Barbara Hannigan studied singing at the Music Faculty of the University of Toronto with Mary Morrison. She then moved to London, England for studies at the Guild Hall School. Her next big decision was to live in Amsterdam and her career took off. A spectacular New Year’s Eve concert ended with Barbara resplendent in flowing white, standing high above thousands of revellers in Amsterdam’s city square, singing a melismatic accompaniment to a popular rock and roll song. Written especially for her extremely high tessatura, it was a tour de force that can be seen on YouTube.
Barbara has appeared more often with the Berliner Philharmoniker then any other soprano. Specializing in new music, she has premiered operas and chamber music throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Barbara has also toured with chamber ensembles and has become involved as an artistic director of festivals.
Her recent portrayal of Alban Berg’s Lulu caused a sensation in Europe. In the first act, Barbara, as Lulu, lay spread eagle in bright blue panties while a man, his cheek resting on a bare inner thigh, gazes at her crotch and strokes her clitoris. Later in scene 3, Barbara in a tutu dances on pointe while singing. Ballerinas are traditionally employed in this scene, but Barbara wanted to dance as Lulu, as a dancer in the opera would have done. Another tour de force.
As a student, Barbara began singing sentimental songs from the early 20th c. on Nexus concerts. I also had the pleasure of conducting her when she performed Oliver Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie the Pooh in Toronto.
Encouraged by Simon Rattle, she began conducting as well as singing her concerts. Below I have attached a partial review of the recent Lucerne Festival by James R. Oestreich, from 17 August New York Times.
A late-night concert on Saturday proved a tour de force for the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, who is taking up a second career as a conductor. Singing maestros are a rarity. The tenor Plácido Domingo conducts some, as did the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau late in his career, both typically sticking to either conducting or singing.
But Ms. Hannigan is intent on combining the two, as she did here with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which forms the basis of the festival orchestra, in the KKL. She conducted orchestral works by Rossini, Fauré and Ligeti fluidly and more than capably. She sang three Mozart arias beautifully, facing the audience and using slightly exaggerated expressive gestures to cue the players, but she also knew when to leave well enough alone or to the concertmaster.
She inevitably made her biggest splash with her calling card, “Mysteries of the Macabre,” three arias from Ligeti’s zany opera “Le Grand Macabre,” sung in kinky black leather or a semblance thereof. (New Yorkers may recall Ms. Hannigan’s brilliant performance in the opera with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic in 2010.) Here, in character (the head of the secret police), Ms. Hannigan’s conductorial gestures became more assertive and aggressive.
The conductor Simon Rattle, in town for work with the academy and Ms. Hannigan, made a brief cameo appearance, stalking down the aisle to take the stage and interrupt the performance with the immortal spoken line “What the hell is going on here?” It was all in good fun, as was Ms. Hannigan’s performance, though no one tried to answer that question.
How far will — or can — Ms. Hannigan take this new venture as she maintains a busy singing career? To opera? To Mahler symphonies?
That remains to be seen. But to the extent that sheer musicality and personality can do the trick, she seems to have it all, and you probably wouldn’t be wise to bet against her.
The Lucerne Festival runs through Sept. 14; http://www.lucernefestival.ch.