule I have now, it was with Mary that my curiosity for new sound and repertoire was embraced. She taught me that taking risks was a good thing! But not without the discipline of good technique. I was very touched when I saw Boulez teaching young musicians with exactly the same principles.

What makes a singer a good interpreter of new repertoire? What are the qualities a composer looks for in a singer of new music? I noticed you are teaching a masterclass in Toronto. What qualities would make a young student suitable for new music?

I don’t think about interpretation. The composer set a text in a particular way, and the result, the music, does not, therefore, need interpretation. In my feeling, what it needs is an intimate identification and incorporation. One has to become the music.

Do you adjust your technique (and style) when you sing contemporary works, compared to when you sing, say, Handel or Mozart?

Technically, not at all. One does not change the breath, alignment, sound production just because the music may be more complex. All music deserves and demands our best technical approach at all times. As far as style, well, I don’t change my style. The music makes certain demands and I incorporate them.

Many composers have written specifically for you.  Do contemporary composers write well for the voice?  Are you involved throughout the creative process?

Yes, I have worked with many composers. The process is always different. Sometimes there are scores which seem to fit me like a glove. An example of this would be Hans Abrahamsen’s orchestral song cycle called let me tell you which he composed for me in 2013. It was like looking at my DNA on the page. Not just musically, but emotionally as well. And this was his first major vocal work, after many years of composing almost exclusively instrumental music! George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin, began as a role outside my comfort zone. I was concerned that he had misunderstood me, because the part did not seem virtuosic in a way I could immediately understand. But I was wrong! George kept saying to me, Barbara dear, I wrote it for you. As we worked towards the premiere, I found my way in, and finally my last struggles came together in the the last few days of rehearsals before the premiere. On the other hand, Salvatore Sciarrino wrote a piece for me and orchestra which I sang a few weeks ago at Carnegie. I like the piece very much, first of all. But my colleagues very aptly said, ”He wrote this for YOU?” because it was really so low in the register, and stayed there for most of the piece! It was challenging and at times very frustrating because I could feel that my instrument wanted to fly higher. I kept thinking of other singer friends of mine who would be more comfortable in the piece. I wanted to be more than I was, but, Schoenberg also wrote low in the register for sopranos because he liked the fragility and vulnerability of the sound. And I had Antonio Pappano conducting me, so there were never any balance issues. He is absolutely a joy for singers to work with! Also, the composer must be allowed to write what they need to write, and I have to support that as best I can. Occasionally I have a piece written for me which I really cannot connect to, and that is painful for both me and the composer. As far as the process goes — it depends on the the composer, really. Some want a lot of contact and others need to go away and just be alone with their writing. I usually give a certain amount of information about my possibilities to the composer at the beginning. And I suggest they look at Lulu, and some other repertoire which I feel fits me like a glove, which would answer most of the questions I’d imagine they would ask. I definitely do not deliver a “shopping list” to the composer. I want them to be free in their expression.

There are singers who feels singing too much contemporary music can hurt their instrument. Do you think that’s true?  What do you do to take care of your instrument?

I don’t feel that is true. I don’t really understand what that means. We all know singers who have had vocal problems, who never sing any contemporary music. I think damaged vocal instruments usually have more to do with singing too much, singing the wrong repertoire, or fighting with conductors who do not take care of the balance between the orchestra and the singer. I have an efficient practice routine — I try to stay healthy with what I eat. I exercise. I allow recovery time from travel and flights. I avoid air conditioning and loud places. Thankfully the smoking bans have hit Europe as well, so I don’t have to avoid public places to save my voice. When I studied in The Hague in 1995/6, the music conservatory still allowed smoking, so I would get into my practice room and open the windows wide to try and clear the air!! I couldn’t really believe it! But this was the case also in some rehearsal rooms in Europe until only about 10 years ago. And even at the opera company canteens. Not anymore. But when I go to Russia, it’s still the case.

You’ve taken up conducting in recent seasons. Please tell us what draws you into conducting

Since I made my conducting debut at the Chatelet in Paris in 2011, conducting has become a major part of my work. I didn’t begin conducting with the idea of where it would go, but had been encouraged by a mentor of mine to explore that possibility in myself. Indeed it suited me very well in a lot of ways, and now most of my concert performances are as a conductor. That said, I spend at least half my season singing opera, and need and want to be onstage, singing, acting, inhabiting the roles I love, as well as some new roles. I love the directors with whom I work: Katie Mitchell, Krszysztof Warlikowski, Andreas Kriegenburg, and Christoph Marthaler, and the choreographer Sasha Waltz. Eventually, I expect I will conduct operas with them directing, so that we can continue to collaborate.

I cannot put into words why I sing or why I conduct. It is simply what I do and I am passionate about both.

Please tell us about your new CD, Crazy Girl Crazy. Are you doing any of the songs on the disc on this recital tour?

The repertoire on the disc is Berio Sequenza 3, Lulu Suite of Berg, and a suite from Gershwin’s Girl Crazy in a tailor-made arrangement by Bill Elliot. So, two large orchestral suites and one piece for solo voice. It was very recently released by the Alpha label, and the entire process was a joy! I was with my Orchestra Ludwig, an ensemble of Dutch players with whom I have worked in various guises for years. Conducting them is pure joy. I also sing on the CD — in the third and final movements of the Lulu Suite. In the Gershwin, I sing throughout. OK, this is already something — to sing and conduct the same CD, but I am not the only multi-tasker on board! The orchestra also sings in the Gershwin, and they sing well, not least because they had a very good teacher: ME!  Ludwig and I will tour the Lulu and Gershwin (also Verklärte Nacht by Schönberg) in December this year, but only in Europe. I will perform the Lulu and Gershwin Suites with other orchestras as well, and certainly plan to program them in Toronto the next time I conduct the TSO!

This recital tour is mainly my Viennese program, although in New York I will sing Satie’s Socrate as well, twice, at the Park Avenue Armory, in a special staging by Pierre Audi. Reinbert de Leeuw and I recorded the piece for CD which came out in spring 2016, and we seem to be getting into the unexpected habit of having different directors stage the piece for us. Most recently we performed it at the Ruhrtriennale in Germany with live and pre-recorded film, all directed by Warlikowski.

You have Lulu and La Voix Humaine this season, working with Marthaler and Warlikowski, both known for their concept-driven directorial styles. What are your thoughts on Regieoper? Which productions have you sung that are particularly memorable?

I don’t know what concept-driven style means. Certainly, every director has a concept of what they do, no? And as far as Regie-oper, I find this is a word used by people who do not like what some directors are doing. And it refers to productions which do not remain true, dramaturgically, to the intentions of the story of the opera at hand. This is not the case with Warlikowski or Marthaler. They do not impose anything on the piece which cannot be defended dramaturgically in the piece. Working with them has been incredible for me. Both directors have created new Lulu productions with me in the title role, and our Warlikowski production of La Voix Humaine was absolutely overwhelming. I also sang in new productions of Don Giovanni (Donna Anna) and Melisande with Warlikowski. We struggled a bit with the Mozart. It is a problematic piece for any director, but with the Debussy I think we got to the centre of the silence, the darkness, and the mystery of that piece. It was very powerful. All the productions I do are new stagings. I am not comfortable trying to fit into an already existing production made on another singer. I need to work and develop the piece with the director from the beginning. Both productions I sang with Katie Mitchell directing were very fulfilling and INTENSE! We have another coming up this season at Covent Garden. And then, with Kriegenburg, I sang Marie in Die Soldaten at the Munich Staatsoper. This was a life highlight. It was an incredible team working together. I have never been so satisfied (and exhausted) with an entire production as I was there. Musically and dramatically it was absolutely extraordinary. I do not want to sing the piece elsewhere because I know it will not be possible to reach that level in another production. Sometimes there are weak links in the cast, musically or dramatically, or the conductor and/or orchestra do not really connect with the onstage work. With Die Soldaten, everyone was at their best. I will work again with Kriegenburg at the Munich Staatsoper on a world premiere. I cannot announce it yet. I also have plans to work with him in a production I will conduct. Same with Sasha Waltz. We are slowly and carefully developing a ballet project together in which I will conduct from the pit, and at some point onstage as well.

Is there any area that you haven’t yet explored as an artist that you would like to go next?

I have quite a few world premiere opera productions coming up, as singer. And I will conduct my first major opera, The Rake’s Progress, next season with Gothenburg Symphony, Munich Philharmonic, and my Ludwig orchestra, as part of the inaugural season of my Equilibrium Young Artists initiative I started. Equilibrium is a mentoring initiative for young professional singers in the first substantial phase of their careers. After 350 applications and over 100 live auditions throughout Europe, I have assembled a kind of elite squad of young artists with whom I am working. I have so many people who have mentored me along the way, and it is a joy to be in the position that I can give back to my younger colleagues.

Thank you, Barbara, for your very thoughtful answers to my questions, and for telling us about your exciting new projects! Our congratulations to you for the honorary doctorate on Wednesday, and toi toi toi for the Friday Liederabend!


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Joseph So
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