10 Questions for Barbara Hannigan

Barbara Hannigan is one of Canada’s most remarkable exports, a brilliant singer, conductor and actor of rare conviction.  While I haven’t heard her use the word “actor” to describe herself, how can I omit it, when I struggle to describe her 2012 Lulu portrayal from La Monnaie? the single most impressive operatic portrayal I have ever seen. When I went back to look at the review that I wrote, I discover to my great joy that the link is still there! I’ll include it here, recognizing that if there’s too much traffic maybe it may suddenly be closed (if you want to see something bold, edgy, and especially if you want to see an amazing performance, don’t hesitate to click). If you’ve ever sung anything difficult (let alone Berg) you’d recognize how much harder it is to sing and also tumble or roll around a stage: as Hannigan does, sometimes while playing (impersonating? incarnating?) a ballerina.

Or if you’d like to see something more recent, here’s a brief performance of Ligeti (another difficult composer. Remember Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Yes, that Ligeti), performed in January and uploaded this past week. 

Although Hannigan’s career has taken her out of Canada –to enormous success in Europe and abroad—we’re fortunate that the Toronto Symphony are bringing her back for a kind of residency during their New Creations Festival:

  • February 28th program includes A Mind of Winter , George Benjamin’s evocative setting for soprano of the poem “The Snowman” by Wallace Stevens
  • March 4th program includes Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle let me tell you treating the words of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in striking ways
  • Mar 7th composer George Benjamin conducts a concert performance of his 2012 opera Written on Skin

On the occasion of Hannigan’s TSO residency I ask her ten questions: five about herself and five more about her work in the New Creations Festival.

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

Actually, I’d say I am a combination of both. My father is very organized and can never sit down. He is always working at something! My mother is a very creative person and thinks outside the box. We lived in the country and spent a lot of time in the car on the way to music lessons. It must have been very difficult for my mother, with 4 kids, to manage us all, with our various activities, but we were most certainly supported in our musical endeavours, and 3 of the 4 of us have degrees in music.

soprano & conductor Barbara Hannigan (photo: Elmer de Haas)

soprano & conductor Barbara Hannigan (photo: Elmer de Haas)

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a specialist in “new” music, creating original work?

I spend a great deal of my time and energy singing music of the 20th and 21st century. It can be incredibly rewarding when a composer writes a piece with my voice and personality in mind which, though different from all other pieces which may have been written for me, seems to fit me like a glove. I can say this of both pieces I’ll sing with the TSO – Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. Each brings out an aspect of my voice and psyche which I would not have discovered on my own. The worst thing? I can’t say there is a worst thing. I love to work hard and I enjoy the struggle of “breaking” through a difficult piece and finding the key. For me, there must be an emotional entrance to the music – the intellectual aspect of a score is merely architecture. I always am looking for the heart. If I can’t find it, I’m in trouble, because then the connection of breath to sound doesn’t go through the soul – I don’t have the need to sing…and then I am unhappy and feel out of sorts.

3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I don’t listen often to recordings. I prefer to attend concerts live, because the electricity of the performers giving their all in the public arena is very moving to me. I enjoy all kinds of music, but the dimensions of the orchestra are most attractive to me, because I am touched by so many people working together, concentrating and listening, and breathing together at one time. I also listen a lot to radio – CBC Radio 1 or BBC Radio 4. My favorite programme is the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, which is an interview where the guest chooses 8 recordings they would bring to a desert island. I always love to hear why. I enjoy beautiful and vulnerable vocal performances – Jeff Buckley, Fatoumata Diawara, Alim Quasimov. I admire good timing and rhythm…percussionists of all styles, but also performers like Danny Kaye and Jackie Chan.

4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I wish I was able to just “chill out”. This does not seem to be a part of my nature…

5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

See above. Relaxing would be something I’d need to study….


Five more concerning the Toronto Symphony’s New Creations Festival

1-What are the challenges in The Snowman, let me tell you and Written on Skin (and I hope I didn’t miss anything) you’re performing.

The first piece is actually called “A Mind of Winter” (the poem it is based on is called the Snowman, I think).

My goal is to witness the music – to be present in every note and word and phrase – not only my own but those of my colleagues onstage. I find this by deeply listening and by trying not to expect a certain sound but to let it come to me as fresh as the first time I heard it. I love rehearsing, as I said earlier, it moves me to be a part of the large group of musicians who are all working on the same goal. In performance, the emotions are heightened, and time and space feel different. There are many more distractions, and it takes strong focus to stay right where I need to be. I use various methods for this – some drawn from sports psychology – to bring my focus into a very small place and expand it when necessary. The act of performing requires one to be very open, and I am careful to look after myself as best I can in the days and hours leading up to a performance so that my voice, mind and heart can be at their best.

2-As far as your personal politics vis a vis works such as Written on Skin or let me tell you, can modern music lead to a different way of seeing tragedy and violence in theatre & story-telling?

Barbara Hannigan (photo: Elmer de Haas)

Barbara Hannigan (photo: Elmer de Haas)

Of course. But I would say, all art, all music. Again, to the idea of witnessing, I become the characters in both pieces but I, along with the orchestra and the audience, am also witnessing their experience at the moment of performance. I see it as a kind of ritual. I feel this is all music I perform, but some roles, like Lulu, have become very powerful leaders in this way of thinking. I was Lulu, she was also me, we were both Berg, and she was also a kind of mirror for the other characters of the piece. And then, ultimately, a mirror for society. I take characters who may have traumatic experiences, and I give them voice, strength, a fresh perspective. I incorporate them. I seem to have been dealing a lot with famous women: Ophelia, Eurydice, Lulu – they appear through different composers in different ways. And they influence one another. Lulu most of all, has permeated every other character I sing. Or at least, she tries!

3-Please talk about reconciling the different parts of your life, as a singer & conductor, a performer often in the forefront of commissions of new work.

I don’t feel the need to reconcile anything. It is just what it is. I am a musician, and whether I am leading an orchestra, singing a phrase, commissioning new works – I am always the same musician. Like a tree with branches reaching in different directions, I suppose.

I have a very busy schedule, this is part of my nature and has been so since childhood.

Sometimes it is too much and I realize I’ve spread myself too thin, but most of the time it feels just right. I have some wonderful opera productions coming up – my first Pelleas et Melisande, a new Lulu production, revisiting Written on Skin in New York and London, La Voix Humaine in Paris. But also new creations, including Ophelia (Brett Dean), Alice in Wonderland (Gerald Barry), and Eurydice (Salvatore Sciarrino) in the coming time. I also remain loyal to my repertoire, programming pieces like let me tell you and Dutilleux’ Correspondances as much as possible, also bringing works by other composers including Vivier and Grisey to a wider audience. The conducting is a path I will continue to explore, and I try to invest as much as I can in it, while keeping my singing in shape. Eventually, I expect I will only conduct, but that won’t be for quite a while…for now, I make special programmes, and concert by concert, add one or two new pieces. I love my job, whatever it is!

4-Please put your feelings about new opera and new music into context for us.

I have always been passionate about new music. I decided very early on that this would be my path, and though perhaps the venues have gotten bigger, my goals remain the same: to perform the music I love, to the best of my ability. I do not feel allegiance to one particular branch of modern music, or of any style of music, in fact. But I connect to some composers more than others, and I think the reason is how I feel their connection to their own true voice. Whether it is Boulez or Dutilleux, Ligeti or Benjamin, Abrahamsen or Vivier…I could go on and on…these individuals have an emotional/intellectual core which touches me and makes me want to sing. I do not prefer opera over concert performances: both contain a dramatic element for me, although somehow the concert stage is more direct and also more vulnerable, because it lacks the lights, makeup, and sets which can create a space between performers and audience. Opera feels (most of the time) easier for me, because there is so much more rehearsal time. For an opera production we usually have 5-7 weeks of rehearsal. For a concert – 3 or 4 days at most!

5-Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

Conductor and pianist Reinbert de Leeuw

The conductor, pianist and composer Reinbert de Leeuw has been a great mentor for me, ever since we started working together in the late 1990s, and I still go to him when I feel I may be losing my “core focus” – when things may get too hectic and I forget what is most important. I’ll call him (in Amsterdam) and if possible, drop by his house, and we’ll talk, about nothing in particular…could be a violin bowing in a Messiaen piece, could be a problem I’m having with a Mozart role I’m singing, or he will share his latest discoveries in an old or new piece of music. But the way he speaks of music, the intensity and the dedication and the respect, and his feeling for space and time…all those things bring me back to where I need to be. And so I leave his perpetually smoky house feeling like I’ve filled my artistic lungs with the purest oxygen.


Barbara Hannigan is coming to Toronto for the New Creations Festival. For further information visit the TSO’s website.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, Iestyn Davies will be unable to appear as scheduled. Fortunately, countertenor Bernhard Landauer, who is just concluding a run of Written on Skin with the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, will be able to join the cast in Toronto.

A Mind of Winter
Sat, February 28 at 8:00pm – Masterworks Series
The opening concert of the New Creations Festival showcases intriguing music by some of today’s most engaging composers: George Benjamin’s evocative setting for soprano of the poem The Snowman by Wallace Stevens; a new Violin Concerto by Vivian Fung that the TSO commissioned for Concertmaster Jonathan Crow; and a dynamic work by Japanese composer Dai Fujikura that was inspired by the celebrated music education-programme, El Sistema.
Dai Fujikura: Tocar y Luchar (Canadian Première)
George Benjamin: A Mind of Winter (Canadian Première)
Vivian Fung: Violin Concerto No. 2 “Of Snow and Ice” (World Première/TSO Commission)
Dutilleux: Métaboles
Peter Oundjian, conductor and host
George Benjamin, conductor
Barbara Hannigan, soprano
Jonathan Crow, violin
Pre-concert Performance in the Lobby at 7:15pm
Intermission Chat in the Lobby
Post-concert Party in the Lobby
TICKETS: $33—$145

let me tell you
Wed, March 4 at 8:00pm – Masterworks Series
The second concert of the New Creations Festival features the fascinating equal partnership of piano and orchestra in George Benjamin’s Duet, and Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle that treats the words of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in striking, novel ways.
Chris Paul Harman: Lieder und Arien (World Première/TSO Commission)
George Benjamin: Duet for Piano and Orchestra (Canadian Première)
Hans Abrahamsen: let me tell you (North American Première)
Peter Oundjian, conductor and host
George Benjamin, conductor
Barbara Hannigan, soprano
Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, piano
Pre-concert Performance in the Lobby at 7:15pm
Intermission Chat in the Lobby
Post-concert Party in the Lobby
TICKETS: $33—$145

Written on Skin
Sat, March 7 at 7:30pm – Casual Series
The New Creations Festival concludes with George Benjamin’s widely lauded 2012 opera. It tells a compelling story of lust and murder set in Medieval France. This authoritative performance is conducted by the composer and features members of the première cast.
George Benjamin: Written on Skin (opera-in-concert in English with SURTITLES™)
(Canadian Première)
George Benjamin, conductor
Barbara Hannigan, soprano
Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano
Bernhard Landauer, countertenor
Isaiah Bell, tenor
Christopher Purves, baritone
Pre-concert Performance in the Lobby at 6:45pm
Post-concert On-stage Chat with the composer and cast
Post-concert Party in the Lobby

This entry was posted in Interviews, Music and musicology, Opera. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to 10 Questions for Barbara Hannigan

  1. Thank you for the share… I really enjoyed so very different..
    Wishing you a Peaceful weekend

    • barczablog says:

      Thank you Sue! when i shared this to Facebook i had to admit how lucky i am, how privileged to get to talk to people like Barbara, who is herself taken by her portrayals to different places. As long ago as the early 19th Century, the poet Shelley spoke of the moral force that poetry (and all arts) have to expand our imaginations, to help us identify with those who we would never encounter. There’s something comparable at work here.

  2. Pingback: Barbara Hannigan “dissolved in swirling sound… a spark of the holy fire” | barczablog

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