Saturday, 6 September 2014

Interview with Barbara Hannigan

I'll never forget the first time I saw Barbara Hannigan perform.  It was two years ago in Gothenburg, Sweden.  She started off with some Rossini and Mozart, singing and conducting simultaneously with flawless elegance.  Then in the second half of the programme she came trotting out in head-to-toe black leather, and gave the most wacky and electrifying performance of Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre you could imagine.  It didn't take long after that for Barbara to become my major girl crush on the classical music scene.  I mean, she's just so effortlessly cool!  Whether she's performing Lulu in pointe shoes, conducting Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande, or premiering a composer's new work, she always kicks ass and looks good doing it.  So of course I was pretty excited to participate in her masterclasses at the Lucerne Festival.  Barbara is an incredibly open and generous teacher.  She gives us advice on everything from technique and professional etiquette to choosing the right skin products and overcoming jetlag.  In the hours between the dress rehearsal and the final concert, we share a cup of tea at Barbara's Lucerne apartment.  As I sip my Throat Soother (with honey, of course) Barbara talks to me about the masterclasses, her trailblazing career, and what it takes to be a star soprano.

Barbara Hannigan (Photo credit: Elmer de Haas)

You moved to Europe in your early twenties.  What was it like adjusting from your life in Canada?

It was very difficult actually.  I had left home, which was Nova Scotia, when I was 17, and then when I was 23 I moved to England…  I studied there for one year.  I was extremely lonely.  It was a very big city.  Even though everyone was English-speaking I have to say the culture shock was pretty intense.  I felt that there was quite a strong prejudice at the school I was at, from the vocal department, against contemporary music.  I had a lot of trouble getting any teachers to even hear me.  They wouldn't let me audition.  So that was even more isolating.  After a very lonely and frustrating year in England, I moved to Holland… and then I went to the Hague Conservatory.  I did a one-year opera programme, but then I kind of kept my foot in Holland because I was working there.  I kept one foot in Canada and one foot in Holland, and it pretty well stayed that way until I made the complete move to Holland, which would have been 2001.

Did you always know that you wanted to stay in Europe?

No, I didn't know that at first, and like I say the loneliness was really hard for me to deal with.  Just the bureaucracy of a country with which you're not familiar – I mean being an immigrant or a resident, it's really hard.  All the day-to-day things that seem so easy in your home country: banking, hospitals, you know simple things, are just – it seems impossible in the new country.  Doctors, everything.  It's really really hard to negotiate for yourself and it takes a lot of time and energy.  I think it was in 2001, when I went to Holland looking for a short-term place… In September of that year I ended up basically being handed a wonderful apartment in Amsterdam.  Which was owned by Reinbert de Leeuw, the conductor and mentor of mine, who's a very important figure in my life.  I was able to live there at a rent that I could afford and choose myself, for a good 5 years.  I just decided to stay after that.  That was it.

What draws you to contemporary music?

I think I've always liked it since I was a child.  I think part of the reason maybe that I enjoy it was that I felt like I was walking in snow that nobody else had walked in yet.  I was making my own path and my own footprints, and I didn't have to follow the length of someone else's steps.

Making new footprints

There was no kind of tradition… When I was younger I was intimidated by the "tradition": this is how you sing this song.  Which seemed to me to have nothing to do often with what was on the page.  Whereas in contemporary music, you sang what was on the page.  So I could identify with it and I knew I could do that.  Now I realise that that's actually what one should apply to all music.  But at the time I felt free in contemporary music, I felt like I could expand and that I was ok and I could be myself.

I think another thing that drew me to contemporary music is that, you know, I moved to Toronto when I was 17.  I went to university for my bachelor when I was 18 – that's very young.  My voice was clear and I had a strong musical sense – not sophisticated, but I had good pitch and good rhythm.  My voice needed to catch up, and so while it was catching up I was the darling of the contemporary music people because my voice was very pure and clean.  I didn't have any bad habits and I didn't scoop and I didn't have a big vibrato, so it was kind of what a lot of composers really enjoyed working with.  And of course I was game for anything.  I was really open-minded. 

How do you approach learning a new score?

I avoid singing it for as long as possible, depending on how much time I have.  This is because I am a good sight reader, but I don't feel that sight reading – like literally reading at sight – is good for the voice.  I feel that one should familiarise oneself with the score, with the lay of the score, with the landscape of the score, before you sing it.  So you know where the uphills are, you know where the downhills are, you know where you're coasting, you know where you're going through passaggio.  You have an idea of what are going to be the most virtuosic passages, and those are to be practised extremely slowly.  There is a method about it, and that's probably why I get frustrated if, on occasion, I get the score late, because I feel like my method has been interrupted and I can no longer work at the pace that I feel serves the music best. 

Barbara performing in Alban Berg's Lulu.

Are there any particular performers that really inspire you?

I have a lot of respect for lots of different singers, and for many different reasons.  Like I love the way Bartoli sings – I'm pretty well sold on everything she does because she has so much joy and pleasure in singing.  But I also like someone that's more muted in a way, like Anne Sofie von Otter.  I do appreciate her a lot.  Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is a singer whose voice I really love.  Renée Fleming is someone for whom I have a lot of respect and in some repertoire I just adore her voice.  Then also someone like Fritz Wunderlich, like the older singers, I also appreciate for various reasons.

But it's not really singers from whom I draw my inspiration as a performer.  In fact I don't use them as examples for me when I'm making sound.  I will think of the way Glenn Gould articulates a certain phrase… I think about the martial arts actor/comedian Jackie Chan.  His transitions, his sense of rhythm, is pretty amazing, and I'd also imagine him when I'm singing.  Danny Kaye.  Julie Andrews, I think, is a pretty phenomenal performer and I admire her greatly, and I do often write "Julie Andrews" in the score.  There’s a Sound of Music moment, really, in most contemporary music I sing.  I'm sure she would just laugh her head off if she ever found out!

The hills are alive... with the sound of contemporary music!

Then film characters or a scene with a particular actor, how to play something.  Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds – the Quentin Tarantino film for which he won the Oscar.  I mean he was playing the bad guy so well and with such pleasure and articulation and timing.  He was a pretty big influence for me.  So in my singing I’m not influenced by singing.  But I appreciate singers.  Very much.

How does it feel to go from the role of performer to the role of teacher?

I kind of feel like both are just leadership positions, so there isn't really a big change…  I find the teaching tiring because I get involved emotionally.  It's very hard not to notice the hopes and dreams of people.  You also see people's particular sensitivities.  Or you want someone to open something up and you can't get them to do it, and you're trying to help, and it can be hard.  So I find that tiring.  Of course, six hours a day of being in front of other people is a lot.  Somehow in an opera when I'm just singing it's easier – although even a six-hour opera day is really hard, I find six hours a day of masterclasses is even harder.

Barbara teaching in Lucerne.

We've been starting every day this week with a yoga class.  How do you find that health and fitness serve your singing?

In a really big way it serves my singing, partly because it gets me in good physical shape so that nothing can phase me.  Even if I'm doing a dance show.  I'm in strong cardio shape.  I always go running...  I really try to be physically strong.  Just so that there isn't anything that can phase me in an opera staging.  But also the other reason is that it's good for your mind.  It's good for you mentally to be physically strong.  First of all the yoga or the running, it really has a meditative quality so that it clears the mind.  Then it also gets rid of a lot of toxins or negative feelings in your body, so that you can be more positive towards your work.  I think generally physical fitness gives us positive endorphins, and therefore we're better disposed to serving the music.

You’ve often talked to us about discipline.  Why is this such an important part of your life?

Well because I want to have a long and enjoyable career, and I find that the way to enjoy your work is to be prepared and to be disciplined about it.  Performance anxiety, for example, is greatly alleviated by preparation.  Preparation can't happen if you have a chaotic life.  You may think I have a chaotic life because I spend all these months on the road, but I'm regulating my schedule as much as I can.  My daily schedule, my travel schedule, what I eat, where I eat, with whom I eat.  You know, who gets my energy, who doesn't.  I spend a lot of time alone.  As much as I can.  I like to be alone, and I just feel like the discipline is related to keeping me as calm as possible so that I can handle the stress.  Because the stress of having a career at the pace which mine seems to be moving right now is very high.  I don't think there's a lot of people that could handle that.

Singer, conductor, superwoman.

You've carved out a very unconventional career path.  How did you deal with it when people were trying to steer you in another direction?  How did you handle the naysayers?

Well, luckily my teachers were quite supportive of my path, whatever it was.  That was really important.  They believed in me.  I was always lucky.  I had one teacher who wanted me to sing the bel canto [repertoire], and yet when he came and heard me sing a really contemporary music concert once he was kind of flabbergasted because he realised that this was like home for me.  And over the years he's become incredibly supportive.

As far as having agents, I mean I had an agent early on who basically wanted me to sing – I think his dream for me was to be like Edita Gruberova…  He thought of all contemporary music as "squeaky gate" music, that's what he called it.  So he just lumped it all into one category.  He really went out of his way to make sure that I didn't sing this music anymore.  At a certain point I just – I left him because I felt… I was unhappy and he was probably frustrated, and so I left and I went for a long period without any management…  So it was a struggle, and I mean I'm really happy that I remained true to my repertoire.  I really sing the music that I like to sing and I do not sing music I don't like.  That includes saying no to a lot of contemporary music that I don't want to sing, or a composer with whom I don't feel an affinity.  It was kind of a hard path, and it was only four years ago that I joined my manager, with whom I have a very positive and supportive relationship.  It took a long time to get to that stage, I mean I'd already been performing professionally for 20 years – since I was 19.  And I was 39 when I moved to a really big manager.  So that's kind of something, you know?

Thanks for chatting, Barbara!

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