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.
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.
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.
“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:
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
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
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