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Portrait of the soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan.

This woman is the epitome of the mythical Modernist creature: Alban Berg’s opera heroine »Lulu« is seductress, lover, bringer of death, recipient of death, a natural force surrounded by violence. She embodies Pandora, bringer of calamity; Eva, ancient ancestress of humanity; Mignon, the fragile, ethereal being from Nowhere; and Helena, on whose account a world went to ruin. In short, Lulu is, as she sings herself: »Woman and nothing but woman.«

At the beginning of March 2017, a new Lulu suddenly appeared at the premiere of Christoph Marthaler’s new production at the Hamburg State Opera. This Lulu danced and did gymnastics on acrobatic straps, flying like a trapeze artist in the circus or a figure skater thrown into the air by her partner before immediately rolling around his torso. This Lulu’s contortions were absurd, breathtakingly virtuosic, and dangerous even, on the very boundaries of the permissible. No, there is no singer in the world who would do such a thing. Well, maybe one: Barbara Hannigan.

No singer in the world would do such a thing. Well, maybe one: Barbara Hannigan.

Barbara Hannigan als »Lulu« an der Hamburgischen Staatsoper

»Am Rande des Erlaubten«

Barbara Hannigan als Lulu an der Hamburgischen Staatsoper.

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It was not the first time in her artistic career that Barbara Hannigan conjured such a performance. She is known as one of the most flexible interpreters of the classical music scene. But here in Hamburg, in Marthaler’s inspired reinterpretation of Alban Berg’s (unfinished) opera, she took it one step further. Her Lulu was suddenly a child, a pliable woman, always both. That she could still sing at all was in itself remarkable. But the ease with which she mastered the difficult part surpassed any expectation one might have for the role.

Barbara Hannigan als »Lulu« an der Hamburgischen Staatsoper

In attempting to describe this singer and conductor’s self-image, »infinitely curious« perhaps comes closest. Barbara Hannigan is always looking for new forms of expression that go beyond what the establishment usually has to offer. She once said that it is »much better to be free and make mistakes than to want to stay in control«.

Much better to be free and make mistakes than to want to stay in control

Barbara Hannigan

The Canadian singer has focused on contemporary music since the early days of her career. Belcanto has never really interested her, and she doesn’t feel at home with Baroque – but it is quite the opposite case with any music that redefines expression, recontextualises it, at times even deconstructs it: i.e. the music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Lo and behold, a miracle occurred: all of a sudden people were listening to this incredible material with new ears, simply because what was being offered appeared so natural. And because of the way it was being offered: so instinctive, so beautiful and somehow so sexy.

Hannigan makes modern music sounds so instinctive, so beautiful and somehow so sexy.

Barbara Hannigan
  • Barbara Hannigan performs on the world’s major stages, both as a singer and as a conductor with leading orchestras.
  • Her commitment to contemporary music has led to extensive partnerships with composers such as Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Salvatore Sciarrino.
  • Her numerous recordings have earned her prizes from the Royal Philharmonic Society, the Victoires de la Musique and the Gramophone and Edison Awards. She was named Singer of the Year by »Opernwelt« magazine in 2013.
  • Hannigan’s high-profile opera roles include Mélisande in Debussy’s »Pelléas et Mélisande« and the title role in Alban Berg’s »Lulu«, which she sang in Brussels in 2012 and recently again in Christoph Marthaler’s new production at the Hamburg State Opera.
  • Barbara Hannigan hails from Nova Scotia, Canada’s easternmost state. She studied in Toronto, Banff and The Hague, and is now based in Amsterdam.

There is no score that is too technical for her.


Hannigan has benefited from two factors. There is no score that is too technical for her, and she knows no aesthetic timidity. In addition, at some point during her work on the stage, she realised that there was another position that interested her as an expansion of the signing zone: the conductor’s podium.

The point came when the ambitious artist was no longer satisfied with practicing the discipline she so excels in »only« as a singer. She wanted more. And she felt that there were no barriers, that she was accepted immediately when standing in front of an orchestra.

That has provided lasting inspiration to countless contemporary composers. Hans Abrahamsen, Gerald Barry, Magnus Lindberg and Unsuk Chin have all composed works specially for Hannigan, as has Salvatore Sciarrino recently, the German premiere of whose »La nuova Euridice secondo Rilke« she performed at the Elbphilharmonie.

One composer stands out for Hannigan: György Ligeti

Mysteries of the Macabre

Barbara Hannigan

One composer, however, stands out from the crowd for Hannigan: György Ligeti, whose oeuvre represents a fixed point of reference for her, especially »Mysteries of the Macabre« from the opera »Le Grand Macabre«. She has performed this absurd, deranged piece countless times, taking on the three roles of (supposed) conductor, singer and comedian.


Although she makes it look so effortless, Hannigan freely admits that the piece is, in fact, an extremely difficult undertaking: »It is one of the hardest pieces in my repertoire. I learned it like a concert aria by Mozart. It’s a piece about a control freak. And as Pierre Boulez once said: ›You cannot be spontaneous unless you’re 100 per cent prepared for this spontaneity.‹ In other words, only the well-prepared are free. I am convinced that Boulez was completely right.«

Text: Jürgen Otten

Elbphilharmonie Magazin / Ausgabe 3

Read the complete article in the current issue of the Elbphilharmonie magazine (German only).

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