Written by Catherine Kustanczy
Barbara Hannigan is a woman of many talents. A sought-after coloratura soprano who’s garnered rave reviews, she is also a noted conductor and has led some of the world’s foremost orchestras. On Oct. 7 and 8, Hannigan will make her North American conducting debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, in a program that includes works by Haydn, Stravinsky and Ligeti, as well as a Mozart aria, which she’ll also be singing.
Speaking one recent afternoon from Amsterdam, Hannigan estimates the current split between her singing and conducting, in terms of concert works, to be about 50-50. "At the moment I'm trying to just keep a kind of fluid balance between what feels good and what feel right,” she says. “There are certain pieces I really want to be singing, and certain pieces I really want to be conducting.”
Hannigan received her formal training at the University of Toronto, where she graduated with a master of music degree in 1998, before moving to Europe for postgraduate work.
"I ended up in several large and quite successful modern opera productions in Europe," she recalls, "and it just started to feel right for me at that time, to stay in that [creative] climate."
Based out of Holland, Hannigan has worked with such notable conductors as Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Antonio Pappano, Pierre Boulez, Alan Gilbert, Simon Rattle, and Kent Nagano. In 2012, she made a much-celebrated role debut as the title character in Alban Berg’s Lulu. Though she’s recorded and performed works by Haydn, Handel and Mozart, Hannigan is particularly noted for the intense passion she brings to contemporary music, and has given first performances of more than 80 new pieces.
"I feel like I have a kind of obligation to sing contemporary repertoire," she explains. "I’ve always been passionate about it since I was a teenager and I've always been very curious and fascinated by the complexity of certain composers' repertoires, or certain composers' pieces."
She acknowledges there are "so many singers" who want to perform bel canto works. "That is their passion," she states emphatically, "and I have to sing what I'm passionate about, because the audience responds to it. When I champion a piece, I think the audience can really feel how much I love it, and that’s very important, especially with the most difficult, complex repertoire — then the audience feels the emotional connection to the music, as opposed to some kind of intellectual exercise.”
The multi-talented artist says making her North American conducting debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra "feels like coming home — it always feels like coming home whenever I sing with the Toronto Symphony, but this is a little more electric."
An electric quality is something Hannigan definitely brings to the stage, whether it’s singing or conducting or, as she memorably demonstrated in 2011, doing both. Dressed as a kind of S&M police chief, Hannigan performed György Ligeti’s "Mysteries of the Macabre," mixing what the Guardian described as "risque choreography" with singing and conducting the Avanti Chamber Orchestra at Le Châtelet in Paris.
"There’s pressure in being a performer," she acknowledges. "That pressure exists all the time."
Though her performance with the TSO won’t have the same kind of theatrical presentation, expect Hannigan to bring her trademark passion. Characterizing the Stravinsky and Haydn works as "very big pieces," Hannigan says any pressure onstage stems from her desire "to serve the score, to serve what the composer has written. In whatever role I play, whether I'm singing or conducting, it doesn’t matter, I'm constantly trying to perform at the highest level of musicianship I possibly can."
Catch Hannigan's performances with the TSO on Oct. 7 and 8 at 8 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall.