Barbara Hannigan

»I must be free«

Barbara Hannigan on her double role as singer and conductor, her quest for fluency, and the authenticity of her three cats.

Hannigan herself is proof that every artist can find their own unique path – after all, the versatile musician is impossible to pigeonhole. Rather than following the established mechanisms of the music market, she listens to her inner voice and single-mindedly realises her own ideas. »My three cats are a great inspiration for me in that regard«, she says in the interview, laughing. »They’re always true to themselves and their needs.«


Hannigan, who now lives in Brittany, has enjoyed an extraordinary career. Her keen passion for New Music has made her an exemplary interpreter of contemporary works, regardless of how difficult they may be. The soprano gave her first premiere aged only 17, and she has now premiered a total of almost 100 works – including George Benjamin’s global opera hit »Written on Skin« (2012), Brett Dean’s »Hamlet« (2017) and »The Snow Queen« by Hans Abrahamsen (2018), who also wrote the enchantingly beautiful orchestral song cycle »Let Me Tell You« (2013) for the soprano’s equally enchanting voice.

Another extraordinary aspect of Hannigan’s work is the combination of singing and conducting, which seem to fuse into a new art form, mutually imbuing and enriching each other. As a result, her concerts are best described as a performance, as a kind of total artwork. This is also reflected in the artist’s fondness for sophisticated concert programmes that, in often unusual combinations, facilitate new listening experiences – especially when performed with Hannigan’s trademark perfection and intensity.


In a portrait series over the next few months, the Elbphilharmonie audience will experience you as a singer, conductor and performer – but as what do you see yourself?

I would only limit myself by giving myself a label. I simply do whatever I feel like doing. And when I do something, I try to be as present as possible. No matter whether I’m singing »Lulu«, conducting Mahler’s Fourth or collaborating on an interdisciplinary project. Last March, for example, I sang works by John Zorn in a concert in the Elbphilharmonie – for me, that felt like something special because I wouldn’t describe myself as a jazz singer. And it’s not about that; it’s about making music.

Barbara Hannigan und John Zorn in der Elbphilharmonie, 2022
Barbara Hannigan und John Zorn in der Elbphilharmonie, 2022 © Daniel Dittus

Your first performance in your Elbphilharmonie portrait series will see you take on the role of the Forest Bird in Richard Wagner’s »Siegfried«. Wagner is not the first composer we think of when we hear your name…

Because my voice is not a Wagner voice, that’s why. The Forest Bird is pretty much the only Wagner role I can sing. When Simon Rattle asked me whether I would like to perform some Wagner, I thought it would be a nice opportunity to dive into this milieu for a short while. It’s just the right dose for me because the Wagner creatures are really special beings.


Can you perhaps imagine doing more Wagner, maybe not as a singer but as a conductor?

Never say never! But that is not music I’ve explored very intensively before. I can imagine conducting the »Siegfried Idyll« or the overture to »Parsifal«, something like that. But I’d be less likely to consider a whole Wagner opera.

In reviews of your recordings and performances, words such as »ground-breaking« or – in a positive sense – »irritating« often come up. Is that something you want: to surprise and to test our listening habits?

That isn’t the priority. First and foremost, I allow myself to be free. Many of my performances have a strong element of movement, such as when I worked with Sasha Waltz’s dance company for »Passion«, when I danced in pointe shoes as Lulu. I’m not a trained dancer, of course, but I had an intense desire to do it. Will and imagination are incredible sources of power. It was the same with conducting, where desire and passion were also the triggers for trying it. I have never said: that is my voice type and so those are my roles. Over the course of my career there have always been these interdisciplinary projects, born of an inner drive. I must be free, physically and vocally – but also free to choose my music.


»I need projects in which I feel an inner urge and a desire – that gives me the necessary energy.«


Vermeiden Sie damit bewusst eine lähmende Alltagsroutine?

Das ist ein Ergebnis, aber nicht mein Antrieb. »Passion« zum Beispiel habe ich nicht gemacht, weil ich unbedingt tanzen wollte, sondern weil ich mit Sasha Waltz arbeiten wollte. Es hat also stark mit der Künstlerpersönlichkeit zu tun, es geht mir nicht darum, einfach andere Dinge auszuprobieren. So ist es auch bei »Electric Fields« mit den Labèque-Schwestern und Werken von Hildegard von Bingen. Deren Musik ist auf eine gewisse Art minimalistisch, so etwas singe ich gar nicht oft. Ich brauche also ein Projekt wie dieses, bei dem ich einen inneren Drang und ein Verlangen spüre, das gibt mir die nötige Energie.

Was erwartet das Publikum beim Multimedia-Projekt »Electric Fields«?

Es ist multi auf ganz unterschiedliche Weise: Wir haben diese alte Musik von Hildegard von Bingen aus dem 12. Jahrhundert, dazu gibt es Werke von Francesca Caccini, einer italienischen Opernkomponistin des Frühbarock, aber auch Live-Elektronik. Zu den historischen Komponistinnen treten dann die beiden zeitgenössischen Komponisten David Chalmin und Bryce Dessner – es gibt also Verschränkungen auf den unterschiedlichsten Ebenen. Und trotzdem wird der ganze Abend von einem großen Atem zusammengehalten, es gibt auch keine Pause oder Applaus zwischen den Stücken. Das Projekt ist also auf eine gewisse Art sehr modern, geht aber auch mehr als zehn Jahrhunderte in die Vergangenheit zurück.


What meaning does the word »modern« hold for you as an artist?

That’s a tough question. For me, modern means pointing to something new. In that respect we can no longer call Schönberg modern music. In the beginning he belongs more to Late Romanticism, and then we label twelve-tone music as modern because it clearly doesn’t sound Romantic to our ears – but that’s now 100 years ago. This brings us back to the problem with labels, because as soon as we stick a label on something, we’re pigeon-holing it. I, on the other hand, am the kind of person who prefers questions to answers. I like the mysterious, enigmatic element in music. Of course, I try to understand the works I’m performing, but at the same time they never reveal everything of themselves, there is always one last secret.

But choosing different paths also means regularly leaving your comfort zone. Isn’t that stressful?

I don’t have a comfort zone because I see everything as a challenge. For me, a comfort zone means that things come easy to me, that I don’t need to make an effort. But that’s not in my nature, I’m a grafter: I love practicing and studying. And I also always try to reach the next level, even when it’s a work I’ve already performed numerous times. So you could say that taking risks is my comfort zone, my default setting if you will.


»Taking risks is my comfort zone«

Even the toughest pieces sound so easy when you perform them. Does your voice really know no limits?

I try to make it sound easy because I want the audience to be able to give the music their full attention – and not be distracted by the effort I’m making to master the challenges of the music. If I as the artist – especially with New Music – convey the message through my interpretation that it’s complicated and complex, the audience will inevitably pick up on that. That’s why I think it’s important, as an interpreter, to dive into the music as deeply as possible and to feel as comfortable as possible there in order to make not just the complexity, but also the emotions of the music audible.

With the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, you will also be performing in your double role as singer and conductor in Hamburg. Are you more of a singing conductor or a conducting singer?

That’s again a question of labels – singing conductor sounds horrible, doesn’t it? When I’m singing, I’m a singer; when I’m conducting, I’m a conductor. Anyway, I don’t do both at the same time that often.



Why did you become a conductor – weren’t you busy as a singer?

I gave my debut as a singer when I was very young. My debut as a conductor wasn’t until much later, when I was around 38 or 39. But I wasn’t looking for a career switch, I simply wanted to explore something, to try my hand at it. After my conducting debut, I then decided to continue on that path, along with the singing. And I also noticed that it can make sense to combine both in programmes because I have learnt so much about conducting. I realised that I was a better conductor when I was also singing. Why? Because the breath creates a better connection. When I discovered that, that was when I really felt very comfortable as a conductor. When I’m not breathing well, when I don’t have a deep centre of gravity, my conducting doesn’t work.

And did the singer in you also learn something from the conductor?

To begin with I didn’t realise quite how much. First and foremost, I have a better understanding of the whole picture, of each individual part, not just mine. And my respect for certain conductors I work with as a singer grew – because I understand how they approach a score and how deeply they get into it. It’s changed my views in a number of ways: it’s raised my own standards and, I hope, also deepened my connection with colleagues.


Barbara Hannigan sings and conducts Kurt Weills »Lost in the Stars«


How do you manage to communicate with the orchestra when you’re also singing, often with your back to the ensemble?

The audience only sees the performance, but that is the result of an intensive rehearsal process. In the moment we step on stage, what I do as a conductor is more of a recollection of what we’ve agreed in rehearsals. The work you do during the rehearsal is very different to the performance, in which it’s just a matter of giving »little« signals.

It’s striking how much you move, almost dance, in your performances. It looks as if you make music with your whole body.

That’s right, although everyone will have their own unique way. Some colleagues have more of a fixed column, while mine is flexible. That just feels better to me, especially when I’m singing. I don’t move this way for show, but because it’s an inner need.

Your interpretations often have an almost physically perceptible intensity, even on CD. How do you achieve that?

I try to do that through connecting with the music as deeply as possible. I felt this special connection for the first time around ten years ago – the feeling that the door to the music is always open and I don’t have to look for the key every time. Some reach this stage earlier than others. For me, the process happened when I was around 40. That was a very intensive phase in my career with the Lulu part, with »Written on Skin« and with the beginning of my career as a conductor. I started making music when I was five years old, so it took an investment of 35 years until I really had the feeling that I’d penetrated to the core.


Interview: Björn Woll, 2022
Translation: Seiriol Dafydd

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