• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Barbara Hannigan

    [Opera Lively interview # 106] This is a very special interview, for me. I have been in awe of what is being called "Opera's new masterpiece" and according to some sources, the best opera written in the last 20 years [French newspaper Le Monde]: George Benjamin's Written on Skin. I've heard mention that it is actually the best one in the last 60 years. Personally I'd favor the 60-year assessment more than the 20-year. It is truly exquisite!

    Its world premiere in July of 2012 in Aix-en-Provence and several subsequent revivals (Covent Garden, Vienna, Amsterdam, Bavarian State Opera in Munich, others to come) featured the extraordinary Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, for whom the leading role of Agnès was written.

    Ms. Hannigan is an amazing artist. Not only she sings beautifully and is a very attractive lady, but she also plays the piano, conducts orchestras, and dances. Her success in Europe is phenomenal, and her discography is impressive. The French newspaper Le Figaro has said that "this woman must come from another planet" - so taken they were with her energy and her multiple talents.

    Photo Credit Raphael Brand

    In spite of having been born in North America, Ms. Hannigan has developed most of her career in Europe. While she is indeed known this side of the Atlantic by those who are in touch with her main interests (Baroque and Contemporary classical music), the American public at large may still be unaware of this incredibly talented artist. We hope that this interview is one step in the direction of better diffusing her work in the USA.

    It is fitting that we've interviewed her a few days before Written on Skin gets its US Premiere, which will happen on August 12 at the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusets, in concert form, conducted by George Benjamin himself. Unfortunately Ms. Hannigan won't be singing in this performance (which I'll be attending in person), but she does indeed have plans to return to the role when the opera gets its first fully staged US performance, which will happen in New York, in 2015.

    Written on Skin is an unbelievably good opera, a true masterpiece - it is just perfect; this piece is so deserving of praise, that Opera Lively is engaged in promoting it as much as we can. We have already interviewed the composer George Benjamin (read his very informative exclusive interview [here]) and we are thrilled that now we have Ms. Hannigan as well, sharing with us her thoughts about it. Opera Lively has also published a thread with extensive comments, reviews, video clips, and information on where to watch it online or attend it in person - please consult it [here]. But Barbara Hannigan doesn't just have interesting things to say about Written on Skin: this very accomplished artist talked to us about many other topics, as you'll see when you read the full interview.

    First, let's start, as usual, by introducing her artistic biography and her discography.


    Photo Credit Elmer de Haas

    Singer: Barbara Hannigan
    Fach: Soprano
    Born in: Waverly, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1971
    Lives in: Amsterdam, with husband Gijs de Lange, a theater director
    Recently in: Written on Skin, sold out performances that have just happened a few days ago at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich (and prior to that, in many other houses including DNO and Covent Garden).
    Next in: for the remainder of the 2013 calender year, this very busy artist sings Wozzeck in concert with the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle on August 26, 29, and September 1; then she has concerts in Japan; then she conducts the Prague Philharmonia and sings pieces from Rossini, Mozart, and Ligeti at the State Opera of Prague; next she returns to Amsterdam and Cologne for more concerts, and from there she goes conduct the Orchestra dell'Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, and finally she revives Agnès in Written on Skin for the Opéra Comique in Paris on November 16, 18, and 19, before heading to more concerts with the Munich Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic (with the latter, the world premiere of Let me tell you for soprano and orchestra by Hans Abrahamsen).
    Web site: www.barbarahannigan.com - visit it for full schedule


    Artistic Biography

    The soprano Barbara Hannigan is an artist who combines thrilling passion with exceptional technique. Blessed with a voice at once pure and hot, she has arrived, through challenging and diverse repertory choices, at a point of complete control, intensity and versatility. She also possesses a vital stage presence, whether in opera or on the concert platform. Much sought after in contemporary music - she has given over 80 world premieres - she is no less brilliant and devoted a performer of Baroque and Classical music. Bringing freshness to older music and authority to new, she is among the very few singers whose every performance is an occasion.

    Born and brought up in Canada, she received her Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from the University of Toronto, where she studied with Mary Morrison. As a student she quickly developed a zest for new music, and learned, she has said, from the composers with whom she worked. She continued her studies at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague with Meinard Kraak, and privately with Neil Semer.

    A frequent guest of the Berlin Philharmonic, she sang the title role in Stravinsky’s opera Le Rossignol with the orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez, and has performed other works of Stravinsky, as well as pieces by Dutilleux, Webern and Ligeti, in Berlin under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. She has also performed with most of the other leading orchestras and ensembles on both sides of the Atlantic, and with conductors including Reinbert de Leeuw, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kurt Masur, Alan Gilbert, Jonathan Nott, Susanna Mälkki, Jukka Pekka Saraste, Ingo Metzmacher, Pablo Heras-Casado, Thomas Adès, Peter Oundjian, Oliver Knussen, John Storgårds, Michael Gielen and Peter Eötvös. For several years she was on tour with Maurizio Pollini’s Progetto Pollini, singing works by Luigi Nono (most recently at La Scala). She made her conducting debut at the Châtelet in Paris, with Stravinsky's Renard.

    As a performer of Ligeti’s music she has received much acclaim, not least from the composer himself. Mysteries of the Macabre, a tour de force for soprano and orchestra, has become a signature work, which she has sung - and sometimes also conducted - at Lincoln Center, the Berlin Philharmonie, the Châtelet, Salzburg, Disney Hall, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Konzerthaus in Vienna and elsewhere across three continents.

    Barbara singing and conducting Ligeti - Photo Avanti Chamber Orchestra, Helsinki

    She has also appeared widely in Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, and in the Ligeti Requiem. She made her debut at the Monnaie in 2009 as both Gepopo and Venus in the Fura dels Baus production of Le Grand Macabre, and sang Gepopo in the recent New York Philharmonic staged production, directed by Dougas Fitch.

    Dutilleux’s Correspondances is another beloved piece, which she has sung over 25 times with orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic (Rattle), the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra (de Leeuw), the Oslo Phiharmonic (Saraste), the CBSO (Oramo) at the 2005 BBC Proms, the Helsinki Philharmonic (Salonen), the Orchestre National de France (Masur), the Toronto Symphony (Oundjian) and at the Palais Garnier with the Paris Opera Orchestra (Knussen).

    Her operatic repertory includes roles in Handel’s Rinaldo (Armida) and Ariodante (Dalinda), Così fan tutte (Fiordiligi), The Rape of Lucretia (Lucia), Dido and Aeneas (Belinda), The Rake’s Progress (Anne Truelove) and The Cunning Little Vixen (title role). She has taken part in the world premières of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion (Lei) at the Aix Festival, Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer (Saskia) for the Netherlands Opera, Jan van de Putte’s Wet Snow (Liza) for the Nationale Reisopera of the Netherlands, Michel van der Aa’s solo opera One with film and electronics, Luca Mosca’s Signor Goldoni (Despina) at La Fenice and Gerald Barry’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Gabrielle) for English National Opera. For her Barry also composed La Plus Forte, a complete setting for soprano and orchestra of the Strindberg play, which had its première in Paris in 2006, and which she also sang with the London Symphony Orchestra.

    She began her 2010-11 season at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées with Dusapin’s Passion, in a new production by Sasha Waltz, and sang the title role in Toshio Hosokawa's new opera Matsukaze at the Monnaie, also in collaboration with Sasha Waltz. Her appearances in these productions, requiring physical as well as vocal agility and expressive potency, made an extraordinary impression. Clips may be seen on YouTube.

    It is her great privilege to have worked with composers including not only those already mentioned - Ligeti, Dutilleux, Andriessen, Barry, Hosokowa and others - but also Luca Francesconi, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Peter Eötvös and Oliver Knussen.

    Recent engagements have included performances at Aix of Written on Skin, the new opera by George Benjamin directed by Katie Mitchell, her debuts at Covent Garden and the Teatro Liceu in Barcelona, a European tour of Boulez's Pli selon pli with the Ensemble InterContemporain conducted by the composer, and her first Lulu at the Monnaie in 2012, in a new production by Krzysztof Warlikowski. Upcoming is the world première with the Berlin Philharmonic of Let me tell you for soprano and orchestra by Hans Abrahamsen with words by Paul Griffiths.


    A partial list of her recordings with cover pictures can be found [here].


    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Barbara Hannigan

    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.

    Credits - Questions by Luiz Gazzola; Photos from the artist's web site, credit is given when known; we'll be happy to add more credits if we learn about them; fair promotional use.

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Thank you Ms. Hannigan, for doing this. I’m very impressed with your Agnès in Written on Skin. You are a wonderful artist, so it will be my honor and my pleasure to interview you, having talked at length with the composer George Benjamin about this piece – he is obviously another great admirer of your talent. Let’s start by talking about your character. It’s a very emotionally intense character, one that must resonate with a performer’s inner core. Please talk to us about the psychology of the character.

    Barbara Hannigan – The psychology of Agnès? Obviously the role is about liberation. As far as she is concerned, she is dealing with a situation in which she didn’t know how oppressed she was. The way that I play her is that from the beginning it is clear that she is frustrated, but she doesn’t really understand why; she doesn’t know what she is missing. As the opera goes on, this boy comes into the house, and he evokes feelings in her that are confusing and very strong. He encourages her to think and feel. Then the trajectory of events is quite intense.

    OL - What exactly triggers Agnès sudden defiance of her abusive husband?

    BH – Nothing is a sudden choice for her. Every step that she makes is one small step, and that is made very clear in the libretto at the beginning. She is remembering how she took her shoes off show that she wouldn’t make a lot of sound, and she quietly walks up the steps to the boy’s room for the first time, to see what he was painting. She walks over to him in very tiny little steps. I don’t think she talks to herself “I am going to have an affair with him and change my life.” It’s really more “I’m curious, I have these feelings inside and I don’t know what they are, so for the first time in my life I’m really going to follow my heart and my instinct.”

    OL – Yes, very interesting! You are right, now that I think of it – it is indeed gradual, not sudden. Why do you think Agnès kills herself? Would it be a matter of control, to rob her husband of the opportunity to murder her?

    BH – You are right, that’s part of it. It’s her final act of power, certainly. It’s a very powerful and defiant act for her to do that. At that time suicide was the ultimate sin. It’s also a liberating choice, because if she stays, either he will kill her, or will make of her life a living hell, so her only escape, really, is to jump off the window. She has liberated herself intellectually, sexually, emotionally, and has begun to be her own person. She is no longer owned by her husband, and so this is her final act of ownership: “I decide how I die, and when I die.”

    OL - Written on Skin has scenes that are of a devastating eroticism, but done in a classy way by stage director Ms. Katie Mitchell without showing any… skin.

    Written on Skin, Production Picture, Aix-en-Provence Festival, Barbara with Bejun Mehta

    BH – Right!

    OL - I personally see it as a lesson to be learned by certain Regie directors. What are your views on the issue of Regieoper?

    BH – It’s an interesting question. I see that term used and I often have the feeling that it is used in a negative way, against directors who don’t respect the real story of an opera. They will take an opera and turn the story upside down, and make of it something very different than what the singers are singing about, and everyone needs to twist themselves upside down and backwards to try and make it work. But my feeling is that I do think opera needs very good directors. It’s no longer a performance of standing and singing, and pretty costumes and pretty sets. The public also wants to have good actors and good direction even when they are seeing traditional opera like bel canto or Mozart or Handel, as well as with modern works like Written on Skin.

    I just want to work with a team that clicks, and when you have a director who respects the story and the characters, and who has an understanding of the music to the best of their ability. Then, we have a conductor and a music staff who are also supporting this Gesamtkunstwerk. Then, we have a very special situation. If I look at two operas I did this year, Written on Skin and Lulu, that’s what we got. In Written on Skin, there was Katie’s beautiful and intense direction. She kept talking to us on how she didn’t want our gestures to be “operatic.” She didn’t want to go to Opera Land. She wanted it to be real and feel more like theater, or even more filmic. She was constantly telling us to do less.

    As Lulu in La Monnaie, 2012 - Photo Credit Pierre Philippe Hofmann

    With Lulu directed by Krysztof Warlikowski, there was hesitation in the opera world about his work, which I cannot understand, because he is absolutely an extraordinary colleague and director. He worked very much from the center of the story of Lulu. When I walked into the very first rehearsal and we began to speak, I thought “We have exactly the same ideas about this woman.” All the crazy things I did in Lulu, going on pointe [ballet shoes], falling down, time and time again being pushed around the stage, any of the extreme physical things I did in that piece, certainly fit what was happening both in the libretto and the music. It all made perfect sense.

    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.

    OL - How do you feel about the smashing success of Written on Skin? Did you expect this much ever since you laid eyes on the piece?

    BH – I didn’t. First of all, I often don’t think about whether something is a hit or not. But certainly, when I get a new score, I think “Is this a good score?” I make my decisions very quickly. Sometimes my perspective changes over the period of rehearsal, but quite early on in the process I have an opinion, shall we say. [laughs] But I didn’t have any idea that this would be such a success. As we were working with Katie during the rehearsal process, it became clear that this was something very special. We started to really love the piece and the process of working on it. As we got to the dress rehearsal in Aix-en-Provence, people had been coming to the rehearsals and there was a lot of buzz about the piece.

    We were in the biggest theater in Aix-en-Provence, and it was a risk to put modern opera in this theater where the Berlin Philharmonic had done the Ring. The response was extraordinary for opening night, but then there were no tickets to be had – it was just completely sold out. This was a wonderful feeling and a wonderful surprise. Except perhaps for Amsterdam – I wasn’t there, I was singing Lulu at the time so I couldn’t be part of that – every other location we’ve gone to, the opera has been sold out. Even in Munich, I’ve never seen an audience respond like that. The curtain calls just went on, and on, and on.

    The opera appeals to the heart of the public. They become wrapped up in the story as if it were a kind of thriller. I don’t think they sit there saying “Oh, I’m enjoying modern opera.” They don’t seem to think of it as modern opera. They are so engrossed in the story, because it is transfixing. Then they go home and tell their friends, and they read about it, and everyone comes. I haven’t heard any negative words. No one has come up to me and said “Oh, what a waste of time.” It’s been the opposite.

    OL - I know you’re no stranger to creating new operatic roles and I’ll ask about it a little later, but right now, to remain on the Written on Skin topic, let me ask you this: The experiencing of creating a role for a piece that is being heralded as the best masterpiece of the 21st century so far, and one that is in all likelihood destined to withstand the test of time, must be thrilling. Any comments on this particular effect of – let’s call it this way, immortality - that this is likely to have in your legacy as a singer?

    BH – First and foremost, it’s a great honor and it is very good fortune to be part of this. It’s a combination of a long commitment that I had to music – to singing it and performing it, and particularly, modern music. I’ve premiered over 80 works, and I know every one of them won’t be a hit or a masterpiece. I didn’t know what I was getting into with George’s opera because I hadn’t seen a single note of the score when I said “Yes, I will do it.” I didn’t even know the story.

    When we look at the history books and look at the singers for whom particular roles were written – like Mary Garden who premiered Mélisande, or we remember Maria Malibran or Adelina Patti – all these singers were modern music singers. I’m really excited that my name gets in some way to be beside those names. It’s a great, great honor.

    OL - How did George Benjamin pick you?

    BH – I don’t know! I’ve known George for quite some time, and he certainly knows my work. We have many, many colleagues in common. He’s seen me perform. All I know is that he came up to me in Luzern quite some years ago and just flat out asked me if I would be in his opera, and once we sorted out the times and so on, that was really it. He had an idea when he asked me. He knew the character of the piece that I would sing – I didn’t. He very much wrote the part for me, so he had the upper hand. He knew what he wanted and what he was doing – I was a bit in the dark. I had to discover the part scene by scene.

    I think every composer that I work with projects something of themselves on to me, or on to any of the people for whom they are writing. In George’s case, as you know, Agnès is a very heart-breaking character. She garners a lot of sympathy from the audience. I was thinking yesterday – if he changed the story a bit, it didn’t have to be a woman, it’s not particularly that; it’s just one of these persons who need to free themselves. Everyone has the opportunity to go through that at some point in their lives, in a small way or a large way.

    OL - Can you please share with us memories of the composition process, and how George got input from the singers? I know that George invited you all over to talk about the tessitura.

    BH – He already knew my voice and my repertoire. He looked at the pieces I’ve sung and knew what my voice can do. That said, I went to his house and we very carefully played a kind of compositional game together, where he 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. George really listened to me, which I loved.

    Barbara and George Benjamin

    OL – Isn’t it incredible, how he manipulates the music to fit the situation? This opera is so brilliant! I think it is one of the top three contemporary operas I’ve ever seen, and I go as far as ranking it in the top twenty of all time. People gave me flack about it, but I stand by it. I think it is one of the top twenty operas ever composed.

    BH – Yes, I think you are right.

    OL - How hard is the Agnès role as a sing, as a vocal challenge, even though it was written for your voice?

    BH – It’s hard to sing, yes. It is difficult. But it has a natural progression of the role, so as the energy builds up, it gives me the energy to sing. As the character becomes more and more energetic I’m also energetic, and as she starts to break out then I need to break out at the same time. As long as I do a good warm up… and when I start to sing the piece in performance, it also warms me up, vocally. It doesn’t start with spectacular high notes, or spectacular pianissimo. It’s very controlled in a middle voice way, then it spirals and becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. So actually this makes it easier to sing, at least for me.

    OL - Those who have seen the world premiere and the Covent Garden run have by now associated the three main roles with the role creators, you, and your wonderful colleges Mr. Mehta and Mr. Purves. How is for you, the work with other casts now that the opera is being revived everywhere? I asked George and he said he did not have to adapt the vocal score to other singers, so far.

    BH – It was quite early on that Bejun Mehta had to be replaced. We had a wonderful guy in Toulouse named Tim Mead. He brought something very different to the role, he brought a kind of tenderness and compassion which was really sweet to experience, and he sang beautifully. I really enjoyed it. And then we had another countertenor in Vienna and Munich, Iestyn Davies, who had worked with Katie Mitchell before, so he particularly understood her appreciation for a certain kind of acting. I also enjoyed working with him. Vocally, everyone is different, and Bejun has some incredible strengths, especially in the lower register which is very difficult for countertenors, so sometimes I miss that particular beauty of tone, but everyone has their strengths, and all three countertenors that have sung the part have bought something to it.

    Only once we had a different person to replace Christopher Purves, only in Vienna, and it was a Norwegian singer named Audun Iversen, and I thought he did a very good job, but there wasn’t as much… Because Bejun had to be replaced several times, I’m used to working with different countertenors, but with the new Protector we only had a few performances, and it is more difficult to connect if you know you are only going to do it once. I think he did a beautiful job. He was younger and he was a really big guy – I mean, a lot younger than Chris. The thing about playing it with Chris is that I was the young wife, whereas with Audun we were more or less the same age and it leveled out the playing field a little bit. When I’m the oppressed wife with the much older husband – Chris Purves is not that much older than me, but on stage he looks older and I look younger – it’s a different dynamic.

    OL - You’ve just finished another sold out run of this spectacular opera in Munich, and I know about the Paris run later this year. Do you have plans to revive the role, and if yes, where and when, if you are at a liberty to say it?

    BH – Yes, there are plans to do it in New York in 2015. It will be fully staged; not in an opera company, but part of a festival. I’m not authorized to be more specific. There are plans for us to return to Covent Garden for it, and we will also do it in concert form in Toronto, and there are other offers coming in as well. There is a ton of interest. It’s a pity that I won’t be able to do them all.

    OL - Not only you have incorporated into your repertoire this gorgeous role of Agnès, but you risk to become a quite iconic Lulu as well. Can you tell us about the impact of playing and singing Lulu?

    BH – Ah, it was amazing. It was really one of those “the role of your lifetime.” It’s such a huge part; to prepare it is more than one year of work, not just vocally but also emotionally, in the attempts to incorporate such an extraordinary character. I felt really fortunate that we had Krysztof Warlikowski as our director, because he and I worked very much of one mind. I’m happy that he and I have other projects together in the future. We have two more operas that we will do together. It was very hard for me to let go of Lulu when I finished the nine performances in Brussels. It had been sold out and incredibly well received by almost all the press. It was very hard to say goodbye to this vision. I have the feeling that I didn’t really say goodbye. I think Lulu became part of everything else I do. What she taught me as a character has infused other roles and even other concerts I did ever since, including Agnès.

    As Lulu in La Monnaie, 2012 - Photo Credit Pierre Philippe Hofmann

    OL – Interesting. Now, let’s shift to other aspects of your illustrious career. First of all, I’d like to ask you why a Canadian-born artist has been so prolific in Europe but hasn’t been back to perform in your native North America as often – maybe just a question of opportunity, but if there are specifics about this choice I’d like to hear about them, if you don’t mind. We miss you here, Ms. Hannigan. Any plans to sing and conduct more often this side of the Atlantic?

    BH – I am asked for lots of things in North America. I’m really particular about what I do, and often times it’s just a matter of the calendar, with something not fitting. I do come to Canada every couple of years to sing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and I have a wonderful relationship with them. I do have plans in the major cities in the United States over the next couple of years to do various programs. I’m really happy with those relationships. I think you’ll see once the seasons are announce for 2015 and 2016 that I’m over in the States a fair bit doing some really wonderful repertoire and also bringing some special pieces that I created in Europe to the United States. So, I’m really looking forward to that.

    OL - Then, we can’t help but being amazed at your artistry combining singing, conducting, dancing, and playing the piano. Would you tell us how this multi-talented career came to be like this? How do these passions have intertwined with each other in your training? What fulfills you more as an artist – singing recitals and concerts, singing opera, accompanying yourself on the piano, dancing, or conducting? Of course, most probably, all of the above, but still, there must be some difference in your enjoyment of these different aspects of your art.

    BH – Well, the singing is of course the central guiding force, and I think everything else is an extension of that. I always played piano, and occasionally I will play accompanying myself in public, but only for special projects. I am not going to go play a concerto somewhere or anything like that. It’s more having a kind of theatrical aspect to it when I sit down and accompany myself.

    Gulbenkian Orchestra, February 2012

    The conducting is also an extension of the leadership I have when I sing. Certainly I try to be the best musician that I can be, so I’ve always had a strong awareness of what my colleagues are doing in the orchestra. When it was suggested to me that I tried to conduct as well – actually it wasn’t even my idea – I became quite addicted to that way of studying a score and that kind of preparation. It is really very addictive to prepare a score with that depth. I don’t have as much time as I would like when I’m “just the singer” but when I have to prepare a score for conducting it does take a lot of time and a lot of attention, but it’s the kind of work that I absolutely thrive on.

    As far as the dancing goes, I have had dance training as a younger person and I have done a lot of modern dance pieces in which I also had to sing, over the years, but it became a much more prevalent part of my work since 2010 when I started working with Sasha Waltz, the choreographer in Berlin.

    Passion, Théâtre des Champs Elisées, photo credit Bernd Uhlig

    I had always been quite a physical performer and I’ve always been in a strong physical condition, but when it started with Sasha, it was eight hours a day of dancing and training, and I was singing as well, and was expected to be one of the dancers. I was intimidated by it at first, but I also felt in a way quite liberated and very excited, because I was doing something that I have always dreamed of. I always wanted to dance, but I had to choose music because where I came from in Nova Scotia you couldn’t do everything, otherwise you would spend your entire life in the car, driving from lesson to lesson. It would have been impossible; then I chose to focus on music, and it is fantastic that later on in my life I actually get to live another dream.

    OL – Did you take conducting lessons, or was it self-taught?

    BH – When I began conducting, when I made my debut, to be honest I actually hadn’t had more than a few hours of coaching. It came quite naturally, but I didn’t have a disciplined technique. I just did it. Maybe it was just like the dancing. I had some lessons as a young person but I actually just went out there and did it. Now I am taking lessons. When I prepare a score, I work with Jorma Panula in Finland who is the conducting guru, a fantastic teacher. So now when I prepare a score I go to Helsinki and I work with him. It gives me more confidence and confirms a lot of the instincts I have. He is not showing me how to conduct. He is helping the conducting emerge out of me as a musician. He doesn’t say “move your arms like this or like that.” He is really drawing out the most efficient and most musical way of showing the orchestra what I want. That’s what I really needed; I think it’s what every conductor needs.

    OL - You have sung with some of the best conductors of today. Does your work as a conductor yourself, informs your interaction with them? Do you have a better say than other singers when you work with conductors?

    BH – Yes, I think that’s true. It works the other way around too. I always respect all my colleagues, but now I do see the score in a different way. I know how difficult it is to conduct, and when I’m working with conductors, it probably makes the working together a little bit easier because I know what they are trying to show me or what they need from me, and I realize more clearly what I need from them. There are just so many things going on that they need to control or be aware of in the orchestra! So I guess I have more empathy for what they are doing. I get to work with such amazing colleagues; players and conductors. Sometimes I’m pinching myself and thinking “How did this all happen?”

    OL - You are very devoted to Baroque and to modern and contemporary music, a somewhat unusual combination. Would you tell us what attracts you in these very different approaches to music; one so tonal and melodious, one so fragmented? (By the way, I must say, I also love both).

    BH – It’s something about the purity of the sound creation that I really like about the Baroque and Classical music. There is something really clean about it, about the tuning and the architecture of the score, and I could see that comparison as well in the modern repertoire. It is why often in the singing it works very well side by side, having those two styles of music as my focuses.

    OL - What do you think we need to do to expose more the traditional operatic audiences to all the extraordinarily good work being done today by some of our contemporary operatic composers? The audiences sometimes are spoiled with the romantic pieces and don’t accept as well the dissonance and atonality of the modern pieces.

    BH – One of the most important things is the way programs are made. If we put an entirely contemporary music program on a season, it’s very hard for the audience. It’s like looking at four very difficult pieces of modern art side by side – it’s exhausting. I like to have programs that are mixed but have a true line, of course, of some connection between the pieces, but they are also like a journey where you have moments that are very intense and drain a lot from the emotional side, from the intellect, and other moments which are slightly more restful and allow us to have some piece for a while. It’s like a landscape. Those people who are making programs – sometimes now that is me, because I’m doing a lot of programming as well – need to consider the stamina of the audience. We want to challenge them, and we want to appeal to them especially in an emotional way as opposed to an intellectual way. How can we draw them in to the dramatic component of the evening? It’s the most important thing.

    I don’t like all kinds of contemporary music. I’m very, very picky about who I promote and what music I sing. I’m very careful, because I know that when I sing a particular contemporary piece, I am telling everyone “This is what I want you to listen to.” So, I need to be very, very strict; and I am, about what I will agree to sing.

    20 - We on Opera Lively make a point of covering new works as much as we can – I’m here in Santa Fe for the world premiere of Oscar. [Our review of Oscar is (here)]. So, like I said you are a very frequent role creator. Besides Agnès, you have taken part in the world premières of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion (Lei) at the Aix Festival, Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer (Saskia) for the Netherlands Opera, Jan van de Putte’s Wet Snow (Liza) for the Nationale Reisopera of the Netherlands, Michel van der Aa’s solo opera One with film and electronics, Luca Mosca’s Signor Goldoni (Despina) at La Fenice and Gerald Barry’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Gabrielle) for English National Opera. I don’t mean to ask you about all of them because it would be too lengthy, but would you please pick some that you care about the most, describe them briefly to us, and share with us some of the experience of singing these characters?

    BH – Passion by Dusapin is a major work in my repertoire, I would say. I performed it in three different stagings. We had three different directors for this piece. It was written for me. Well, all of those pieces were written for me. I loved that I was able to explore the character in three different ways, and continue to do so, because we still have performances of that opera in the future. It’s a very special piece for me.

    Gerald Barry is really a composer who I admire greatly. He is a friend, and he is an artist who I honor very much. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was the first opera of his that I did, then he wrote a Strindberg play called La Plus Forte – The Stronger – into an opera, for me, for one soprano and orchestra, and I’ve been performing that for several years, although we’ve never done it staged; we’ve only done it in concert. He also wrote The Importance of Being Ernest, and the role of Cecily was written for me. And now he is writing an opera on Alice in Wonderland and I will be Alice. So, he is a very important colleague in my life, and he is an incredible creative force. One of the things about him that is so special is that he’s got a fantastic sense of humor in his music, because music doesn’t generally tend to be very funny. Ligeti can make things funny, but there are not very many other composers who can do that, and Gerald Barry is one of them.

    [Talking about funny Ligeti, let's see this video clip of Barbara singing and conducting his music:]

    OL - Please tell us about the “Let me tell you, for soprano and orchestra” you’ll be singing soon and in 2014.

    BH – It’s a half an hour piece, by Hans Abrahamsen who is a Danish composer, and Paul Griffiths who is a Welsh writer. It’s a very special piece. I’ve just gotten the score for it, actually, and I’m so excited, because the premiere is in December with the Berlin Philharmonic, and it came out of a book that Paul Griffiths wrote about Ophelia, from Shakespeare. To make a long story short, I basically asked the Berlin Philharmonic to commission Hans Abrahamsen to write a piece for me and the orchestra using text from this book. What I find amazing about it is that before the score was even written, we already had many orchestras that were interested to have me come and sing it, including the Göteborgs Symfoniker, the Rotterdam Philharmonic with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and we will sing it at the Concertgebouw; we will sing it in Birmingham; so it’s an amazing project, and it is a very special piece. You will be able to watch it in December in the Digital Concert Hall in Berlin; they will broadcast it online. What I love is that it came from the artists; it didn’t come from a manager trying to put famous people together. It came from me, Paul, and Hans, just from the artistic idea we brought, and tried to bring it as we have done, to the highest level. To have the Berlin Philharmonic premiere it is just extraordinary; we still can’t really believe it.

    OL - Your impressive discography boasts 13 items already that I could count (maybe more that I haven’t noticed), between DVDs and CDs. Do you have favorites? Would you describe to us a couple of very special CD items for you, and how you got to select the music for them?

    BH – I don’t know, because I never listen to them. First of all, it’s a Dutilleux recording, Correspondance, that’s probably the most important to me. It’s a piece that I sung for almost ten years and I worked very, very much with that composer, and with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Orchestra of Radio France. We made this beautiful recording which has been very, very well received. I would say that people should listen to that piece, definitely.

    The other CD of course that just came out was Written on Skin. [This recording is of the world premiere in Aix. The opera was also recorded on DVD at Covent Garden with the same prodution and almost the same cast including Ms. Hannigan, and it is due to be released in January of 2014].

    Again, I can’t say that I actually listen to them. I make the recording, but I don’t listen to it once it is out, although I have it. [laughs] I remember those days when we recorded Written on Skin; they were live performances in Aix-en-Provence, and I know the feeling, and I know that the recording is a very good representation of those incredibly exciting moments around those first performances of what you have said is a masterpiece.

    And the third recording that I like a lot is Les Illuminations, by Benjamin Britten, which I recorded with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. I’m very happy with it; I think it’s a very good piece, and I’m happy that I was able to record it with that group.

    OL - Let’s end if you don’t mind by a couple of questions about the person underneath the artist. Please tell us how was for you, growing up with this passion for classical music.

    BH – I come from a very small village in Nova Scotia. When I was growing up there wasn’t any Internet. We didn’t have a public transportation system, so we couldn’t go out to attend a concert or something like that in an easy way. We could get in a car and drive one hour or two hours, but we did a lot of music in the home. The school music program was very important, because we had very, very good music teachers. The kids, my friends at school, everybody was excited about music and music-making. It certainly wasn’t anything sophisticated that we did, but I really loved making music for as long as I can remember. It really was love. It wasn’t that I liked it, it was that I loved it. When I moved to the big city, to Toronto, all of a sudden I could go to the Symphony five nights a week. I could hear chamber music programs, and I could spend several hours in the library listening to recordings and scores, and that was like a festival for me, because I was so hungry and so curious!

    OL – How old were you when you moved to Toronto?

    BH – I was seventeen.

    OL – Was your family involved in music as well? Were your parents musicians?

    BH – My parents were involved in music in an amateur way, nothing professional. But my sister studied cello, and she is a professional cellist. She lives in Montreal. She had really seriously good training with Yehudi Menuhin who took her when she was fifteen to a summer program in Spain and in Switzerland. She was a very high level musician. My twin brother did his degree in music. He focused on jazz, but he didn’t stay in the business; he decided to go into something else. Three out of the four kids really studied very intensely. We all played the piano, plus another instrument, plus singing lessons, choir camp; a lot of music all the time.

    OL - Please tell us about your extra-musical interests. What else do you enjoy and love, in your life outside of the performing universe?

    BH – The thing I like to do most other than making music is to cook. I love it. I tend to make really elaborate meals and to create recipes. I can’t follow a recipe. It’s not in my nature. I will read books and cooking magazines, whatever, but I always have to make up my own path, which is probably like my music career as well, [laughs] I certainly don’t follow a recipe in my music career. That’s one of my main hobbies. The other thing is that I can’t say I’m very good at relaxing, because I like to work, and I like to work hard, but when I’m home like I am now, I can sit and read a book, and I can visit with my family, and I can enjoy the beautiful nature that we have in Canada, and that’s very important to me, to reconnect in a very basic way with my surroundings.

    OL – Do you have any causes that you plan to be active in, like education of children, or something like that?

    BH – As far as teaching goes, I do like to give workshops for composers and master classes for singers. I like working with kids, but I find it exhausting. I think every teacher knows what I am talking about. [laughs] It’s really exhausting. It gives you a lot of energy but it also takes a lot of energy from you, and right now what I’m expanding into, in the conducting, is taking pretty much all of my time. So, I don’t see myself doing a major educational program and spending a few weeks of every year teaching.

    OL - I know that this question is always a bit of a challenge but it is very nice for our readers to get a flavor of the person: how do you define your personality? How are you, as a person?

    BH – I’m pretty high energy. [laughs] I have a lot of energy. I’m very positive. I have literally trained my mind to be very positive in the way I approach everything that I do, kind of like sports psychology, so that I can be as healthy as I can. I suppose I’m quite driven. I like to work hard; I like to keep a very fast pace. It’s hard for me to sit still. It’s hard for me to relax. For me, relaxing is studying, or making programs for a festival, so this is a little bit funny. I think I’m a pretty happy and positive person. I have down times when I feel frustrated and less positive, especially when I’m tired or things are going wrong. I like to have schedules of what I’m doing. For some reason if something goes wrong I don’t have a lot of room to adjust. Certainly my colleagues usually say that I’m pretty positive and fun to work with and pretty intense. [laughs].

    OL – One can tell, looking at your schedule. [laughs] I’m grateful for this interview, you answered to our questions so well and for so long! I’ll be thrilled to see you in New York in 2015, or maybe sooner. I was about to travel to Paris to go see Written on Skin there, but it coincides with my son’s college graduation.

    BH – Oh, I see, you can’t miss that. Well, I’m glad that we talked, and that we had the time to answer all the questions. Thank you so much.


    Let's listen to the singer - see her purity of tone in Stravinsky's Le Rossignol :

    Singing tango in Facade, with the Berlin Philharmonic (lots of fun):

    This extraordinary video clip is a true sampler of the singer's amazing range in many roles:


    If you came to this page through a link from another site, please consider exploring our other exclusive interviews (Joyce DiDonato's, Anna Caterina Antonacci's, Luca Pisaroni's, Thomas Hampson's, Piotr Beczala's, scholar Dr. Philip Gossett's, veteran singer Sylvia Sass', tenor Jay Hunter Morris', composer George Benjamin's, Susan Graham's, and stage director Thaddeus Strassberger's are especially good, among 102 artists, scholars, conductors, directors, etc.), news, and articles by clicking on the Articles tab above and using our new clickable content index [here], or the Section Widget on the top left of the page; our very active discussion Forum (of course, by clicking on the Forum tab - and please notice that over there we also have an area with content in Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Portuguese).

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