Barbara Hannigan, “Serving Music and Being True to Yourself”

Carrying the conductor’s wand, Canadian Barbara Hannigan saw it as yet another way to express her music, complementing her soprano voice, through which she invested body and soul in the contemporary repertoire. We caught up with the sopranos in this new season of collaboration with Orchester philharmonique de Radio France, who was the “first guest artist”, when she had just been named Artist of the Year at the prestigious 2022 Gramophone Classical Music Awards.

France Musique: You grew up in a family of music lovers, but you are not a professional musician. What attracted you to music studies? Was there an exciting event, meeting, model?

In fact, my parents were not professional musicians, but my mother was a particularly creative, musical and unconventional person, and had “Outside the fields” And an unusual imagination. Like my brothers and sister, I’ve studied piano since I was five, played the oboe in school, took private lessons in ear and harmony training, and sang in choirs since I was little.

At the age of fifteen I started private singing lessons, and from there my direction towards a vocal career seemed to follow. I loved having a “text” to sing. While we were in the family, we all sang so well, my sister chose the cello and became a professional cellist in Montreal. My brothers, who are also very musical, have found themselves in this field (plumbing and elevators), but my twin brother is still particularly in love with music today.

The most important thing for me was music at home and at school. My mother was very good at planning (she had no other choice, because she had 4 kids!), and we developed the kind of discipline and diligence in our practice that I believe puts us all on the right track. The right way. My role model was of course the music teachers, but I was also intrigued by the rare shows we could see and hear around Waverly, Nova Scotia.

It was also about radio and even television. I loved old Hollywood musicals, and there were one or two shows on TV every weekend that I watched with my grandmother or siblings. In the summer, we went to the musical colonies where we sang in choirs. We came back from these camps with hours of music in our heads, which he sang for the rest of the year in the car that took us into town for music lessons.

The music I learned at that time was not particularly complicated, but there was a lot of joy and we worked hard to play and sing as much as we could, whatever the music was.

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When you dedicate yourself to singing, you quickly show a special affinity with 20th-century authors and contemporary creativity. You especially support this same ammunition as a chef. why ?

She moved from Nova Scotia at age 17 to Toronto to attend a performing arts high school before studying vocal art at the University of Toronto. My teacher at the time, Mary Morrison, was married to a composer and was herself very drawn to contemporary music. She saw in me the ability and affinity, for example, of complex outcomes, and encouraged me to explore this field. Not forgetting that at this time Pierre Boulez and Ensemble Intercontemporain came to give concerts in Toronto. I attended, aged 17, and could not believe my ears. I’ve never heard music like this before.

I got a little freaked out, but I was also very curious, and I started going to all kinds of concerts in Toronto given by different contemporary music groups. Soon, the composers began offering me to create their tracks, because I was interested (not the least detail!), and because I had a clear, crisp sound and a lot of music.

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It seems that your financial and playful investment is just as important as your vocal investment when singing on stage. Does conducting an orchestra require the same investment? How did you get to the office?

She made it to the podium around 2011. I think my first “official” appearance took place at the Châtelet for the Festival Présences de Radio France, when I was invited to perform the works of Ligety and Stravinsky. It is Legiti’s work that she sang and performed at the same time. It made sense, because from a theatrical point of view, the play is about “control freak” [maniaque du contrôle, ndlr]. the other room, the Fox Stravinsky, I “simply” made it. It was the beginning, and I started to develop myself as a bandleader in parallel with my career as a singer.

Around the same time (2011/2012) she made her debut in two major operas that I believe had a huge impact on my musical and theater presence: lulu (Berg) directed by Warlikowski, and written on the skin (Benjamin), directed by Katie Mitchell. The two directors went on to find something inside of me which, in combination with these roles, opened the door for a different kind of expression. I’m sure this physical and dramatic approach to acting has indirectly influenced everything I do.

How did you learn about the procedure?

At first, I was just preparing for the current project. I took some advice from my fellow bandleaders, and prepared myself as best I could, but without taking formal lessons. I think it was something I had to explore on my own. Then, when it became clear to me that I was going to continue directing one way or another, I worked with Jorma Panula, Simon Rattle, and David Zinman. The search for clarity and technique that orchestral musicians could follow complemented my need to remain myself as an artist. I think it’s a lifelong search for all connectors…

What is the most formative in your career? What are the numbers? What encounters?

There are many moments that shaped me, not only musicians and composers but also actors, artists, writers and leaders. A scene from the movie Cassavetes, the transition from one color to another in Richter’s chart, the mentality of the football captain, Nadal’s tennis habits… all feed me.

You lead both professions. What do you think are the characteristics of the conductor?

Introduce music and be true to yourself.

You innovate by directing and singing on certain productions, two very demanding roles for performers, and two ways of standing on stage. why ? How do you prepare for it? How did you experience that once in a workout?

I will take as an example “human voice” from Polink. This opera was sung at the Palais Garnier in 2015 and again in 2018, on the occasion of the premiere of Warlikowski’s film. It was directed first by Salonen and then by Metzmacher. In my opinion, this work is more about the sheer imaginative indulgence of “Elle,” who is not the victim of a failed love affair but is in an addictive relationship with her own imagination. She says this at the end of the play: “…because things that I cannot imagine… do not exist.” Otherwise, they are located somewhere very mysterious…”

I was pretty sure that “she” wasn’t talking on the phone to anyone, or at least that this conversation didn’t happen in my line time. It felt like it was multiple conversations, real or imagined, that this emotional woman reinvested in.

When I was singing this role at the Paris Opera, I was convinced I had to explore it as a singer and in the office. I asked videographer Denis Gaegan to help me develop the idea of ​​having a video screen behind the orchestra and three cameras inside the orchestra, so that I could sing opera in front of the orchestra. I rehearsed over several weeks on my own with the pianist, memorized the score for the orchestra, found the gestures that served as conductor and actress, then added the three video cameras and the monitor and began exploring that interaction.

She made the piece with the Orchester philharmonique de Radio France in January 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, and has gone on to perform this production with 6 other orchestras. Of course, performing the piece with the audience, as I did last week in Sweden, is something I would like to live again with the Orchester philharmonique de Radio France. We worked a lot and put a lot of effort into creating this production with me.

You are very committed to posting. What is the situation in France today with regard to opportunities for young artists?

I’m not sure I know everything about the French scene for young artists, but I try to stay informed about the challenges they face. Many established artists are committed to supporting their younger colleagues, as I am, through various training or mentorship programs. For my part, I was able to benefit when I was young from great generosity on the part of my older peers, and simply wish to “return the favor”. »

What advice would you give your students regarding career prospects?

I try to make young artists understand the importance of musical and technical discipline, but also mental strength: of all the techniques that allow us to face the challenges we face in our professional lives that are not directly related to music. Every artist needs to know themselves well enough to understand what kind of career and life they aspire to, and what they need to achieve to get there.

It is important to support today’s chefs, for example, through competitions dedicated to them, said Maren Allsopp in an interview. Would you like to comment on this?

I still don’t know where I stand in regards to separating chef competitions by gender, but I was very happy to discover Glass Marcano’s enormous and vibrant talent in competition maestra From a few years. If this competition didn’t exist, I’m not sure Glass would have had the opportunity to develop a career in Europe.

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