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Best opera ever? Barbara Hannigan chooses Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise

Editorial Staff

Best Operas Ever is a new podcast from Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC Radio 2. In each instalment, host Ben Heppner talks to one of the major opera figures of our time about a particular opera recording that they especially love. You'll find each episode here on, and you can tune in to CBC Radio 2 at 1 p.m. any Saturday from now until the end of November to hear these classic recordings in their entirety — along with extended conversations with our esteemed guests.

Best Operas Ever No. 5 - Barbara Hannigan

Ben Heppner talks to the contemporary music maverick about a 20th-century opera she adores.


Contemporary music has an estimable champion in Barbara Hannigan. There aren't a lot of musicians in the world who have cemented international singing careers, defined themselves with new repertoire, and still felt like that wasn't quite enough. And yet, Hannigan has taken to the conductor's podium with as much relish as the operatic stage. And the opera recording she chose as her favourite ever is as ambitious, smart and iconoclastic as Hannigan herself.

Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise is nearly five hours long in its entirety, requires as many as 300 musicians, and has virtually no story. It's a work of intense religious devotion, expressed through bursts of musical colour and texture, with nary a Verdian melody in sight. But for Hannigan, seeing it performed at the Salzburg Festival as a young singer was a life-altering experience. The singers in that production wore modern dress, as per the wishes of director Peter Sellars. Baritone José van Dam sang the title role, and soprano Dawn Upshaw was the angel who appears to him periodically. Kent Nagano conducted the vast ensemble.

"Peter Sellars opened up the rehearsals in Salzburg to anyone who wanted to come, as long as we were quiet and didn't disrupt," Hannigan told Ben Heppner. "In a way, it was kind of like going to church, because the rehearsal space that Sellars created with Nagano was.... it was sacred." Hannigan was singing in another production at the festival, but she spent nearly every spare minute at Sellars' rehearsals for Saint François — hours on end, watching the immense production come together.

The recording that Hannigan has chosen to feature on Best Operas Ever is from that very production at the Salzburg Festival, with those same singers. Hit the play button above to hear Heppner talk to Hannigan about why that Salzburg Saint François was so formative to her. You can tune in to Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on Oct. 8 to hear more from this conversation, plus Kent Nagano's recording of Saint François d'Assise in its (near) entirety.

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