Barbara HanniganOn all fronts

Spotlights 02.05.2021

Soprano, conductor, artistic director and mentor, Nova Scotia-born Barbara Hannigan is a multi-faceted artist driven by an extraordinary drive and demand. The Canadian magazine Circuit , which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, has devoted its third issue of 2020 to her, and we are pleased to report on it. 

While many performers admit to being afraid of, if not rejecting, contemporary music, Babara Hannigan says she is "afraid of tradition"! This is an unusual sentiment from an artist who seeks contact with living composers, whom she sometimes even commissions. Today, she has some eighty-three creations to her credit, a record of thirty years on stage as a singer that have made her known and appreciated throughout the world: "When I sing," she says, "it's a total sensual experience. My whole body is the centre of the sound. I incorporate the music. Among her most resounding successes is the role of Lei (Elle) in Pascal Dusapin's Passion, a production by Sasha Waltz at La Monnaie in 2012; again directed by Sasha Waltz, she sings and dances with Charlotte Hellekant in Matzukaze by Japanese Toshio Hosokawa. She is Venus but also Gepopo in the fabulous production of Görgy Ligeti's Grand Macabre (Théâtre de la Monnaie 2009), and Agnes, the wife of the Protector in Written on skin, George Benjamin's masterpiece created in 2012; She recently played Berenice in Michael Jarrell's opera of the same name, in which she met the choreographer and dancer Rina Schenfeld; not forgetting Alban Berg's formidable Lulu, directed by Krzyztof Warlikowski, which the Monnaie is staging again this November with Barbara Hannigan in the title role alongside the conductor Alain Altinoglu. Under the direction of the same Warlikowski, she was Judith in Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle and Elle, the character in Francis Poulenc's one-act lyrical tragedy which completed the evening.

A role that seems to stick to her, especially when she sings and conducts the monologue at the same time, an unprecedented performance that the soprano and conductor takes up with confounding ease. This is a new production (2021) with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the video artist Denis Guéguin, an artist associated with Krzyztof Warlikowski since 2003. It mixes live video projection and pre-recorded film, in which we see the female soprano caught in her own fantasy conducting the orchestra and vice versa. In a T-shirt and tight pants, Hannigan gives a half-professional, half-choreographic, half-athletic direction, sometimes using her fists like a boxer. The situation is ideal for the management of those famous organ points that Poulenc adds at the end of the singer's phrases, whose breaths are here synchronized with her conducting gesture. The performance is highly virtuosic and totally convincing.

Recorded on January 6 and 7, 2021 at the Maison de la Radio in Paris

As for conducting, Hannigan has never really studied it except through the advice of great conductors and in the field, which is undoubtedly the best learning experience for a musician of her calibre. Her conducting career began in 2011 at the Théâtre du Châtelet with Igor Stravinsky's Renard. It can be argued that she conducts as she sings, with great naturalness and a great relaxation in the body that favours the plasticity of the gesture: "It's almost the same as singing: space, breath, I want to give space to the orchestra...".It is with the Ludwig Orchestra, a Dutch phalanx, that she performs most often today and with which she has already recorded two albums: " Crazy Girl Crasy " and " La Passione ", a CD praised by the press where, conductor and singer once again, she interprets Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, Gérard Grisey's last score which has rarely been heard with such emotion. She is also guest conductor of the Swedish orchestra of Göteborg. 

In 2017, Barbara Hannigan created her own mentoring program called Equilibrium, a place of coaching and support for professionals based in her native Nova Scotia. "We cannot achieve harmony without keeping our act of balance in constant motion. Any good performance relies on a sacred balance between all the players involved: singers, instrumentalists, conductor, composers, text, audience," she explains. She has chosen a small group of young artists who, she says, "look a bit like her. They do not receive training, but mental and physical preparation for the profession, through which Hannigan tries to communicate her own values: concentration, discipline and joy. In this program, which she finances herself, composers, directors, choreographers, musicians and sports trainers are invited, conscious of the importance of the body and its development in an artist's career. It is worth noting that the word performance is used in both fields!

In 2020, reacting to the catastrophic situation of cultural life caused by the pandemic, Barbara Hannigan created Momentum, a structure to help the young generation, offering professional contracts in productions where emerging artists will share the stage with her.

One is overwhelmed by the radiance of this exceptional artist and the level of excellence she achieves in all areas; amazed as well by the gift of sharing and the generosity she lavishes on the younger generation throughout a resounding career where the terms trust, loyalty and discipline seem to be the key words of success.   

Michèle Tosi

Photo article: Le Grand Macabre, György Ligeti (directed by Àlex Ollé, La Monnaie, 2009) ©Bernd Uhlig


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