© Marco Borggreve
Barbara Hannigan is the undisputed prima donna of modern music. Her musicianship commands great respect, her technique is flawless, and her possibilities (think of those extreme high notes) are almost endless.
On a beautiful and sunny late afternoon end of September 2011 we meet for the first time. Contrary to my habit I am five minutes late, but I do have an excuse. My first question, even before I start making apologies, might be a little odd, but she responds with laughter. “Barbara, do you love cats?”
Yes, she loves cats. Living on the road, unfortunately, makes it impossible for her to have one. Her beautiful eyes sparkle, but I can see question marks forming in them as well.
© Barbara Hannigan website
I explain to her right before I wanted to leave the house, my black monster jumped on my desk, shoving all sorts of things off of it, including my phone and my voice recorder. That breaks the ice, and our meeting turns into a relaxed and cosy afternoon.
A week or so later, we meet again. This time I do carry my notebook and pen, and notes are written down.
with Pierre Boulez © Barbara Hannigan Website
After she sang Boulez’s Pli selon pli in London, the British critic Ivan Hewett (The Telegraph) wrote: ,,She does the kind of high-wire acrobatics with her voice that very few singers can manage, and she does it with a bravura that stops you dead in your tracks. All this is joined to a startling stage presence and cool blonde beauty that contrasts interestingly with the heat in her voice.”
Hannigan in Pli selon pli in Amsterdam:
According to Hewett she could have had a big career as a queen of coloratura, but instead Hannigan decided to specialize in contemporary music.
© Elmer de Haas
“I chose modern music all by myself,” Hannigan says. “I found it thrilling. It is exciting to collaborate with composers, although I do not always enjoy everything I have to sing.
The ‘non vibrato,’ for example, is absolute horror to me. It goes against the natural way of singing. Vibrato is the soul of singing, it transmits emotions. I did it on special request of a composer (no, no names), but without pleasure. ” She adds decidedly: ,,It takes away the personality of the voice.”
She thinks it is nonsense modern music should be sung differently from the classics. “Modern music, in fact, is a form of belcanto. Without technique it is impossible to do. It is my repertoire, and it is indeed hard, but it gives me a sense of intense gratification.”
“Of course I am careful. But as a rule I sing everything as if it were Mozart. I do need to protect my high notes, though. So if I sing Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol, for example, I make sure I combine it with less extreme pieces. ” Laughing: “One day, I would not mind singing Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, and if Juan Diego Flórez could be my partner….
Hannigan sings Le Rossignol:
© Marco Borggreve
She continues in a serious mood: “I would love to do so many more things! I am always hungry, I want so much, but I cannot accept everything people offer me. I used to be known as a singer who could be easily booked , but at the moment I am booked for quite a few years ahead. I sing fifty or sixty performances a year. In the last season I also conducted five or six concerts.”
Conducting is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of a soprano. “It was pointed out to me that when I sing my body language resembles conducting. In addition, I have always thought about how an orchestra should sound, also while I sing. So at a certain moment I started to take lessons, with several dear colleagues. It was all very private, so I cannot give any names.”
Hannigan conducts and sings Gershwin:
Actually, Hannigan does do many more things. At the moment she dances a lot. And like everything she does, she does it at a high level. With Sasha Waltz, with whom she did a few important projects in the past (Matsukaze by Toshio Hosokawa, for example), she will sing and dance Dusapin’s Passion. Hannigan has already performed this dance-opera several times. In 2010 she appeared in it at the Holland festival in Amsterdam, in Audi’s “mise en space.”
“It was the first time I worked with Audi, and I have fond memories of it. Imagine the entire production being done in just two days! I have worked on it with a lot of pleasure. But now I really look forward to the Sascha Waltz production. Very exciting, also because this time I really get to dance.”
Her favorite composer? “Ligeti! I admire him tremendously. His music truly brings out everything I have in me!”
György Ligeti Mysteries of the Macabre 2015 Barbara Hannigan:
BARBARA IN PRIVATE
© Barbara Hannigan website
In what sort of a family was she raised? “My family was certainly musical, but on an amateur level. My sister still plays the cello, and I had to choose at age seventeen between the piano, hobo or singing. I chose singing.”
She started her studies in Toronto and later went to London. “In 1995 I decided to move to The Hague. I had heard a lot about an outstanding teacher there. I immediately felt at home, also because of the musical climate, so I stayed.”
“Sometimes I miss my country and my family very much. I hardly ever see them. Often a year goes by before I get a chance to see them. Skype helps, but it is a surrogate.”
Does she have any time left for hobbies? “I love to cook. That is also the reason I always rent an apartment, even if it is only for a couple of days. I always bring my own knives. And my herbs. At home I always cook, although my husband is quite good at it also. But I am better, so he gets to clean up, which he happily does. Wonderful, but difficult when I am on my own, because then I have to do everything myself. The dishes as well, which I am not used to.
GEORGE BENJAMIN AND WRITTEN ON SKIN
withe George Benjamin in Aix-en-Provence © Barbara Hannigan website
Barbara Hannigan is the muse of many contemporary composers, including George Benjamin. He composed Written on Skin with her voice in mind. It was clear from the beginning she should sing Agnes. In July 2012 Hannigan sang the world premiere of Written on Skin.
During the preparations and in between the performances Hannigan kept me informed by an “e-mail diary.”
“George Benjamin and I met three years ago in his house. I was supposed to show him the possibilities of my instrument. We played a little composer-singer game without words, “composing” together. It gave me the opportunity to show him how my voice moves most comfortably.”
The first rehearsals took place in London, after which we moved to Aix-en-Provence, where the word premiere would be. The whole “making of” process was quite intense. My role is very demanding. Looking at the score you might think: finally a composer who does not take advantage of Barbara Hannigan’s high notes, or make her into a stratospheric trapeze artist. But the music still is extremely demanding.
The vocal lines lie very high and are long, spread out and loud. Rather difficult for the quick moving core of my voice. I had to approach the part very carefully. Particularly from the moment on when the tension in the opera slowly starts to increase, scene by scene, until the final climax, when I sing my big aria.
A few months before I received the score George changed a few notes for me – something he has sworn never to do for anybody! He rewrote several passages in my score by hand, which has helped me enormously.”
“I really think my role is phenomenally good. It feels like a fantastic preamble and the greatest preparation for Lulu, who I will sing in October for the first time. Agnes ends were Lulu begins. A sexually liberated woman with no problems with herself. A gift of a role!
One of the highlights for me was the “Sitzprobe” with the orchestra. It was the first time George heard his entire piece, with orchestra and singers. It was two weeks before opening night and we were all very nervous. But the entire cast stood behind him and his fabulous score. It was a very moving and emotional day.
All my colleagues (not only the singers, but the extras as well) were fantastic and we all got along marvelously. George had composed the music specifically for each one of us. A lot was demanded from us, not only vocally, but dramatically as well, but we all supported each other.”
“I think the production is unequalled and I adore Katie Mitchell, the director. It was the first time I worked with her. She pays a lot of attention to details, providing a lot of background information to the artists on stage. The public never notices that, but it had a tremendous influence on our performance. Working with Katie was a sensation, and I hope one day she will direct me in Lulu. “
“I loved the sensual scenes which were combined with violent ones. We had a special “fight director” who taught us to act as realistically as possible without hurting each other. I believe that was quite unique for an opera production. You also need a lot of trust in your colleagues.
I have to say: Agnes is a dream role, and I thought it was fantastic I got the chance to play her. All the reviews were full of praise, and the public was enthusiastic as well. It really was a dream.”
“I had been in Aix-en-Provence before, in 2008, for the first version of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion. That performance was staged by Giuseppe Frigeni. In 2010 Sasha Waltz directed it. With her production we opened the season of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées.“
In 2008 we performed in the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume – small and very intimate. Very beautiful too. Because of the dimensions it is rather limited in its possibilities, though. For Written on Skin we were programmed in the biggest theatre of the festival, the Grand Théâtre de Provence. Very unusual for a modern, ‘fresh from the pen’-opera. Opening night, as you know, was a huge success, and all the subsequent performances were sold out.
I love the city. Aix is fabulous and so easy-going. The city encourages you to relax, even while you are hard at work. The festival is truly special. No highbrow business like you see at some other festivals. There is a true mix of different styles and types of performances. Symphonic music as well as chamber music.
They also have a fabulous young artists program, and I truly appreciate their efforts to get rid of the elitist stamp art has, particularly opera. Art truly can be real, and it can appeal to anyone.
I think Katie Mitchell and her team have tried with Written on skin to not only avoid stock opera gestures, but also to create something that actually did happen and that touches you. Something many of us have experienced personally, certainly women.”
Trailer of the Aix production:
English translation Remko Jas
More Barbara Hannigan:
BARBARA HANNIGAN betovert in liederen van HENRI DUTILLEUX. Concertgebouw Amsterdam, oktober 2013
LULU van Krzysztof Warlikowski. Brussel 2012
PLI SELON PLI. Amsterdam 2011
LET ME TELL YOU ZaterdagMatinee
Satie, Hannigan en de Leeuw
© Simon Fowler /Decca
Joseph, finalmente mio!
An unconventional opening of an interview, perhaps, but I had good reasons for it. Our Amsterdam appointment was cancelled twice, leaving Facebook and Skype the only remaining option. Even that way, it took me quite a while to finally get hold of him.
© Simon Fowler/Decca
Him being Joseph Calleja, one of the famous tenors of his generation, with a busy current schedule and an even busier future. He was born in Malta, and had turned thirty-five just before our interview in the last week of January 2013.
“January is an outstanding month for tenors,” he laughed. “Mario Lanza, Domingo, my teacher, me…. There must be something special in the January air.”
To settle all disputes: his name is pronounced ‘Kaleja.’ Not the Spanish way, or the Italian or Portuguese way. Well, that is easy for the Dutch to get right then, I say, which makes him laugh again.
Calleja has close ties to the Netherlands. After all, his international career started in this country. At age nineteen (sic!) he sang Leicester in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda for the Nederlandse Reisopera. Quite a feat, with which he impressed a lot of people. His voice was very light and sweet at that time; his high notes supple and pure, almost like Tagliavini.
Calleja as Leicester in Bergamo in 2001:
In 2004, at the age of twenty-six he made his debut with the Dutch National Opera as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. He had already sung the part before, in 2001, at an open air performance in the port of Rotterdam.
He still has a lot of friends from his Dutch period, and even remembers a sentence in Dutch: “eet mijn konijn niet op” (Do not eat my rabbit),
He laughs heartily at this. The anecdote is well known in the meantime, but he does not mind repeating it once more. He was seeing a Dutch girl at the time. When he visited her, he told her little sister that it was a Maltese custom to eat a lot of rabbit. The little girl grabbed her rabbit in shock, exclaiming ” eet mijn konijn niet op!” He has always remembered the phrase since.
Joseph Calleja sings “To the canals of Amsterdam I have pledged my whole heart” at the 2013 rendition of the Grachtenfestival (Canal Festival) accompanied by the Royal Concertgebouworchestra directed by Antonio Pappano:
Nine years ago you told me that of all current tenors the voice of Pavarotti felt closest to yours. You said: “If I were to die tomorrow, and could listen to one voice, the final voice of my life, that would be Pavarotti. He is my biggest favourite, my true idol. There have been, and there are, other big and beautiful voices, but Pavarotti remains number one for me.” Do you still feel the same?
“Yes, I do, in fact, although I have to admit I admire Jussi Björling more and more every time I listen to him. It is very well possible this has something to do with how my own voice develops.”
Your voice is often compared to that of great singers of the past In addition your career develops in an astonishingly rapid tempo. How do you feel about that yourself?
“It is true. It can be a little scary at times, everything happens so fast, which can be a burden. The audience expects you to be in top form every evening, which is impossible because the human voice is no violin. But on the other hand I would never want to miss all these fantastic experiences.”
I was speaking to Marilyn Horne a while back. She encouraged young singers to take their time, and never to rush things.
“I know, but this so difficult nowadays! I believe you do have to rush, but in a clever way. Meaning to study like crazy and work hard, but to be cautious in choosing your repertoire at the same time.”
Coming up the next four months are several radically different roles: Tebaldo in I Capuletti e i Montecchi in Munich, Rodolfo in La Bohème in Chicago, Gustavo in Un Ballo in Maschera in Frankfurt and Nadir in the Pearl Fishers in Berlin. Not to mention the concert performances of Simon Boccanegra and the Verdi Requiem. How does he switch from the lyrical Nadir to Gustavo who is definitely more dramatical?
As Gustavo in Ballo in Maschera at ROH © Catherine Ashmore
“I do not believe you need to sing Gustavo in Ballo differently than Duca in Rigoletto or Manrico in Trovatore. All those roles were written for the same type of tenor. True, the orchestras were smaller then, and the tuning was lower. That does put extra pressure on a tenor nowadays. You have to sing higher and louder than intended. Every singer goes his own path, and you make mistakes on the way, but it is possible to learn from those mistakes.”
“Certainly, I made some mistakes myself. My first La Bohème came too soon, and I have also sung a few other roles too early. But like I said, you learn from that. What helps are a good, solid technique, and good advice.”
Unlike many of his colleagues you don’t mind modern stagings.
“Respect is all I demand. I do my job, a director hopefully does his. I need to trust the director, believe that he knows what he does, and why he is doing it. I leave judging a director to the audience and the critics. Singers are not supposed to do that. We do not have to agree on everything, but we do need to respect each other.”
What if a director wants to put you on stage naked? As a singer you are already vulnerable fully dressed! Would you go that far?
“I would not know, honestly. Luckily nobody has ever asked me to strip, although I did sing a Duca in my boxer shorts once.”
Kidding aside: “if you only did the things you liked, you would be out of work ten out of twelve months. So I only say no when something can harm my voice.”
In January and February 2013 Calleja toured Europe with the program of his CD Be my love – A Tribute to Mario Lanza. Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras; almost all tenors of hat generation idolized Mario Lanza and his movies. But you were not even born yet when he died. How does someone of your age got to know him?
“When I was young I played in a rock band. My uncle felt I had to listen to some good music, so he made me watch all these Lanza movies. That is how my love for opera started. What a fabulous singer! On his own, he had the charisma of four or five tenors. I also have all his CD’s. And I do not care one bit he sang with a microphone.”
“I have nothing against crossovers, especially not when done right. What does crossover even mean? For me it means having fun, making good music. I am not Mick Jagger or Robbie Williams. I am and will always remain an opera singer. But when done the way the three tenors did it, for example, I love it!”
“Why does an opera house have to be the only place where opera is sung? In the past men in Italy, and in Malta too, used to bring serenades by singing opera arias. The women stood in their open windows, like in a opera box. That is the way my teacher met his wife. Were not opera singers hundred years ago the pop singers of now? Well, on Malta they certainly were!”
I tell him I dreamt the night before our interview that we met in the lobby of a large hotel. He was sitting there with all his brothers and sisters and told me he would start to include folk songs in his recitals. Does he actually sing folk music?
“Our folk music is not really suitable for a trained tenor voice. Malta is like Sardinia: the music is raw. Italian music is part of our folk tradition. We grew up in the Italian tradition, the canzoni form part of our culture.”
© Simon Fowler/Decca
Which languages do you speak at home? English, Italian of Maltese?
“Hahaha. All of them, and all of them together at the same time!”
What do you find harder? Singing opera, or touring with a recital?
“Touring, without a doubt. You pack your luggage, unpack it, go on stage and sing, go to sleep and pack your stuff again. Sometimes you can rest for a few days in between concerts, but often you are supposed to give interviews, or show up for some event, or sing something. All of that is very tiring.”
Does that explain why I had to wait so long for my interview?
”Hahahahahaaa! I am not commenting on that!”
© Michele Agius
Why do you sing, actually?
“Why do I sing?” He ponders for a moment, apparently the question is harder than it seems. “I sing because I can express all great emotions through it: love, sadness, anger…. everything!”
English translation: Remko Jas
Kazushi Ono © Luca Trascinelli
Regelmatige bezoekers van de Munt in Brussel kunnen zich ongetwijfeld nog aan hem herinneren: Kazushi Ono, de charismatische dirigent die tussen 2002 en 2008 de baton zwaaide bij het Symfonieorkest van de Munt. Zijn directie werd over het algemeen zeer positief ontvangen, door zowel pers als publiek. Waarbij hij voornamelijk geroemd werd voor zijn interpretaties van eigentijdse werken, waaronder de wereldpremière van Julie van Philippe Boesmans.
In 2008 werd Ono benoemd als chef-dirigent van het Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Lyon, voor velen, voornamelijk moderne regie-adepten “the opera house to be”. Zijn komst had veel te maken met zijn maatschappelijke betrokkenheid. Uit een interview met Brusselnieuws.be: “Mijn vertrek naar Lyon is mee bepaald door wat ik daar met muziek kan bijdragen op sociaal vlak, in plaats van te wachten op volk in de concertzaal. Ik zal er onder meer musiceren voor kinderen en senioren die het hospitaal of de bejaardeninstelling niet meer uit kunnen.”
Maar ook voor Amsterdammers is Ono geen onbekende. In maart 2010 dirigeerde hij bij De Nationale Opera zijn eigen orkest in Émilie, een opera van Kaija Saariaho
Karita Mattila als Émilie © Jean-Pierre Maurin
Henri Dutilleux © ZaterdagMatinee
Als je zijn opnamenlijst bekijkt kan je niet anders dan concluderen dat de Japanse maestro moderne muziek een warm hart toedraagt. Mijn absolute favoriet is zijn opname van ’L’arbre des songes’ van Dutilleux en het vioolconcert Rafael d’Haene – met het orkest uit Lyon en Yossif Ivanov als solist.
Kiest hij het repertoire zelf? “Nee, absoluut niet”, vertelt hij. “Soms is het andersom en word ik gekozen. Het vioolconcert van Dutilleux had het orkest al veel eerder geprogrammeerd. Ik werd gewoon geëngageerd voor het project. En het kwam goed van pas, want zo debuteerde ik in 2010 in het Concertgebouw bij de ZaterdagMatinee. Jaap van Zweden die het concert met Leonidas Kavakos en het Radio Filharmonisch Orkest zou dirigeren werd ziek en mij werd gevraagd om hem te vervangen”.
Wat Ono er niet bij vertelt is dat hij het hele programma heeft overgenomen. Meer dan bewonderenswaardig, want naast Dutilleux’ en La mer van Debussy stonden ook Rudolf Escher en een nieuw werk van Bart Visman op de rol. Doe het hem na!
De uitzending is hier terug te beluisteren:
SJOSTAKOVITSJ EN BERLIOZ
Kazushi Ono © Stofleth
Op de dag dat we elkaar spreken is Ono in Lyon, waar hij de reeks voorstellingen van Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk van Sjostakovitsj dirigeert. In de recensies rept men van zijn analytische geest. Is het waar?
Even is het stil…
“Ik weet niet of het waar is. Ik denk eigenlijk van niet. Er is zoveel geweld in die muziek, die kan je niet analytisch benaderen. De muziek is prachtig mooi en zeer diepgaand, maar eigenlijk overemotioneel. Heftig, zeer heftig, met zo veel uitbarstingen. Het is soms amper mogelijk om het in de hand te kunnen houden!”
“Denk alleen maar aan het begin van de derde akte” zegt hij en neuriet de beginscéne even voor mij. “Katja en Sergej hebben net Zinovi vermoord, Sergej heeft hem in de kelder begraven en dan zingt Katerina: kus mij, kus mij? Alsof zij voor het eerst eindelijk echt gelukkig is?!”
Maar is zij het dan niet, vraag ik? Voor het eerst gelukkig? Eindelijk gebeurt er iets in haar leven, bovendien gelooft zij oprecht in de liefde van Sergej? Ono denkt even na:
“Ja”, zegt hij. “Maar de emoties zijn zo heftig. Ik was zeer verbaasd om te zien hoe het publiek er op reageerde. Er waren veel oude mensen in de zaal, maar ook veel jeugd.”
De productie werd gemaakt door de populaire regisseur Dmitri Tcherniakov. Hoe verliep de samenwerking?
“A…. goed, eigenlijk. Maar ik heb hem pas 10 dagen voor de première ontmoet, daarvóór werd het werk gedaan door zijn assistent”.
Wat doet u als u het totaal oneens bent met de ideeën van een regisseur?
“Voor mij staat de componist voorop. Hem draag ik op mijn schouders – bij wijze van spreken dan. Het is de componist die begrepen moet worden. Een dirigent moet volledig staan achter dat wat de componist heeft willen uitdrukken. Dienstbaar zijn.”
“Ik weet waarlijk niet wat ik zou doen als ik me niet kan vinden in de ideeën van een regisseur. Overleggen, denk ik. Overleg is een magisch woord. Zonder lukt het niet.”
Maar als het overleg mislukt? Kirill Petrenko verliet Bayreuth vanwege Frank Castorf…
“Ik weet het niet. Het is gelukkig nog nooit zo ver gekomen. We hebben altijd lange repetitieperiodes en ik ben er altijd vanaf het begin bij. Tenminste, dat probeer ik. Er is voldoende tijd om dingen uit te proberen en om te overleggen.”
“Dat ik er altijd vanaf de vroegste stadium bij wil zijn heeft ook met de monitors te maken die we tegenwoordig gebruiken. Vroeger waren ze analoog maar de tegenwoordige generatie is digitaal en dat is niet altijd een verbetering. Het beeld loopt namelijk altijd een seconde of zo op het geluid voor, een echte nachtmerrie”
Zullen we het over Roméo et Juliette van Berlioz hebben? Daarvoor komt u immers naar Amsterdam.
“Voor mij is Roméo et Juliette een oratorium. Van de drie solisten speelt eigenlijk alleen de bas (vader Laurence) een prominente rol. Zijn rol is het grootst. Maar het orkest heeft het belangrijkste aandeel. Naast het koor uiteraard. Maar het is het orkest dat de belangrijkste scènes op zich neemt.”
“Dat maakt Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette anders dan alle andere werken die op dit thema gebaseerd zijn. Anders dan in andere composities worden de belangrijkste dingen niet gezongen: de vijf belangrijkste Shakespeare-scènes liggen bij het orkest. Echt uitzonderlijk.”
Is het dan niet eerder een symfonie met koor en solisten?
Gedecideerd: “Nee, nee, voor mij is het echt een oratorium.”