Barbara Hannigan in our opinion is simply the best interpreter of contemporary music in activity (an opinion we share with Sir Simon Rattle) - and she certainly holds her own in the Baroque and Classical repertories as well, not to forget that she is now a well-regarded conductor too. After the spectacular and deep interview that this hugely intelligent and multi-talented artist gave us on the occasion of her creation of the role of Agnès for George Benjamin's masterpiece Written on Skin, we had the pleasure of meeting her again in person at the 2016 Festival d'Aix-en-Provence in Southern France, when she sang the female title role in Pelléas et Mélisande, in arguably the best production of this opera in modern times. We had a very relaxed and informal talk in a sidewalk café in the beautiful town of Aix, discussing several psychological nuances in this opera, and a number of other topics.
This interview is part of Opera Lively's extensive coverage of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, which includes reviews, several other interviews, and pictorial travel blogs. We are gathering all this material in a portal with links to the various articles, so if our dear readers want to explore our review of this Pelléas et Mélisande and the other interviews (as they become available, such as the ones with Barbara's co-stars Stéphane Degout and Laurent Naouri), click [here]. Also, click [here] for our first interview with Barbara, and notice that it is part of our published book about Written on Skin (on paperback and Kindle, available on Amazon worldwide or directly from us by clicking [here]).
Photo Credit Priska Ketterer
We will not include in this article our usual artistic biography given that our first interview with Barbara accessible through the link above already contains this information (and we also have a review of one of her concerts and of a documentary about her life and career - click [here] for that). So without further ado we will reproduce below our chat with Barbara in Aix. Enjoy!
The Second Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Barbara Hannigan
This is our interview #203. Copyright Opera Lively; all rights reserved. Reproduction of excerpts is authorized for all purposes as long as the source is quoted and a link to the full piece is provided. Reproduction of the entire interview requires authorization - use the Contact Us form. Photos unless otherwise stated with specific credit are fair promotional use (we often do not know the names of all photographers; will be happy to include them if we are told who they are). Some of the photos were sent to Opera Lively by the Bureau de Presse of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence; authorized use. The square headshot below is a detail of a larger photo by Elmer de Haas.
Luiz Gazzola from Opera Lively – Glad to see you again.
Barbara Hannigan – Me too.
OL – It was a wonderful performance.
BH – Thank you.
OL – I gave it the A++ maximum score.
BH – Yay!
OL – To you, to the other three leading singers, and to the overall performance.
BH – That’s great!
OL – I think it was one of the most perfect shows I’ve ever seen. Everything clicked.
BH – Yes, it was. I said to my friend that the level is so consistent! There isn’t one person who is above everyone and one person who is below. Everyone is really on a high level. Stéphane and Laurent, for me their generosity and support were important all through the rehearsals, because they’ve sung this piece so many times and it was my first Mélisande. They were incredibly generous. I call Stéphane Dégout, Saint Stéphane, because he is the best. You see what we have to do on stage and he is really with me. It’s amazing.
OL - The last time we talked, you were the fierce Agnès in Written on Skin.
BH – Hm, hm.
OL - Certainly Mélisande – at least the non-Katie Mitchell kind (we’ll talk about it more, later) is psychologically quite different – afraid, tentative, ambivalent. They do share some initial innocence.
BH – Oh, yes.
OL - But while Agnès wakens up sexually, Mélisande seems asexual in most productions (not on this one, though). They also do share abusive husbands. Please tell me about the psychology of Mélisande.
BH – Yes, as you know, the concept that Katie Mitchell has for this piece is that it is a dream. Katie told me this over a year ago, so I was aware a little bit, and having worked with her before, I could start to prepare in a particular way. I knew that I wanted to allow the text to be on many, many levels all the time, not just one thing, because Mélisande says a lot of very boring things like “oh, it’s dark in the garden,” “open the window” or “I see a ship.” [laughs] It’s boring, so the subtext has to be very strong.
For me the feeling about her is that she, like Lulu, has an incredible instinct. The difference between her and Lulu is that Lulu is very intellectually aware of that instinct and Mélisande is not. So in that way she is more like Agnès from Written on Skin. She is working from emotional instinct without the ability to articulate her needs and desires. Mélisande is so often saying “I don’t know, I don’t understand, I won’t say what I want to say, I’m not happy.” These are all things that are very spontaneous articulations. They are not “I’m not happy and I’m never going to be.” There’s no subtext in those lines. It’s very spontaneous; it comes out of her. When she tries to tell Golaud that she is not happy and he asks “well, what is it?” she can’t articulate. That’s very honest. It’s not that she is consciously hiding something from him. She is not comfortable; that’s all she knows. So, she knows that she has to get away.
OL – She doesn’t seem to have another layer of control and thought. It’s raw instinct.
BH – Yes.
OL – Whatever she is feeling, she expresses without a second elaboration on it.
BH – That’s right. There is a lot of raw instinct in it and her actions are also very spontaneous. The way she behaves with the men and the people around her is absolutely spontaneous. Also with Geneviève: she is very attached to her; she wants to touch her hair and be held by her. She longs for that physical warmth that Geneviève can offer her, but I think it is all very spontaneous.
Barbara Hannigan, Laurent Naouri, and Stéphane Degou in Aix, photo Patrick Berger
OL - You had a visceral relationship with Lulu and with Agnès. Will Mélisande become something similar for you?
BH – Yes, I think so.
OL - You’ll soon do both Agnès and Lulu again; any plans for more Mélisandes?
BH – Yes, I have a new Mélisande in one year with Krzysztof Warlikowski. We are making a new production together.
OL – He is a great director!
BH – I know! This will the fourth opera that I do with him, so you can imagine the level that we can reach, having worked together in four different productions.
OL – Where will it be?
BH – At the Rurhtriennale in Germany.
OL – Nice. So, vocally you’ve done roles that are arguably much more difficult than Mélisande.
BH – Yes.
OL - But please tell us about any vocal challenges in this role.
BH – Well, this was very interesting for me because both the silence and the singing are important. The silence is incredibly important to Mélisande. And yes, you are right; vocally it is not a virtuoso part as far as range. It’s quite low. This was challenging for me to accept that I was not going to be able to use high Cs to show off. I wasn’t going to be able to use the range as the expressive tool. It would only be the color and the pronunciation.
OL – There is this moment where she has the solo a cappella in the tower. It must be difficult to express a quiet state but to still project to the audience.
BH – I think I did both. I did half of it full, and sometimes I’d do half a line soft and then get loud. I treated it as an improvisation, every night. I never make a decision on how I’m going to sing it, because at that moment she is alone with the baby and she really is singing just for herself. So I would never make a pre-ordained idea of “this is how this song goes.” That aria, I let it feel like a song she sings to herself, alone, differently, every day. She has fun with it.
OL - One of the interpretations of the symbolism in Maeterlinck’s play is that Mélisande is a fairy, and Pelléas knows that we can’t ask questions of a fairy, unlike Golaud.
BH – Hm! Yes, Golaud asks a lot of questions, really! But no, I don’t think she is a fairy. I think she is absolutely a human woman, but in her story there is a lot of sadness and some damage. I don’t think she necessarily recognizes what was the good part of her past, and what was the not-so-good part. I don’t think she knows that. All that she knows is “here I feel comfortable, here I don’t feel comfortable. Here I am happy, here I am not happy. I want to see the light. I want to be near Pelléas.” These kinds of feelings are very strong.
OL – One thing I was not a fan of in this production while I loved everything else is that there was a lot of light coming from the right side of the stage. The castle is supposed to be dark and gloomy, so what do you make of so much light?
BH – Oh, I’m happy to hear that, because I think Katie is so careful to light the set in such a naturalistic way that I’m always afraid that the audience can’t see us well enough. So whenever I felt the side lights coming on I was happy because I thought “Oh, they are going to see the details of expression.” I do most of my acting in a very filmic way; very small detail even though I’m playing for a very large theater. For me, actually, I have to say, when those side lights come on, I’m earning for them, and I allow myself to just search and move a few centimeters this way or that way to get a little bit of more light on my face.
OL – Do you think it was a conscious decision by her or by the lighting designer to say that part of the denial of reality in this piece was that everybody was saying that it was dark, while it was not, so the darkness would be in the interior psychological space to them?
BH – Well, yeah. It’s a dream, so you can do anything. All of those absurd things, and the acrobatic things that I do, they happen in dreams. The other night I had a dream that I lost my score in a large pool of water. The partiture looked like the Pelléas et Mélisande score, but I knew that it was the Lulu score. It’s when you see one thing, it looks like something, but it is something else.
OL – Oh, in a pool of water – and there is lots of water in Pelléas et Mélisande.
BH – Yes, I think it was very symbolist.
OL – Right. Yes, I was talking with Laurent [Naouri] yesterday. I’m a psychoanalyst myself, trained in the Lacanian school which is very linguistically oriented.
BH – Oh wow!
OL – He was talking about the part when you are mentioning all the saints while you are breastfeeding, and the word for saint in French sounds exactly like the word for breast.
BH – Oh! I didn’t think of it like that! I was thinking about Daniel, Michel, and Raphael as the three angels who were fighting, and how she was placing herself in their care, because instinctively she knew that she was at risk. The breastfeeding I think is iconic. To do that in that moment in the opera, it’s really a huge moment. But I never thought of it the way that you are saying! Oh God, now it’s going to be different, tomorrow night!
OL – There are always so many layers, right?
BH – That’s right!
OL – It’s endless.
BH – Hm, hm.
OL – Now, about the sexuality: this was the most striking point in this staging, I think. In the play there is an ambivalent ending for Golaud. He doesn’t really know if Mélisande’s love for Pelléas was platonic or physical, while in this production there is no doubt about it.
BH – But I think in the play there is absolutely no doubt about it. The only doubt is that Golaud still wants to condemn them for this love. But I think in Maeterlinck’s time everyone knew that Pelléas and Mélisande had an illicit love affair.
OL – Now, Golaud in this production sees it, when they are making love in the swimming pool.
BH – Hm, hm.
OL – But he still needs to ask the question at the end. How do you interpret that?
BH – Oh, because he wants her to admit it. That happens all the time in life. You know what the truth is but you want the other person to say it. It’s a power trip, you know? “Admit that you did it! Admit that you are guilty! Apologize to me!” It’s just human nature.
OL – Laurent had another take on this. He said maybe since it was a dream, it was all an expression of desire; according to Freud dreams are made of desire. Mélisande was dreaming of making love to Pelléas but in reality she did not. In his opinion, they didn’t. Again, there are so many layers!
BH – Well, the thing is, it’s a dream, so in a way he is right, but in my head the dream comes from a memory. So maybe Mélisande did not make love with Pelléas, but I think she had some experience in her life that lead her to dream this, which is very real. Of course when the opera opens you see me as a runaway bride, right? A bride, alone, in a hotel room.
Barbara as Mélisande, with Laurent Naori as Golaud in Aix - Photo Patrick Berger
There is definitely something. Why did she run away from her marriage? Katie had her own idea of why I ran away from my marriage but I had a completely different idea than Katie’s, and I told her, “no, no, I don’t think it like you’re saying, I think it like this” and Katie said “oh, OK” so it was not just her strict interpretation.
OL – So what was your idea?
BH – My idea was that she was a woman who ran away from a marriage that was probably happy, that she ran away from someone who loved her and who was a kind and generous person, but despite that she couldn’t handle it, and that’s what makes it even sadder. If she were running away from an abusive partner and she knew the marriage was going to be awful, that’s one thing, but in my story I wanted it to be that she was running away from something that could have been good for her, and she couldn’t take it. She couldn’t handle it; she couldn’t bear to be confined.
OL – Another interesting aspect is the body movement part. Sometimes you look like an inflatable sex doll being passively tossed around. Some other times you look quite active and actually provocative. You go and disrobe and kiss men in the mouth including Arkel.
BH – Yes! I know, Arkel!! Creepy! But Arkel is creepy. He says “Come kiss me; I haven’t kissed you, I haven’t felt your lips since the first day I arrived.” Eew! It’s creepy!
OL – But she goes for it, with a lot of decisiveness.
BH – I know. She does it. But she does it in a kind of detachment as well, when she is with Arkel. It’s a kind of robotic detachment. It’s a fantasy, you know? He is a father figure, and of course that’s very Freudian. Golaud is also a father figure. Pelléas is more of a brother to her. But yes, she goes between being very sexy, and very child-like. I play her with a lot of different ages, in the opera. Sometimes I play half of the scene like she is fourteen years old. Another times I play her like she is my age. Sometimes I play her really as a pre-pubescent child; eight or nine years old, something like that. So I’m constantly changing the time.
OL – Yeah, I found it so interesting that Golaud tells Pelléas and Mélisande “you are children.” It’s just like the Protector in Written in Skin!
BH – Yeah, totally! It’s very similar.
OL – He is trying to deny her sexuality.
BH – Yes. I was thinking that Laurent would be amazing in Written on Skin. His English is perfect.
OL – Yes, it is. I interviewed Stéphane in French, and I started interviewing Laurent in French but his English is so good that we switched to English.
BH – His English is amazing. He would be a great Protector.
OL – There is some sort of a feel like in Pasolini’s movie Theorem because she seduces everybody in the household, all the men.
BH – I don’t know if she seduces them. I think that they are all in love with her. They are all fascinated by her, but did she do that, or did they feel that? Did they create that? I’m not sure.
OL – Laurent was telling me that it is easy because you look so gorgeous!
BH – Yay, thank you Laurent! Woo-hoo! [laughs]
OL – How did Martin Crimp contribute? Did he talk with you all?
BH – No, I think Martin was more important for Katie. We didn’t deal with him that much. She would explain that better than I could.
OL – Let’s talk about Aix-en-Provence. You did Written on Skin here.
Barbara as Agnès in Written on Skin at Aix in 2012
BH – And before I was here for Passion, the world première by Pascal Dusapin, so it’s my third summer here.
OL – What do you think of the atmosphere here?
BH – Oh, it’s great. Come on! I get to live in the South of France, in an apartment, I go to the market in the morning, I buy fresh fish, you know… [laughs] We work really hard. I’m enjoying a break today. This is the first time I had two days off in a row. Normally we have one day off, but as soon as you get to the end of that day off, in the evening you are already preparing for the next day. So finally yesterday was a day off where I could go to sleep knowing that I could get up whenever I wanted with no stress. I just feel that difference. I ran into Stéphane Degout just now at the market. We were buying fish, and we both said that yesterday we did nothing. I thought I was going to work, I was going to catch up on things, but I did nothing. I was exhausted. I laid on the couch, I couldn’t even read. I just listened to the radio. I listened to a documentary about lobsters. [laughs]
OL – Eating them, or raising them?
BH – Everything. It was a Natural History documentary about lobsters, and of course because I’m from Nova Scotia, it’s our provincial food. It was quite interesting.
OL – And Stéphane is a really good cook, like professional level.
BH – Yes, he is.
OL – He takes four hours to prepare a dish.
BH – Yeah, everybody talks about that. He is cooking lunch for friends today. He is great. We love food.
OL - In terms of future projects, I hear that you’ll be doing more world premieres, with Peter Eötvös Sirens song cycle, Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground and Ophelia in Brett Dean’s Hamlet…
BH – Yes, Sirens, Alice, Ophelia, and I’m doing Hans Abrahamsen’s new opera The Snow Queen, and Michael Jarrell’s new opera Berenice which is at Paris Opéra so I have five premières coming up. I’m doing Matsukaze again; that’s a remount. I’m remounting La Voix Humaine at Paris Opéra, and of course I have the new Lulu production at Hamburg Staatsoper which is next season, so that’s a very big deal. Christoph Marthaler is directing and Kent Nagano is conducting. Anne Sofie von Otter is Countess Geschwitz so it is going to be amazing.
OL – Tell me more about the world premières. We from Opera Lively are very interested in contemporary opera.
BH – It’s quite interesting because I’ve sung over eighty world premières. It’s being going on for a long time. Every composer is different. Some of them, I’m very close to them while they are composing, and other ones I have nothing to do with them. We speak at the beginning and suddenly the score arrives at the end; then we make editing and so on. Some composers, I have a long relationship with, like Gerald Barry. Brett Dean is someone new for me. I will sing George Benjamin’s new opera in 2018. We know each other. Just like directors, it’s very different to work with someone that you’ve worked with before. There is a comfort level that is much higher than the first time you collaborate.
OL – So, George Benjamin’s commissioned third opera with the Royal Opera House is coming up.
BH – Yes, that’s what I’m doing in the spring of 2018.
OL – Do you have details, or you can’t say?
BH – I wish I could say; I know nothing. I honestly can say, I know nothing. They haven’t told us anything. We had to agree, just like with Written on Skin, completely blind.
OL – Well, but with George…
BH – That’s George!
OL – Such a master!
BH – Yes, I know! But still, you never know. There’s always a degree of trust. It wouldn’t really make a difference if he said “this is what the opera is about.” It doesn’t matter. You may know what the opera is about, but then you make it, and it is a whole different story.
OL - How is the conducting going?
BH – It is going well.
OL - You are going back to Lucerne and then in tour, conducting Debussy, Sibelius, Haydn, Berg and Gershwin, right?
BH – Yes, right after Lucerne I’m going in tour to Milan and Turin with my orchestra from Holland and I’m recording a CD with them in September as well. Then I’m in Copenhagen and at the Staatsoper in Munich. That’s all happening this autumn so it’s really busy with the conducting. It’s going well; I love it, and it’s a big part of my life now.
OL – Last time we talked you said it was still tentative and you were learning a lot. So, now, how do you feel? Are you quite accomplished as a conductor, now?
BH – I’m still learning a lot, but I’m also still learning a lot as a singer. What I love about singing is that you take lessons with a coach or a teacher until you finish your career, and that’s the same way that I feel as a conductor, that I always want to be in the feeling of being a student. It’s the same as a singer, that I’m constantly learning. I’m constantly trying to get better and improve. I’m curious. Yes, now I’m conducting the Munich Philharmonic; big orchestras, but I come in there with the idea “what am I going to learn this week? What are we all going to learn this week?” It’s very refreshing, because it gives a feeling of risk-taking and courageousness. There is nothing formulaic about how we work.
OL – I just had an idea: will you ever move into composing?
BH – Ah, somebody asked that, the other day. I studied composition a little bit in 1994, 95. I have done a tiny bit of arranging, and a tiny bit of composing, but nothing serious; nothing at all. It was only to better understand what composers do. I don’t think it’s for me. I don’t think so. Being a performer is more my mission.
OL – And the acting; I was talking with Laurent of course about Natalie [Dessay] being back to stage acting.
BH – Yes.
OL – I think you are on that level of quality as an actress, but you love music so much; would you ever do plain acting?
BH – Of course, I would. Yes. When the right project comes up, yes, of course. But now my schedule is full for the next five years. Maybe something will come up in-between and I’ll try something, but it’s very busy.
OL – You must be the busiest artist in the business, with the singing and the conducting.
BH – I’m pretty busy. I’ve always had a full schedule. Also as a child I had a full schedule. I was used to it, to being busy all the time, to being active and always doing something. It’s just part of my way of working, I feel.
OL – That’s all the questions that I had.
BH – Have I answered all your questions?
OL – Yes, and we improvised a little.
BH – That’s good. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. I hope you enjoy the Handel tonight.
OL – Oh yes, I think it will be gorgeous. I’m really surprised with the high level of production values and the professionalism here; it is really amazing.
BH – I know, the level of every production is so high! People want to come here. The feeling is great, the support is very good. Bernard Foccroulle has created an amazing community, so we come back.
OL – I was exchanging text messages with a friend yesterday and said “look, this is much better than the Metropolitan Opera House.”
BH – [laughs hard]
OL – She replied back saying “well, Europe is the cradle of opera; you are at the source, therefore it tends to be better.”
BH – Well, it’s different. These productions are different, but let’s face it, the Met is not so bad! [laughs]
OL – Sure, but the Met has ups and downs. Over here the quality is very consistent.
BH – This year, yes, it is very true, but sometimes they have a win or lose situation. This year everything seems to be paying off.
OL – Did you see the Così?
BH – No, I didn’t see it.
OL – It’s extraordinary.
BH – Is it great?
OL – I think it is the Così of my dreams.
BH – Ah!
OL – Because for the first time I see it dark as it should be.
BH – Oh, yes.
OL – It’s not a comedy.
BH – No, it’s not. It’s dark.
OL – It’s extremely disturbing and depressing.
BH – It’s very disturbing, yes.
OL – This time it was done this way, and I thought it was fabulous; extraordinary. It was courageous and risqué, going into racism and rape.
BH – I read the reviews. Unfortunately I couldn’t handle getting to it. As I told you, I never had more than one night off. The only one thing that I saw was the Handel opera, Il Trionfo. I loved it. It seems like everybody loved it. It’s Krszysztof [Warlikowski], you know, and he is such an inspiration for me!
OL – Yes, I’d have loved to have interviewed him. I’ll interview Emanuelle Haïm tomorrow.
BH – Yes, Krszysztof is in Holland. He will be back in a few days. When are you leaving?
OL – I’m leaving Friday. I haven’t been able to do much sight-seeing; talking about being busy, I have nine interviews; just to prepare for and transcribe all that, it’s hours and hours of work.
BH – Yep.
OL – I overdid, this time; I shouldn’t have requested this many. I didn’t even have time to have lunch. I haven’t been to any of the restaurants.
BH – You know where you should go? There is a restaurant called La Cave d’Yves, like in Yves Saint Laurent. It’s down that way; it’s fantastic. If you have time, you should go there for lunch. Great wines, great food; simple but superb.
OL – OK, If I have a moment, I’ll try it. Thank you for this lovely interview, Barbara!
BH – You’re welcome!
Photo Credit Priska Ketterer
This was where the interview happened, on the sidewalk tables:
Photo Opera Lively
Let's listen to Barbara's amazing range:
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