A Fearless Soprano's Case For Contemporary Music

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Soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan has performed more than 80 world premieres. (Courtesy of the artist)
Soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan has performed more than 80 world premieres. (Courtesy of the artist)

Squeamish about contemporary classical music? Meet Barbara Hannigan. With more than 80 world premieres to her credit, she has a knack for making modern music sound effortless and approachable. The intrepid soprano is unafraid to outfit herself as a dominatrix or a schoolgirl while singing, conducting and acting — all at the same time.

Hannigan has been the go-to singer for many top composers, from George Benjamin and Gerald Barry today to Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti and Henri Dutilleux. She's also a favorite of conductors, like the Berlin Philharmonic's Simon Rattle. During the filming of a documentary released last year about Hannigan, Rattle reminded the director just whom they were dealing with.

"You tend to forget what an extraordinary musician this is," Rattle said. "You can ask her basically anything. She's fearless and she has technique and brains to burn. So, we're just lucky to have her on the same planet at the same time."

Hannigan began her life on this planet in a tiny town in Nova Scotia. Around the house she heard her mother play arrangements of Handel's Water Music on the piano. There were albums by John Denver and The Carpenters. At 17, she says, she moved to Toronto to study.

"And when I was 19," Hannigan says, "I remember the 'aha moment' that I knew that I was going to devote a large part of my life to the music of our time. I realized that the passion that I felt when I was singing new music — I thought at first everyone felt like that."

They don't. Even some of Hannigan's fellow musicians don't know quite what to make of her.

"I remember the first time I sang with the Berlin Philharmonic," Hannigan says. "The woodwind section came to me after the rehearsal and they said, 'You're like a strange bird that we've never heard before.'"

Hannigan convinced the Berlin Philharmonic to commission a new song cycle, let me tell you, by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. The piece won the 2016 Grawemeyer Award.

Before Abrahamsen wrote a single note, Hannigan gave him a four-hour crash course in the history of vocal music. "She gave me a lesson in how to write for voice," he says. "She told me about how to use the vowels and she showed me some characteristics of her voice. And somehow I found a language for music." Months later, he sent her what he had written.

"I just started to weep because I couldn't believe that he got it," Hannigan recalls. He got it and he got me, he got my voice."

One special quality of her voice that Abrahamsen says he exploited is its otherworldly high register: "It's most clear in the very last song where she comes in on a high C from nothing and comes out of the orchestra and goes down."

Hannigan is singing let me tell you this weekend with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons, who conducted the premier recording, released last month. He says Hannigan's voice is so versatile it can fool you.

"It's a huge range of things she does," Nelsons says. "And the sounds and the colors she makes with the voice, sometime you can't tell what instrument is playing. Is it a voice? Is it a kind of instrumental, mystic kind of sound?"

Many sounds emanate from Hannigan when she performs Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre, one of her signature pieces. The music, drawn from Ligeti's opera Le Grande Macabre, may sound thorny, but Hannigan has made it popular with audiences. She draws them in by dressing up to play the part of a paranoid police inspector, while at the same time singing and conducting the work from memory.

"It's about a control freak, and so the first while that I was performing it I had this kind of dominatrix outfit," she says. "Recently, I did another costume in London which became kind of a hit on YouTube. Dramatically, emotionally, intellectually, there was just everything I wanted to be challenged by in that piece."

And Hannigan loves challenges. It's like a sense of duty for her. "I have an obligation," she says. "Because it is not only satisfying to me but it also serves the composers and serves the music. And they need it."

She'll sing another world premiere this fall when the Los Angeles Philharmonic produces a new opera by Barry, Alice's Adventures Under Ground. And this spring she conducts and sings music by Berg, Haydn and Stravinsky in Sweden and Germany. But beyond her new music mission, there's also a practical side to the 44-year-old.

"We all know that singers have a 'best before' date stamped on their forehead, you know we can't sing forever," she says. "Eventually, I will lose elasticity and I will lose the beauty of sound. I've got another good 10 years, I would say. But I can conduct forever, until I'm an old woman on the podium. I think it's a very exciting future ahead."

Listeners on both sides of the podium might agree.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Is contemporary classical music maybe just a little scary, you know, all the honks and squeaks? Well, Barbara Hannigan wants you to know that it's safe to go back into the concert hall. She's both accomplished - more than 80 world premieres to her credit - and accessible, whether she sings, conducts or does both at the same time. NPR's Tom Huizenga has this profile.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Barbara Hannigan is the go-to singer for many of today's top composer and conductors, like the Berlin Philharmonic's Simon Rattle. During a filming of a documentary about Hannigan, Rattle reminded the director just whom they were dealing with.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BARBARA HANNIGAN: CONCERT & DOCUMENTARY")

SIMON RATTLE: You tend to forget when an extraordinary musician this is. You can ask her basically anything. She's fearless and she has technique and brains to burn. So we're just lucky to have her on the same planet at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME TELL YOU")

BARBARA HANNIGAN: (Singing) Some that will go tomorrow.

HUIZENGA: Hannigan began her life on this planet in a tiny town in Nova Scotia. At 17, she moved to Toronto to study.

HANNIGAN: And when I was 19, I remember the aha moment that I knew I was going to devote a large part of my life to the music of our time. I thought at first that the passion that I felt when I was singing new music, that everyone felt like that.

HUIZENGA: They don't. Even some of Hannigan's fellow musicians don't quite know what to make of her.

HANNIGAN: I remember the first time I sang with Berlin Philharmonic. The woodwinds section came to me after the rehearsal and they said you're like a strange bird that we've never heard before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME TELL YOU")

HANNIGAN: (Vocalizing).

HUIZENGA: Barbara Hannigan convinced the Berlin Philharmonic to commission this music, a song cycle called "Let Me Tell You" by Hans Abrahamsen, a little-known Danish composer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME TELL YOU")

HANNIGAN: (Singing) With some things we know and some we do not.

HUIZENGA: Before Abrahamsen wrote a single note, Hannigan gave him a four-hour crash course in the history of vocal music.

HANS ABRAHAMSEN: She taught me about how I had to use the vowels, and she showed me some characteristics of her voice, and somehow I found a language for music.

HUIZENGA: Months later, he sent Hannigan what he'd written.

HANNIGAN: I just started to weep because I couldn't believe that he got it, you know, he got my voice.

HUIZENGA: One special quality of that voice, says Abrahamsen, is Hannigan's otherworldly high register.

ABRAHAMSEN: It's most clear in the very last song where she comes in (singing) snow falls.

She comes in on a high C from nothing and comes out of the orchestra and goes down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME TELL YOU")

HANNIGAN: (Singing) Snow falls.

HUIZENGA: Hannigan is singing "Let Me Tell You" this weekend with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelson, who conducted the premier recording released just last month. He says Hannigan's voice is so versatile it can fool you.

ANDRIS NELSON: It's a huge range of things she does. And the sounds and the colors she makes with her the voice, sometime you can't tell what instrument is playing. Is it a voice? Is it some kind of instrumental, mystic sound?

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MYSTERIES OF THE MACABRE")

HANNIGAN: (Singing, unintelligible).

HUIZENGA: That's Barbara Hannigan in one of her signature pieces, Ligeti's "Mysteries Of The Macabre." The music may sound thorny, but Hannigan has made it popular with audiences. She draws them in by dressing up to play the part of a paranoid police inspector while at the same time singing and conducting the work.

HANNIGAN: It's about control freak, and so the first while that I was performing it I had this kind of dominatrix outfit. And then recently I did another costume about a year ago in London which became kind of a hit on YouTube. But dramatically, emotionally, intellectually there was just everything that I wanted to be challenged by in that piece.

HUIZENGA: And Hannigan love challenges. It's like a sense of duty for her.

HANNIGAN: Because it not only is satisfying to me but it also serves the composers and serves the music, and they need it.

HUIZENGA: Hannigan tries to present new and old music in the best possible light, whether it's singing a world premier or adding another score to her repertoire as a conductor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUIZENGA: Beyond her new music mission, there's also a practical side to the 44-year-old.

HANNIGAN: We all know that singers have a best before date stamped on their forehead. You know, we can't sing forever. Eventually, I will lose elasticity and I will lose the beauty of sound, but I can conduct forever, until I'm an old woman on the podium.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HANNIGAN: It's a very exciting future ahead.

HUIZENGA: Listeners on both sides of the podium might agree. Tom Huizenga, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.