‘I serve the music, not the audience’
Star soprano, conductor and composers’ muse – is there anything Barbara Hannigan can’t do, asks Ben Lawrence ‘As a professional singer, if you’re 80 per cent OK, you’ve got to go out there’
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 spoonfeed them.”
Hannigan has an intense physicality which she used to unforgettable effect while playing Ophelia, a performance that ended in her near-naked 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 supplication. 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
‘ I am not part of any package deal’: Barbara Hannigan has found success on her own terms; left, as Ophelia at Glyndebourne