‘I serve the music, not the audience’
Barbara Hannigan has a rare gift for drawing emotion
Barbara Hannigan loves to die on stage. “I like that journey from life to death,” says the Canadian soprano who has embraced her fate recently as Mélisande on tour, as Ophelia in Brett Dean’s Hamlet at Glyndebourne and as Agnès in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House. “Often the women I play choose their time to go; they survive until they decide not to. They are making their own choices.”
One of the 46 year-old’s gifts as an opera singer is her ability to draw the audience into the fragile emotional state of her characters. “You don’t need to go out and serve the audience, you’ve got to serve the music,” she tells me over lunch at the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum, Germany, where she will perform in Pelléas et Mélisande later that day. “Invite them to witness the intimacy of the storytelling, rather than spoon-feed them.”
Hannigan has an intense physicality which she used to unforgettable effect while playing Ophelia, a performance that ended in her nearnaked demise. “When they told me on the first day of rehearsal that I would be [performing] in my underwear, I said: ‘Well, at least can I pick them myself? I am not getting any younger, I am heading towards 50 …’ But you know,” she laughs, “the problem is I will join Hamlet when it goes to another location, and that means I have to stay in shape for another four years. I just want to let go!”
She is good fun, with a faintly ironic sense of humour, but I don’t imagine she finds it easy to let go. Her latest project, an album titled Crazy Girl Crazy, combines new recordings of Berg’s Lulu (a pivotal role in Hannigan’s career), with Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Suite and Berio’s Sequenza III. All serve as reflections on the character of Lulu — society wife, poisoner and prostitute — at various stages of her life. The album cover shows Hannigan as the tragic heroine, dressed sleekly in black and dancing with gay abandon on a restaurant table as five men raise their heads in supplica- tion. There is also an accompanying DVD of rehearsals, directed by Mathieu Amalric, the French actor and film-maker with whom Hannigan is in a relationship.
“Lulu is so strong, so active in her destiny,” she says. “Even though she dies at the hand of Jack the Ripper, I think it is suicide. He is killing her but doing it on her authority.”
Hannigan has made a career from doing things “on her authority”. She has never been at the mercy of opera houses, but often cast at the request of composers, directors and conductors who have wanted to work with her. “I am not part of any package deal,” she says crisply.
This freedom is combined with an unassailable work ethic which she traces back to her childhood in the Gold Rush town of Waverley, Nova Scotia. “I’ve always had this pace, since I was a kid. I have a twin brother and a sister who’s 14 months older than me — so my mother had to be very organised. She used to put schedules on the fridge down to the last second: ‘Barbara, Brian and Sheila — brush your teeth/practise the piano/eat your breakfast.’ Everything was tick, tick, tick, from the moment we woke up to the moment we went to bed.”
This might sound like pushy parenting, but Hannigan says that her drive came from within. “I read a study recently about boy-girl twins and it showed that the girl twin has a higher level of hormones and exhibits masculine traits such as assertiveness when she is young. When I read that report, it was as if I was looking at myself. I was always the dominant twin.”
Hannigan pushes herself to the limit. Most singers would be content as the muse for today’s great modernist composers — she has appeared in more than 80 world premieres — but a few years ago, she decided to pursue a parallel career as a conductor, making her debut at the Châtelet in Paris with Stravinsky’s Renard and Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre. This career shift has not come without some public spats. She fell out with her teacher, Jorma Panula, after he commented in 2014 that female conductors were unnecessary and that they should limit their repertoire to “feminine” music such as Débussy or Ravel. And at this year’s Lucerne Festival, she openly mocked an illustration to mark its endorsement of female conductors, which showed a hand holding a baton — sporting painted nails and a bracelet.
She laughs at the gesture now. “They had gone out of their way to make her overly feminine and I thought it just wasn’t necessary. It was a gender-based definition of music and you just can’t do that. It’s like saying that the cello is male or female.”
Nevertheless, I wonder whether the orchestras she conducts expect her to be a bit, well, nurturing. “I think they expect me to be kind of crazy after seeing all the strange things that I’ve done. I do like to have serious fun, to use humour to become focused and to awaken intensity through wit.”
Working with Hannigan must keep you on your toes. Recently, she formed Equilibrium, a mentor scheme for professional singers. “I said: ‘Don’t even apply if you don’t know what sort of an artist I am, because I am a weirdo. My demands of myself are high and I expect the same of you.’” She received 350 applications from 39 countries, heard 120 of them sing and finally chose 18 who will work with her.
Hannigan’s relentless self-criticism does occasionally get the better of her. Early in her career, she got so nervous during an audition for the St Matthew Passion that she almost passed out. I ask her now whether this was due to a fear of failure. “It wasn’t about failure,” she says carefully. “I have trained out the negative in my brain. It’s about performance anxiety. That has changed a little bit, and I am not sure why, but I don’t get as nervous as I used to. Although I had to memorise one performance recently and I was terrified. Mathieu was laughing at me. He never usually sees me in that state.”
You could never imagine Hannigan pulling out of a performance. She has a “show must go on” mentality and speaks laconically about those world-famous divas — of both genders — who are prone to lastminute cancellations. “As a professional, if you’re 80 per cent OK, you’ve got to go out there. There will always be a reason why you don’t feel 100 per cent.”
The peripatetic whirlwind of Hannigan’s life may have come at a personal cost — her marriage to Dutch theatre director Gijs de Lange ended in 2015 — but she appears too focused on the multiple strands of her professional life to dwell on it. She recently bought an apartment in Paris. “I moved in in February and I have spent six nights there. I have unpacked half of the boxes — I unpacked my music and my kitchen and then I felt at home.”
Hannigan’s schedule makes an imminent return to Paris unlikely. Among her many engagements over the next year or so is the part of the she-wolf, Isabella of France, in George Benjamin’s eagerly awaited Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House in May next year. “George told me my character was intelligent, beautiful and very devious. I don’t think I get to die in this one, although I believe I play a part in the deaths of other people.”
Tonight, though, she will die one more time as Mélisande. “In this production, I am lying dead on a table for a good seven minutes. I am just lying there thinking: ‘Wow, I don’t have to do anything right now.’” For a moment, this indomitable spirit appears almost wistful. “At the end of a long day, that’s rather nice.”
Often the women I play choose their time to go; they survive until they decide not to. They are making their own choices.” Barbara Hannigan,
Kim Begley as Polonius and Barbara Hannigan as Ophelia in Glyndebourne’s production of Brett Dean’s Hamlet.