During one of her performances of György Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, she shuffles around in black latex and fishnets, sucking her teeth, ululating. When she starts, unexpectedly, to conduct, her hand gestures are as clean and brutal as her singing. In Hans Abrahamsen’s orchestral song cycle Let Me Tell You, she trembles—voice glass-thin—with the heartbreak and bewilderment of Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Her hands soar with the orchestra in Ligeti’s Concert Românesc; she punches cymbals and brass into the final sforzando. In the title role of Berg’s Lulu, she roars and trills en pointe, in lingerie, in sequins, wielding a handgun. As Marie in Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten, she makes of herself a slack puppet mouthing crystalline bel canto, a victim, a whore. Leading Fauré’s incidental music for Pélléas et Mélisande, she caresses the sound into being as much with her eyes as with her fingertips. In Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest, as witty, innocent Cecily, she delivers line after line of shatteringly precise high notes. As Agnès in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, she croons and shivers with soft lust and terror—in the final scene, she eats her lover’s heart, staring blankly into the audience.
She conducts, she dances—no. She strides, she leaps, she spits out chewing gum, she flings herself against men and glass doors. She sings—no: she weeps, she bellows, rough and liquid and staccato all at once.
This physicality, this corporeal engagement with her art, is part of what makes a Barbara Hannigan performance so remarkable. In a German newspaper, one reviewer used the word Vollkörpereinsatz, which one could perhaps translate as “full-bodied commitment.” It’s a spirit which inhabits her interpretations of operatic roles and her concerts, her singing, her dancing, her conducting, whether she is performing one or several of those art forms at once.
Barbara Hannigan performs, in this heightened fashion, at the very highest level: the Canadian soprano and conductor frequently collaborates with the Berlin Philharmonic, and has performed with the Gothenburg Symphony, the London Symphony, and the Prague Philharmonic. She has given over eighty world premieres, working with conductors Rattle, Jurowski, Maazel, and Salonen; performing Ligeti, Dusapin, Benjamin, and Boulez—amongst many others. She embodies contemporary music—both in the sense that she lives by avant-garde values, and in the sense that she fully gives herself to every performance.
Few performers incarnate such diversity and range, and those that do will us to forget the separation between art and life, performer and character, mimesis and possession. Our disbelief is suspended, even in concert, as they mold themselves into their characters, appearing to meld with the music. Singers like Callas and Rysanek disappear between songs and reappear in different skins, their tone of voice shifting, their expressions transformed.
We never quite forget, but we are fascinated by the illusion of fusion. And a profoundly physical performance? We call this dedication to art, and imagine it implies some kind of powerful identification—something akin to method acting. Indeed, it is a rare thing in opera, far more frequent in film or pop music, which beget (we like to think) sleeping in the woods, smoking, starvation. In opera, we do not traditionally expect such extremes, though the onstage illusion we are drawn to there is the same.
Much of Barbara Hannigan’s appeal lies in the extreme nature of her performances, blending physical strength, vocal technique, and feats of memorization with a burning emotional intensity. Opera, that most contrived of art forms, has not traditionally been the home of ultra-realism, peopled as it is with fairy tale characters and commedia dell’arte caricatures—as well as the occasional artiste with an ego too overinflated to stoop much to acting at all. But there have been historical shifts away from this: the post-romantic Italian verismo, for instance, which brought white-hot passion and gory violence center-stage. An even more naked kind of realism made its appearance onstage towards the turn of the 20th century, in, say, Janáček's Jenůfa and Berg's Wozzeck, as poor people, difficult people, mad people—real people—became opera material, too. Barbara Hannigan seems to gravitate particularly to this latter category of role, which encourages us to read her “full-bodied commitment” as metamorphosis. It is easier, after all, to read identification into these contemporary figures than into mythological princesses or Norse gods ...
“My beloved Lulu, I miss you,” Hannigan began her notes on the role, before discussing in depth the deeply emotional experience of preparing for the opera, and its lingering effect. “Lulu died and I lived,” she wrote. “It was like survivor guilt.”
We as audience have always been fascinated by the performer’s appearing/disappearing act, and stories like these feed into that fascination. We do not forget that an artist’s identity and interpretation are a force shaping the character. Simply, we tend to read this as embodiment—physical and, apparently, psychological. There is a meeting point between performer and character—or rather, an asymptote—and we want that asymptote to appear as far into the fictional world as possible.
Which is to say: in aiming for the pure belief that we are watching Agnès or Marie or Lulu, we are really hoping to believe that the singer becomes Agnès or Marie or Lulu for the duration of the performance—perhaps even a little before or after, or in rehearsal, as the magic of interpretation bleeds into real life. We reach for the first illusion while we are watching and listening to a performance; we reach for the second when we are considering the performer.
Along with so many of her admirers, I am guilty of buying into these illusions when I set out to interview Barbara Hannigan.
I write: kaleidoscopic, crystalline, animal?
I mean: plural.
I write: Gepopo, Ophelia, Lulu, Marie, Agnès, Barbara.
Barbara Hannigan cracks her own myth wide open just two minutes into our interview. In conversation, on the phone from her family’s home in Nova Scotia, she comes across as warm and unaffected.
I had angled my questions for her to engage with this sense of personal myth, and engage she does, though not in the way I expect. How much do you give to a role? I asked. How much do you lose to it? What do you take away from it? What I mean is: does giving voice to music, text, not mean a kind of absorption into it—a kind of loss of self?
“I think of performance as a kind of witnessing of the music,” she says thoughtfully, “in which everyone in the room is a participant. There is a responsibility for each pair of ears, for each person in the room to be present, whether you are making sound at that specific moment or not.”
It doesn’t, is what this means. No illusion, no dissolution, no otherworldly melding. In Hannigan’s vision, presence—and not just presence as a performer, but as a participant, as a listener—is the opposite of loss of self. There is no grand creative statement here; no inflated sense of the artist as visionary interpreter; no conscious myth-making.
Instead, the word she comes back to is “witnessing.” What is witnessing? Witnessing is observing, witnessing is knowing. You witness a crime, you witness a change of heart. To witness something is to be separate from it—but also bound to it, as in the legal sense, and able to testify. Witnessing, then, is understanding something outside oneself. Survival guilt.
“This is something that developed for me over the last ten years,” she explains, “but especially during Pli selon Pli by [Pierre] Boulez. When I was performing that with him on tour, I realized that I needed, for myself, to feel that I was with every sound. Whether I was singing at that time or not—and [in that piece] there are long periods when I’m not singing—I wanted to be with everything.”
I notice that the conversation has slipped neatly away from any notions of loss of self—or absorption or asymptote—towards something much warmer. Something inclusive. Everything. Everyone in the room. Every sound.
Being with a piece like Pli selon Pli is no casual matter. From the first few bars of the recording of a 2011 performance at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, Hannigan's mastery of the piece's wild, wandering intervals is clear. Her timbre shades from bell-clear to warm and reedy. At times, in these “Improvisations on Mallarmé” that are anything but, her voice weaves almost to disappearance into the intricate texture of the orchestra. Her voice melts into the text, then breaks away from it sharply, biting off words—“basalte / y échos / et une / à / écume / mais / laves / épaves.” The final words of “Tombeau” are breathed; barely voiced at all. Performing such a piece, being with every sound, with its shifting colors and tones, is indeed an incredible feat of concentration, memorization, witnessing.
Yet the concept is a humble one, almost at odds with traditional ideas of creativity, as if it did not imply interpretation or generation, but simply a discreet and lucid presence. One that sets her on even footing with all of her collaborators, and her audience. With.
This egalitarianized vision of what it means to sing, to conduct, and collaborate with ensembles, comes across strongly—consistently—in the way Barbara Hannigan speaks about performance. In an interview with Opera Lively in 2013, she explained: “I just want to work with a team that clicks.” This includes “a director who respects the story and the characters, and who has an understanding of the music to the best of their ability,” as well as “a conductor and a music staff who are also supporting this Gesamtkunstwerk.” She concludes: “We really need this compatible marriage between the director, the conductor, and of course, singers who are interested and willing to do more than just stand and sing, to really incorporate—in the true sense of the word—the characters.”
It cuts away sharply from the image of the traditional diva or the old-school maestro one imagines an opera singer or conductor must be: Callas storming offstage halfway through Norma, Toscanini throwing scores and breaking batons. “Being with” is the obverse of both “disappearing into” and “dominating.” In a world where those at the top of the hierarchy are expected to be louder, nastier, and higher-paid than those below, this democratic, horizontal interpretation of the project of performance strikes a radical note. What does it emphasize? Fairness, paying attention, hard work as a team. Above all, listening.
“I don’t show anybody anything, I don’t pull focus,” she tells me. “Quite the opposite: everything stays focused. And I hope that even without talking about it, somehow it will change the way that my colleagues also will deeply listen, and deeply participate in the performance, and the audience as well.”
In light of this, it is ironic to consider how other her image is—or above, or beyond. There is a kind of mournfulness, occasionally, when she touches on the subject of her myth outside our conversation. Later, I come across a passage in the notes included with the DVD of her Lulu: “It’s strange to me that I often have reviews that refer to me as fearless or even ‘extra-terrestrial.’ I am terribly human.” Hannigan doesn't want to be extra-anything: not above the circle of her team, not outside the participatory experience of the concert, not beyond the audience's capacity for understanding. She wants to be with.
Perhaps ironically, the mechanics of Hannigan's being with are precisely what seems so extraordinary about her: the rich and varied spectrum of sound she can create, her sheer technical proficiency, her talent for quick-fire shifts. Her recording of Britten's Rimbaud cycle Les Illuminations, for instance, shows off just how much her voice can do, from huge, belting vibrati to the tiniest, finely-honed ppps. She can slip into rough and rich from pure and soaring in the space of a single short-circuited octave.
In fact, she not only masters these range-defying leaps, she deliberately seeks them out. In the course of the Opera Lively piece, she discussed a compositional game she played with George Benjamin when he was working on her part for Written on Skin.
[H]e would write a few notes and then ask me to write on the music paper what kinds of notes I wanted to come next, then he’d write a few more notes and I’d write a few more notes. By this game, he started to see how my voice likes to move. One of the things he saw is that I love to make very large leaps from low to high or from high to low. If you look at the role of Agnès, that’s what happens. She starts with very small intervals in the opening scenes, and then as she becomes liberated the intervals become larger and larger until the final aria which has a range of an octave and a fifth. She is constantly leaping more than an octave in her most fantastic final aria just before she kills herself.
Hannigan’s virtuosity shines through these choices. But there is something else at work here; a playful fascination, a desire to engage with the most challenging music. In a profile in the Spectator, she made it clear that she instinctively shied away from following a traditional path. “I felt calmer being on a path that was full of branches, working out where that path might lead as I was walking along it. I find my comfort zone in the wilderness.”
Is this an ambition, an instinct, a compulsion? It is certainly neither accidental nor hotheaded. The language Hannigan uses—focus, deeply participate, with every sound—implies tremendous dedication to all of her collaborations. Another key to the way she engages with her critical audience: a recurrent (if not unkind) sense of frustration that we have a tendency to read her Vollkörpereinsatz as something magical rather than as the result of incredibly hard work.
Barbara Seiler's documentary film, I'm a Creative Animal, highlights the tools of Hannigan's daily self-discipline and focus, from her running shoes to the thick, scrawled notebooks she uses to annotate her scores. At one point, she rather sternly admonishes a roomful of students regarding the dangers of slipping away from this discipline when traveling. She travels with a suitcase full of her own knives, for instance, to make sure she's able to provide healthy meals for herself even in hotel rooms. Witnessing is neither passive nor effortless. It is a life's work.
Though Hannigan wants to demystify the creative process, there is something tremendously ambitious about her idea of witnessing. Not only does it set the performer and their audience on equal footing, it also explains a great deal about the perceived plurality of the artist.
“This idea of witnessing also applies to incorporating a character,” she says. Whether she’s becoming Lulu or Agnès or Marie, she doesn’t disappear. “In a performance situation,” she explains, “I feel quite consciously that: I am Barbara, performing Lulu tonight.” In a specific place, on a specific date, “I become Lulu, for the sake of this performance, so that we can witness this music and this story. I’m not trying to pretend that I’m Lulu.”
So being with is a temporary state, a closeness that can be taken on or set aside. “It’s almost like a ritual,” she says. Which makes sense, considering the darker implications of the word witnessing. She explains that this carefully maintained separation helps her take on extreme characters, violent stories, horrific scenes—and these are her bread and butter.
Indeed, much of her operatic success has come about through her ability to bring phenomenal warmth and energy to incredibly difficult characters. (“I like the mad ones,” she says lightly at one point in Seiler’s documentary film.) When our discussion turns to grueling touring schedules and the difficulty of relaxing while working hard, she mentions that her all-time favorite book is Anna Karenina. “I think of her a lot, actually, because Tolstoy so deeply understood the psyche and the female psyche. I often think of her character and her struggles.” Even in her down time, she’s drawn to complex women.
This ritual role-playing—being with—seems to be at the heart of all her performances, from dramatic scenae with orchestra to operatic arias. “I tend to always sing a character or a role, even in concert performances.” Ophelia, Lulu, Marie ... “I’m constantly playing a character, often archetypal, well-known characters.” She revisits them, gives them new life, the angle from which she witnesses shifting through performance. “They’re different every day.”
For the audience, the striking illusion of disappearance into a character is intensified by the fact that Hannigan is often off book, uncommonly enough for a concert performer. Does this affect the way she experiences music, or text? “Yes, it’s a statement,” she says. “It does make a difference: you must feel a difference in the audience.”
On a few occasions, she chooses to use a score for its theatrical value, but memorization is key to most of her performances—notably, this includes her conducting engagements. The effect is striking. “I have a kind of method that I developed for myself, where I surround the music with three or four different memorizing techniques, so that if one fails me, another immediately comes in as a backup. It takes a lot of time, but it’s more and more natural to me.”
“Often I will memorize a piece before I even start singing it. I just did that with a piece of George Benjamin’s, which I sang two weeks ago, called A Mind of Winter. I memorized it first and then I started to practice it, which worked very well for me, because then my voice and brain knew where the music was going to go.”
My voice and brain knew ... I find myself returning to the idea of witnessing as knowledge, as familiarity with a piece of music. “[Henri] Dutilleux was always very touched that I performed his Correspondances by heart,” she adds. “That moved him very much, that I incorporated it.”
She gives the word weight, as if to emphasize its etymological roots in the word for body—corpus in Latin, corps in French. Memory is a physical concept to her, then. My voice and brain. By heart. Incorporated. It occurs to me that this incorporation is the mirror image of the sort of embodiment imagined and discussed earlier: not the performer disappearing into a piece, but the piece becoming a part of the performer.
In an interview with blogger Leslie Barcza, she told him: “For me, there must be an emotional entrance to the music—the intellectual aspect of a score is merely architecture. I always am looking for the heart.”
A character is not a skin to be slipped into and out of: a character is a whole separate entity, one to be understood, respected, worked with. So is a piece of music. So is an orchestra. So is an audience. And an artist like Hannigan who moves from piece to piece, exploring genre and timbre and range, pushing boundaries, taking on character after character after character? Well, she remains whole. I am Barbara, performing (Lulu, Marie, Ophelia; Dutilleux, Ligeti, Boulez) tonight.
Since 2010, Barbara Hannigan’s reputation as a conductor has caught up with—and mingled with—hers as a singer. One would usually think of the roles as diametrically opposed: physically, directionally, sartorially, historically, conducting is entirely separate from singing. Yet Hannigan—a conductor in an evening gown, a prima donna with her eyes on the orchestra—easily dissolves those separations.
A few beats into conducting Mozart’s concert aria Vado, ma dove? O dei! from the traditional conductor’s pose, she spins around gracefully and ... becomes the soloist. Rarely does one see a performer with such an awareness of the orchestra behind her, as she continues to guide them—delicately, with movements that blend into the role she is playing. When the piece ends, she closes her eyes, savoring the moment in character with hands still poised to conduct.
Another time, in the jerky, manic Ligeti Mysteries for which she has become so famous, she points wildly to the instrumentalists, one by one, cueing them in, then points at her own face and looks incredibly surprised as she starts to sing. It’s a glorious bit of choreography, for it highlights—points a finger at—the inherent schizophrenia of what she is doing. It also underlines, by contrast, just how seamlessly and naturally the two roles blend in the rest of her performance.
I ask if conducting entails the same kind of witnessing as singing; if “conductor” ever feels like another sort of character.
“Conducting is not an acting role,” she replies. “When you’re playing a character, you can fall apart and then put yourself back together again, all in the space of fifteen minutes. As a conductor, you need to be a little more responsible, a little more parental. You need to guide the performance.”
Hannigan’s incredibly expressive vocal nature translates perfectly into her conducting: so much happens in her eyes, in the pursing of her lips, as well as in her (baton-less) hands. She is positively Bernstein-esque in her precise physical involvement with each piece; one gets the distinct impression she might be silently singing every single instrumental line.
This idea of guiding strikes me as a more involved kind of responsibility than witnessing. For one thing, how does this intersect with Hannigan’s impulse towards a horizontal, egalitarian stage culture?
“Conducting is such a funny combination between service and leadership. You’ve got to know when to take the reins, especially at transitional moments, and when to keep it flowing, and when to just step back.” So, there is a balance to maintain, but again, the relationship is marked by intimacy and profound respect.
I think back to her original words regarding witnessing. Everyone in the room is a participant. There is a responsibility for each pair of ears, for each person in the room to be present, whether you are making sound at that specific moment or not. Conducting, it seems to me, occupies a liminal space between making sound and not making sound, between participating and witnessing. Yet her egalitarianism elides that space. She makes performance mean all of those things. Perhaps that is why she has been able to go so willingly, with such force, into such uncharted territory—the path full of branches, the wilderness.
Being a woman conductor and being a singer who is also a conductor are rare enough occurrences individually. A woman who conducts and sings at once, in the same performances, and to rave reviews? A rara avis indeed.
Watching her take on this incredibly balancing act, one is made aware once more of her sheer physical and mental strength. Her arms are another voice: trained; rippling with strength and emotion—yet another stark marker of the sheer discipline with which she approaches her work.
At times, her love of a challenge seems to go even beyond discipline. Writing about the difficulties of playing Lulu, she also writes about her enjoyment of those difficulties: “It hurt like hell and I loved it,” she says of her first time in pointe shoes. “I couldn't wait to lace up every morning. I loved that a doctor had to come to my dressing room after the second performance because as soon as I was offstage I could barely walk.”
No one could question Hannigan's drive and dedication. Somehow, all of this tangles together. “I love to work hard and I enjoy the struggle of ‘breaking’ through a difficult piece and finding the key,” she says in the interview with Barcza. I recall images from Seiler's film: Hannigan doing press-ups on a park bench, Hannigan frowning at a new score and scribbling furious notes. But just because witnessing is no amateur's endeavor doesn't mean it isn't also joyful work.
In Hannigan’s professional life, conducting is taking up more and more space. One reason is simply its interactive nature. “You can’t sit at home and practice conducting. You can study, of course, but you really only learn in front of the orchestra.” She sounds like she’s smiling.
Again, she sounds humble, egalitarian—everyone in the room—but how does this generous impulse fit with what is necessarily a leadership role? She speaks with great enthusiasm and affection of a concert with the Helsinki Philharmonic in which she and the orchestra’s chief conductor, John Storgårds, swapped roles partway through the program. “In the first half, I was conducting the Dutilleux violin piece called Sur le même accord, and John was playing violin. In the second half, I sang part of Let Me Tell You, and he conducted me. And so you have the soprano conducting the violinist, who is also a conductor, and you had the violinist conducting the soprano, who is also a conductor, and I loved that nobody even freaked out.”
“I don’t think people realize that this was a first,” she adds warmly. “I like that we just kind of snuck it in. No fireworks.” Once more, she’s talking as much about her audience as she is about herself. Everyone in the room is a participant.
The story itself seems anecdotal, incidental, except of course that it’s actually quite extraordinary. Hannigan’s approach is just to forge her own path according to her beliefs, and hope that the rest of the world follows suit. This isn’t mythical, and it isn’t lonely; in fact, she clearly favors complex and collaborative work. But it can't be easy.
I ask her, somewhat tentatively, if it always goes this smoothly. Her positivity stays perfectly polished. “When I get up in front of the orchestra,” she replies, “we just get down to work. We all know what we have to do, and it’s very enjoyable.”
No doubters, then? No snobbery, no machismo? I press her a little, finding it hard to believe—much as I’d like to. She’s a woman in a profoundly male-dominated profession, after all; some of her European colleagues have come under fire in the last few years for their sharp and antiquated sexism.
“It’s not about that,” she replies calmly. “The male establishment—I just don’t experience that at all. Perhaps because when you make music, you’re not a male cellist, you’re not a female violinist. You’re a cellist, or a violinist. You’re a soprano, or a conductor. Music doesn’t have gender.”
I sense a quiet frustration underlying the words—the tone of a woman who’s been asked similar questions again and again. In a piece in the Guardian, published just a few days after our phone conversation, she addressed this thorny subject head-on, but nervously prefaced her words thus: “Public discussion of gender issues is so loaded. Sticky.” Reading the piece, I feel bad for having pressed her, and on the phone, I prepared to back down.
“I was surprised in Italy,” she says suddenly. “I was a little bit concerned about Italy. I guess I had my own prejudices and I thought it might be a bit macho. But it wasn’t at all. It was even more warm and more supportive than I could ever have hoped for. It’s amazing.”
This same unshakeable positivity comes through in the Guardian piece as well. Beneath the frustration, or perhaps above it, is a sense of hope—again, in choosing her own path: the strapless evening gown she picks as her conductor’s outfit. Discussing her conducting début, she writes: “I thought trousers and jacket were the ‘costume’ I had to put on.”
So perhaps she did, for a short while, think that conducting was another role she had to play. But Barbara Hannigan is not taking on a new character as a conductor. She is not playing anybody. The shift towards conducting, if anything, is a deepening of her desire to incorporate: as if singing alone is becoming an insufficient way of inhabiting music; as if she wants to sink her hands more directly into the texture of it.
As a singer in her early forties, she’s at her peak vocally—“I need to be singing, I want to be singing a lot”—but in ten or fifteen years, she expects conducting to have become her main focus. There are projects in the works: commissions, collaborations. She’s become more careful about her engagements, cherry-picking the composers and conductors she most wants to work with. One particular desire stands out for the future: conducting opera.
“Opera is something I want to explore,” she explains. “I think this is somewhere that I can really be of service, not only to the singers but to the directors as well. So often, in opera, the conductors are really not as involved in the production as they should be.” Hannigan wants eventually to carry her long history with opera into a new role. She aims to bridge the perceived separation between the singers and directors, the orchestra and the production team. A team that clicks.
The emotional and the narrative, the vocal, the orchestral, the technical—all are facets of the same unique project, the same Gesamtkunstwerk. Everyone in the room is a participant. “I want to work on finding solutions, to achieve what we want to achieve as a team.”
Once again, she returns to this incredibly inclusive philosophy—a vision of involvement, of collaboration, of teamwork. Creating music in any capacity is a sort of collective witnessing; everyone being with every sound.
“You need a kind of deep understanding,” she says. “I think I can provide that.”
Although Hannigan explains the experience of being with every sound in terms of mindfulness, her words make me wonder if this mode of performance leaves a warmer, more permanent trace.
When she learns all these pieces by heart—incorporates them—they become a part of her. Nothing is lost: in exploration, expansion, she has found her own balance between self and sound—her own complex and coherent asymptote.
And the music Barbara Hannigan knows is the fuel to the fire of her constant forward motion, always seeking new challenges in the wilderness, integrating all that came before.
Elodie Olson-Coons is a ghostwriter, translator, and mezzo-soprano based in Switzerland. She reviews for Bachtrack and tweets @elllode.
Banner image: Barbara Hannigan in Die Soldaten