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Risk Management

SYLVIA L'ÉCUYER speaks with fearless Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, the enemy of traditional anything.

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Photo: Elmer de Haas
© Elmer de Haas 2014
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Barbara Hannigan in George Benjamin's Written on Skin
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL 2014
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As Lulu at the Monnaie in 2012
© Bernd Uhlig/La Monnaie 2014

Meeting with OPERA NEWS on a sunny August afternoon in Lucerne, while the Lucerne Festival is in full swing, Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan is so relaxed and unassuming it's hard to believe that just last night she was burning up the stage of the Culture and Congress Center (KKL) in Berg's Three Scenes from Wozzeck. This concert, with the Berlin Philharmonic under conductor Simon Rattle, was one of the highlights of the seventy-fifth anniversary of this stellar month-long musical feast. Closing the Festival on September 15, Intendant Michael Haefliger announced the selection of the two artistes étoiles for 2014 — Hannigan and violinist Midori. Hannigan will return to Lucerne next summer to perform a newly commissioned work for soprano and orchestra by award-winning South Korean composer Unsuk Chin and will appear as soloist in other orchestral projects, as well. According to Mark Sattler, head of new-music programming at the Festival, the soprano was chosen as artiste étoile not only for her artistry but for her knack for creative thinking.

OPERA NEWS: I couldn't help noticing that after living in Europe for fifteen years, you still insist on being referred to as a Canadian artist. Is being Canadian important in your career, and in your life?

BARBARA HANNIGAN: It is for both. I come from Waverley, Nova Scotia, a little village outside of Halifax. There was a lot of music in our home, in our school, in our community, but it was not sophisticated music, and I think that was very good for me. When I was seventeen, I moved to Toronto, and I was really curious about everything, discovering Mahler and Bruckner at the same time I was discovering Ligeti and Boulez. That gave me a kind of freedom as a listener, as a performer, as a musician. I had no prejudices against any style of music.

I find it funny to say, but it is absolutely true — I am very proud to be Canadian because of the people, the mentality, the feeling of community. I carry this with me everywhere I go. As I get older, more and more I feel a need to go home. I bought land in Nova Scotia, and I am planning to build a house there — a place where I can catch my breath — and work. That is really where my roots are.

ON: Your voice teacher at the University of Toronto was Mary Morrison, and you have said she meant a lot to you.

BH: She still does! I talk to her on the phone, I literally think about her every day because of the grounding she gave me as a musician and as a person in my formative years. The most important thing she ever said to me, and she said it several times when I was seventeen, eighteen or nineteen, was "Oh! I'm so proud of you, because you took risks." She did not say, "I am proud of you because you hit this high note perfectly" or "because you nailed this rhythm." 

ON: And you continue to take risks — playing Lulu like a ballerina, en pointe, and dedicating yourself to contemporary repertoire. 

BH: This less-traveled road seemed the safest path to me. Coming from a small place, I was intimidated by tradition, so I felt that I could build up my confidence by taking my own path. I knew that my musicianship, my ear, my sense of rhythm were very strong. From an early age I had an affinity, a kind of innate understanding of contemporary repertoire. Now, when I come back to more traditional repertoire — and I even hate to say the word "tradition," because I don't like the idea of tradition — I feel the same confidence again. I use the score, not "tradition," as the ultimate authority when performing Mozart, Handel and Bach, just as I do with modern music. I do have an awareness of performance practice, but I also know that every living composer I have ever worked with has constantly referred me back to the score.

ON: How do you work with living composers such as George Benjamin, who wrote Agnès in Written on Skin especially for you? 

BH: Some composers like to have a lot of contact beforehand and then no contact while they are composing. That's the case with George. So we get a more or less finished product and only minor adjustments to do in rehearsal. Other composers call me every couple of weeks, or agree to make extensive changes when we have a draft version of the score. After eighty world premieres, I have established a relationship of trust with composers. They know that they are number one for me. It's not what the conductor wants, not what the orchestra is pushing to do, but what they want. 

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As Agnès to Christopher Purves's Protector in Written on Skin in London in 2013
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL 2014

ON: You have a stage presence that brings your characters to life even in a concert setting. But how do you manage to make the audience relate to music that is often so complicated? 

BH: I trust the audience a lot. Everyone who is sitting there listening has a rich and complicated inner life. When I am performing Marie, or Lulu, or Agnès in Written on Skin, I am trying to get into a concentrated, deep inner place in that character. It is just like in singing. You have this very small kernel, which is the initiation of tone, and it can expand anywhere. It is the same thing with a character. When I deeply feel the center, the core, the soul of that person, I can expand from that, and the audience is drawn into that kind of concentration. They are fascinated by it. I know it, I am sure of it, and that is all I need to do — to be very focused. 

ON: You have said you are Lulu, and that Agnès is not a stereotype but a real woman, flesh and blood. Do you see Wozzeck's Marie the same way?

BH: Oh yes! In Salzburg recently, thinking about Marie, I saw some young women at a bus stop, and I thought, "That could be Marie, and that could also be Marie." They were all a little bit small, a little bit lost, but there was a kind of wiry strength in them, and that's what I see in Marie. She is vulnerable and strong at the same time. There is a wounded animal inside her. Several years ago, Simon Rattle called me on the phone and said he wanted to do the Wozzeck fragments in Berlin with me. And I said, "Why do you want me? Don't you want a more traditional Marie, a meatier sound?" "No, I want your color," he said, "I want your personality, and besides, you are so wonderful at going crazy." [Laughs

I had in my head to do the fragments but never sing the role onstage. It would be too big for my voice. There is that section with the Drum Major, where I would get covered. But then I thought, "You know what? Everyone gets covered in that section." Once I started to sing Marie, I got a lot of favorable comments, and I started to think that I might actually sing it on the opera stage, not next year but in a few years. I really do feel an emotional affinity for the character, and a great love for singing the music, as well.

ON: Which other characters attract you?

BH: Well, Mélisande is planned for 2016, and I will sing my first Donna Anna in the autumn of 2014. This is a role I have been asked to sing since I was twenty-three, and I have always said no. Finally the chance came up to do it with extraordinary director Krzysztof Warlikowski, who staged Lulu, and conductor Ludovic Morlot. Again, it's another role that for some reason has been cast for meatier voices, and I am interested in what my more slender quality of voice can bring out in the character. I have Poulenc's La Voix Humaine coming up in Paris in a couple of years and quite a few world premieres — concert pieces with an operatic, let's say a 'theatrical' quality. Gerald Barry is writing Alice in Wonderland for me. I also have a piece on the subject of Eurydice by Salvatore Sciarrino coming up, and a big Ophelia piece with the Berlin Philharmonic that I commissioned from the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen.

ON: You commissioned it?

BH: Yes. Well, I basically went to the Berlin Phil and said, "This is the idea, would you like to do the world premiere?" And they said yes! It is a thirty-minute piece, and we will premiere it in December. 

ON: You recently received a Gramophone Magazine Award for Best Contemporary Recording for Dutilleux's Correspondances. This piece has been in your repertoire for quite a few years.

BH: I went to Dutilleux ten years ago, before I sang Correspondances…. It's difficult to talk about him. [Her voice breaks.] He made me find a new sound in the lower range of my voice, added a movement to the piece for me and even penned a new ending on my score. I have sung this piece over thirty times now with different orchestras and conductors, who usually have never performed it before, so I watch over and over as the conductor and the orchestra build it up from scratch. To be honest, I probably know better than anyone on the stage where we are going to have problems, and it is nice to be able to help. 

ON: Is that why you started conducting?

BH: It wasn't even my idea! It was René Bosc, who used to run the Présences Festival at Radio France. He saw over a period of several years how I would take the lead in rehearsals and suggested that I conduct Stravinsky's Renard at the Châtelet in Paris. I didn't think that this would be a career move for me, but literally the morning after, opportunities started to arise for more conducting engagements. I find it a very rewarding new path for me as a musician. I still like very much to work with conductors, but I also like to have engagements where it is just me and the orchestra. At this point it is good to have a balance between concert work, opera and conducting or singing/conducting engagements. As time goes by, I will probably conduct more.

ON: We don't see you on opera stages in North America. Why?

BH: I don't know. I suppose I have studied and lived in Europe since 1995, and most of the colleagues, directors and companies I work with are European-based. I have never been location-driven, I have always been repertoire-driven. Given the right repertoire, the right conductor, the right director, I could go anywhere.

SYLVIA L'ÉCUYER is a musicologist and broadcaster, host and producer of Radio-Canada's Espace.mu/placealopera.

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