‘I serve the mu­sic, not the au­di­ence’

Bar­bara Han­ni­gan has a rare gift for draw­ing emo­tion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFESTYLE - By BEN LAWRENCE

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,

ROB­BIE JACK / CORBIS VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Kim Be­g­ley as Polo­nius and Bar­bara Han­ni­gan as Ophe­lia in Glyn­de­bourne’s pro­duc­tion of Brett Dean’s Ham­let.

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