Soprano Hannigan shatters classical music's glass ceiling

Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan has become the go-to interpreter of cutting-edge contemporary music.
Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan has become the go-to interpreter of cutting-edge contemporary music. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • With looks often described as straight out of a Bond film, Barbara Hannigan strides on to lead the orchestra dressed in vampy black leather, bondage boots and a wig.

The Canadian soprano is rewriting the rules of classical music not just as a performer, but also as a conductor.

"Mummy, I didn't know women were allowed to be conductors," a friend's daughter once said when she saw her take the stage.

Hannigan not only conducts, but also sings at the same time. And her performances are bringing the house down in concert halls across Europe with her show-stopping signature piece - Ligeti's Mysteries Of The Macabre.

Now one of the most sought-after singers in the world, known for her fearless performances as much as her voice's "extraterrestrial" intensity, her trajectory has however been nothing if not untypical.

Brought up in rural Nova Scotia, somewhere more associated with folk and country music than the avant-garde, she has become the go-to interpreter of cutting-edge contemporary music.

At an age when many sopranos begin fearing their careers might be nearing an end, the 44-year-old saw hers really take off internationally only when she turned 40.

She made her name with her fearless portrayal of the eponymous femme fatale in Alan Berg's erotic opera Lulu at La Monnaie in Brussels in 2012, directed by controversial Polish maestro Krzysztof Warlikowski. Instead of playing Lulu as a man-eater who gets her comeuppance, she said in an interview with Agence France-Presse that she saw Lulu as a survivor who is "always true to herself".

Hannigan won more fans touring Europe in George Benjamin's opera Written On Skin, and brings a similar charge and virtuosity to the desperate woman, all tears and running mascara, on the end of a phone in Francis Poulenc's monologue La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice), now playing at the Paris Opera till Dec 12.

"For me, the body is an instrument, the entire body, everything, including the toes," said Hannigan. "I have always been training the body because I want everything to respond at the same level as my voice.

"I also know my system and I like to move. I never sit down. I'm constantly moving and so, as a singer and a performer, I move constantly too - to be static is not in my nature."

It is the contrast between her cool beauty and the passion and insight she brings to her roles that, critics say, sets her apart.

Her character in The Human Voice is often played as a victim, but Hannigan sees her as the opposite.

"She is absolutely desperate and possessed by her lover, but she has also possessed him. We don't know who has done what, but I think that she has given him as much pain as he has given her. She's not a submissive type of woman. She is like a hero, she's that horrible heroine," she said, laughing.

Hannigan first got noticed in a 2002 tongue-in-cheek "soap opera" called Toothpaste, about a couple who split up because she leaves the lid off the "Phu'-King" toothpaste.

With such lines as, "I must suffer crusty toothpaste. You don't care!", it is a far cry from great lyric roles many young opera singers dream of but, by that stage, Hannigan had long realised she had a gift for making new or so-called difficult music accessible.

"I was 17 years old when I sang my first world premiere. So it was normal for me to work with composers. I never was told, 'Don't do this, it's bad for you.'

"So while I was singing Mozart and Bach, I was also singing Ligeti and Boulez and Stockhausen. I realised I had a talent for this music and I love it," she said.

For all her recent success, she is no stranger to self-doubt, however. "Turning 40 was painful for me. I started to avoid myself in the mirror. I wanted to keep my age a secret," Hannigan, who lives in Amsterdam, wrote earlier this year.

"In part, it had to do with my shelf life as a singer. Many of us feel we have a best-before date stamped on our foreheads. Once we pass 50, voices, especially the higher, lighter ones, lose elasticity and beauty of tone.

"But Lulu helped me grow older. I sang her at 41. She made me realise I could never have been ready to sing her until exactly that age - my years of experience, the 10 to 20,000 hours of practice really paid off. I had needed all that time."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2015, with the headline 'Soprano Hannigan shatters classical music's glass ceiling'. Subscribe