In the last few years, Barbara Hannigan has made unforgettable debuts in several soprano roles at La Monnaie, founded a mentoring initiative for young singers and won a Grammy. Now, with a semi-staged version of Stravinsky’s “diabolic” opera The Rake’s Progress, she will be making her debut as… an operatic conductor. Time for an interview with this Canadian superstar, who, with that many talents, surely must have made her own pact with the devil.
Barbara Hannigan : When I first took the risk to go into conducting – almost eight years ago now – it wasn’t that I was imagining making a career change. I was basically doing one concert, that’s it. But before the concert it felt like something special: a kind of responsibility I never experienced before. Call it a parental feeling. That word ‘parental’ is important because as the singer we can be much more like the child [laughs]. It’s a role that allows you to be much more precocious, volatile, difficult or self-centred. Being a conductor is entirely different. Then you are like the parent, responsible… and I remember liking that feeling very, very much. I absolutely wanted to explore that further.
Lucky for me, my debut as a conductor was a positive one and it immediately led to more engagements as a conductor. And now, my life is almost 50/50, I’m still a singer and I’m also a conductor!
How would you describe your style as a conductor? For instance, I have never seen you conducting with a baton...
BH: ‘Yes, that’s true, I have tried conducting with a baton, but it didn’t feel right. My hands are so expressive and I didn’t want to add something to that.
As to how I would describe my conducting style… I can’t. I couldn’t even describe my style of singing. What I try to do as a musician – as both a singer and a conductor – is I incorporate the music. Using the term ‘corpus’ as the centre of that which means that the music comes into my body and is expressed through my body.
What my experience as a singer allows me to bring to conducting is a sense of ‘professional breathing’. Singers are either producing the sound or breathing, both of which happen very consciously. This is something I can give while I’m conducting, this sense of a singing sound and a breath, even if I’m not singing.
How does The Rake’s Progress fit into your repertoire?
BH: ‘My relationship with the piece goes far back! When I was 23, I was asked – as an understudy for the lead – to sing the role of Anne Trulove. It was the first major role I ever sang and I adored it. Over the years I sang that role in a few productions here and there. When the idea came up to do an opera project, it seemed natural to me that the first opera I ever really sang would be the first opera I would ever really conduct.
I just love the story and the music of The Rake. It’s a timeless fable about love and loyalty, about honesty, greed and losing your values. There is no way to say whether this story is old or new; it is simply human, always with us. They are all fascinating characters… They are somewhat stereotypical and therefore they all have more or less their own harmonic structure. But in my characterisations of them, I want them to be real persons. Nick Shadow, for instance, the devil, I don’t want instantly to be recognisable as the bad guy. The reason he is so convincing is precisely because he is so likeable. Anne Trulove, for another, I don’t want her to be too goodie-two-shoes, so I add a few human edges to her.
You will perform The Rake’s Progress together with the Dutch LUDWIG ensemble, a group you work with intensely.
The musicians of LUDWIG are a flexible collective. I have been working with the orchestra for nine years or so, and these are musicians I worked with in all different kinds of ensembles before they became LUDWIG. The collaboration works so well because we have the same musical ideas. We are curious and we are risk takers. And it’s paying off: just this year, we won a Grammy Award and the Klara Muziekprijs for Best International CD for our album Crazy Girl Crazy.
The singers come from your own project Equilibrium.
Yes, that’s right, Equilibrium is a mentoring initiative for young professional musicians, mainly singers. I started Equilibrium a couple of years ago because I wanted to find a way to give something back to the music community. I wanted to help my younger colleagues with the same kind of generosity I received from my mentors over the years.
I wanted to do this in an official way, like an apprenticeship for professionals. So it’s not an education programme or a training programme. Some of the musicians of Equilibrium are already singing with renowned ensembles and orchestras. What I’m trying to do is to help them with developing and maintaining their discipline, their focus, skills that are not just about singing and being a good musician but about being a good colleague and a healthy person serving not only to be successful but also to be truly satisfied with their career.
Linus Fellbom is the Swedish director of this production. Can you lift the veil about his concept a bit?
When I was looking for a director for this production, Anne Sofie von Otter recommended Linus to me. A golden tip! Just like myself, Linus divides his time between two art forms: he started his career as a lighting designer and eventually he started combining it with directing.
Linus’s key concept of the piece is the idea of ‘witnessing’. All the singers, all the orchestra, all the chorus are on stage all the time. Everyone is witnessing what is happening in this performance as it unfolds. Furthermore, on stage we have a central unit which is a large box that breaks open at the beginning of the opera. From that box emerges one of the characters… The opened box then becomes the playing space of the opera, as it were.
What does returning to Brussels mean to you?
Brussels is really an incredibly special place to me! I have been performing in De Munt for many years in productions of Dusapin, Hosawaka, Defoort and Ligeti. And most importantly: I made my debut in the role of my lifetime, also in De Munt, where I played Lulu in the eponymous opera by Alban Berg. I have also been part of the Klarafestival before, as Belinda in Jan Decorte’s production of Dido and Aeneas, for instance.
So I have a strong artistic connection to Brussels and am absolutely thrilled to bring The Rake’s Progress to De Munt this March during Klarafestival!
This interview has been published with the kind permission of the Klarafestival.