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'Dancing around my apartment': Barbara Hannigan on her Grammy nomination for Crazy Girl Crazy

Andrea Warner

Barbara Hannigan was asleep in her Paris apartment when the messages and emails started pouring in. It was 5 p.m. in the afternoon. That morning, she’d returned from New York, and jetlagged and exhausted, she wasn’t quite sure at first what was happening. And then it hit her: all of the notifications and notes were offering congratulations for her Grammy nomination for best vocal classical album.

“I was dancing around my apartment with my boyfriend,” Hannigan tells CBC Music, laughing over the phone from Amsterdam, where she’s currently rehearsing for her upcoming tour with the Ludwig Orchestra, a collective of young musicians that is making its recording debut with Crazy Girl Crazy. “For me it's great but for such a young orchestra to have this feather in their cap — I was so thrilled because I thought it's a great way to start our tour. Of course it would be wonderful to win it but just the nomination and having the awareness that will be created by the nomination is fantastic.”

With its provocative title and ambitious repertoire, Crazy Girl Crazy is Hannigan’s most audacious, risky, confident record to date. Hannigan, a former Torontonian, is a world-famous coloratura soprano who also began conducting in 2011. Crazy Girl Crazy represents the first recording on which Hannigan both sings and conducts — already a groundbreaking achievement without considering her daring and daunting repertoire.

The album takes its wild heart from the character of Lulu, the complicated, passionate young woman who is the subject of Alban Berg’s incomplete 1937 opera of the same name. Released in September, Crazy Girl Crazy features music from Gershwin’s Girl Crazy — in a new arrangement by the multi-award-winning American composer Bill Elliott — and Berio’s gruelling, innovative Sequenza III for solo voice, as well as Berg’s Lulu Suite.

It all comes back to Lulu, a former “street urchin” who has successfully reinvented herself and become a doctor’s wife, but there are also a number of men in love with her including an artist, a much older newspaper editor, and the editor's son. Lulu’s doctor husband dies and she accepts a proposal from the artist, but then the editor also becomes engaged and she’s troubled. It’s revealed that the editor actually raised her, “rescuing” her from the streets, and that they had a “relationship.” Further complications arise, the body count is high, and somehow Jack the Ripper ends up making an appearance.

CBC Music spoke with Hannigan a few days after her Grammy nomination to talk about her connection with Lulu, authority and respect in the classical world, and her efforts to reclaim the word “crazy.”

Congratulations on the nomination!

I was laughing because for the Grammys I'm sure they were sitting there and they were like, "Um what category should we nominate her in?" They chose best vocalist but, by the way, I'm also conducting the album but they don't have a category for a person who conducts their own album! [Laughs]

There is absolutely an argument to be made that this could be considered a very interesting jazz album as well on some level

Well it's nice you say that because certainly it's crossover but I think it's more, like, crossover into the beyond, rather than crossover into another definable genre. It's got its own special place and we're saying, "Don't put me in a box, don't put me anywhere, just let me be free" and that's what Lulu is all about. She's a free spirit you know and she's the center of the CD, the character of Lulu.

I was listening to Sequenza III and I was like, wow this is like listening to Bjork.

In a way it's performance art but in the true sense of the word. So not performance art from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s but I mean performance art really in the highest sense of what that term can actually mean and you can think of the Berio as an actor's monologue, you can think of it as a structured improvisation. I think of it more as an actor's piece than a singer's piece, but then you get into the Lulu Suite and that's like — I mean you’ve got to have chops, both to conduct it and to sing it. It's absolutely legit but it also uses jazz elements and modern music and romantic elements so it's crossing three different styles actually and then you've got the Gershwin, which is also crossing styles because we're using elements of the late Romantic period plus whatever Gershwin was.

How many times have you been called crazy?

[Laughs] I don't listen to gossip about myself, and nobody tells you what they say behind your back. I mean certainly when I took "crazy girl crazy" to title the CD, it was almost like I wanted to reclaim that word on many, many levels because referring to women as crazy is also a way of undermining their authority. So, I wanted to take back the word and celebrate it because we also say, "Oh my God, that's crazy," like in a complementary way and that's how I'm using it. I'm using it like in the most vibrant, exciting — like the word as absolutely full of possibility, you just don't know where it's gonna go.

Lulu's journey is extraordinary. When did you first become familiar with her story?

When I was a student in Toronto, the Canadian Opera Company did a production of Lulu. Rebecca Cain, who was famous for singing Christine in Phantom of the Opera for two years in Toronto, took a year and a half off and learned the role of Lulu and sang Lulu at the Canadian Opera Company. It seemed that it wasn't the music that got to me so much at the time — I think I wasn't really ready to understand it — but seeing Rebecca sing it because she was such a fantastic physical performer. I thought, whew, if that's opera, I want to do that! I was already studying classical singing but it just opened my eyes to something that I hadn't really imagined before. It wasn't until I was in my mid-30s — and now I'm in my mid-40s — that I started thinking about singing the role of Lulu and other people started suggesting to me that it was time for me to take that on. The company that gave me my chance was Brussels, la Monnaie, which is a gorgeous opera house, in 2012.

That was the first time I sang her but of course you’re booked several years in advance, so I knew several years before that I was going to sing it and then of course learning it. It's three-plus hours of music and you're onstage the whole time so I started learning it well in advance. With a role like that, there's only one way and that is to "incorporate," using the corpus as the root of the word. You have to take it completely into your entire body and psyche. To sing a role like that — she consumes you, she consumes everyone around her and she consumes the person who sings her and if you make it, you're changed forever.

When I have big, big questions I'm like, "What would Lulu do?" I can't call her, but I can kind of put that question out to the universe.

Lulu has that sort of magic about her that commands people.

She’s charismatic.

And so many artists and composers treat those types of people as muses. They are consumed by them, although arguably they are consuming their muses as well.

I think it's a symbiotic relationship. I gave my first world premiere when I was 17, so that's almost 30 years ago. I've been a muse for composers for almost 30 years. You really start to understand that relationship and when I started out, I was definitely much more passive than I am now.

Now I really feel that it's a collaborative process and we need each other. I have different ways of dealing with the different composers with whom I'm working. Some of them want a lot of interaction and contact and speaking or singing or demonstrating. Others want to have an initial conversation or meeting and then they don't want to have anything to do with you until they've finished the piece, and I think both are valid.

Did you expect at all that you would end up with a Grammy nomination?

[Laughs] I didn’t, but my sister did. Sheila Hannigan, she's a cellist and she plays in Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal. In fact, they’re on a European tour right now so I got to hear her play two nights ago at the concert in Amsterdam because I'm in Holland, also to rehearse at the moment. It was really funny when I told her we got the Grammy. She was like, "I told you you were gonna get nominated for a Grammy!" She was absolutely sure when she heard it. She does a lot of recording sessions and so I was absolutely thrilled. And I was thrilled partly because this is a really daring CD and it's a daring program, so that was already a kind of triumph to have that repertoire recognized. Also for this Orchestra Ludwig, who are a collective and I consider myself part of the collective, they're virtually unknown outside of Holland and we managed to get this nomination. We're rehearsing now and we're about to embark on a European tour, so for this nomination to happen just before we start our European tour, it's a thrill for everybody.

You’ve been a conductor for a number of years. Was it Lulu that inspired you to make Crazy Girl Crazy the first CD where you both sang and conducted?

I started conducting shortly before I sang Lulu [the first time], so around 2011. Singing Lulu gave me the strength to really dig into the conducting career because I realized I didn't need to adhere to any particular path, I needed to follow my own path and that's what I'm doing and I felt very strongly that Lulu had to be part of it, choosing the other repertoire. Gershwin was something that was created especially for concerts and for the CD recording, that special arrangement and the Berio was kind of a late addition I had been thinking about recording. You know the movie Psycho? This wonderful composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the music for it and there's a suite from Psycho that I kind of thought could be interesting but then I didn't want Lulu to be associated with a psychopath because she's not, and although I like that music and it's very exciting, I thought, no, I don't think I want to go down that route.

So then I did something really strange, which was instead of to include a third orchestral piece on an orchestral album, I just went only for the solo voice with the Sequenza. That piece worked really well because it's kind of a look at Lulu from before she really knew herself and before she really found her own voice.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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