top of page

Barbara Hannigan

A Canadian Music Icon Wearing Multiple Hats on Stage


NOV 14, 2022 | ISSUE 9

Barbara Hannigan by Marco Borggreve
Barbara Hannigan by Kalya Ramu
Barbara Hannigan at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Photo by Musacchio Ianniello

If one had to name the most iconic Canadian classical musician of the moment, it would be hard to choose anyone other than the Nova Scotia-born soprano Barbara Hannigan. Her trailblazing work as an advocate of contemporary opera includes definitive performances of works from György Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre to Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer, not to mention a clutch of awards, including a Grammy, a Juno, an Edison, and the Order of Canada. Hannigan is also an increasingly sought-after conductor, appearing on the podiums of leading orchestras from Berlin to Cleveland. Today, Hannigan balances this high-profile performance career with a fierce dedication to supporting the next generation. Through the Equilibrium Young Artists project, she mentors a roster of young vocalists and pianists with unique talents and impressive potential; via her Momentum project, Hannigan encourages other artists to share main-stage performance opportunities with rising stars.

Sitting down with Editor-in-Chief Michael Zarathus-Cook, Hannigan joins smART Magazine from Paris for a glimpse into her multifaceted career and the priorities that guide her practices. She shares her excitement for an upcoming collaboration with Canadian composer Zosha di Castri, and offers her unique perspectives on training and supporting the upcoming generation of artists.

sM | What do you think of the current state of Canadian opera companies and orchestras?

BH ── Although most of my career has been built in Europe, where I made my big debuts, I did start off in Canada with companies like Opera Atelier, the Toronto Symphony, and Edmonton Opera. I also worked with Canadian groups like Arraymusic, New Music Concerts, and Continuum. In all of these organizations — especially when you’re writing grant applications to support Canadian projects — there’s a huge demand for Canadian works to be programmed and commissioned. I haven’t seen that type of priority as strongly in Europe, yet I think some European arts scenes have gotten the balance right. In Belgium, for example, you might see a certain number of works by Belgian composers being programmed, but even as they do that, organizations keep in mind what’s happening internationally, and that’s what keeps them on an international level. 

When Alexander Neef was at the Canadian Opera Company, I think that he was getting a lot of flak for not programming Canadian works. Of course, he also got a lot of flak when he did choose a Canadian work, Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian. I think that by programming international repertoire, Neef was rightly trying to build the Canadian Opera Company into a truly international company that was attracting top talent, and he did that.

Normally in North America, orchestra programming is less adventurous than in Europe. That has a lot to do with the interests of the funding sources, which makes America’s programming even more conservative than Canada’s. But I strongly feel that one must program internationally acclaimed contemporary music as well as homegrown contemporary music. If you only program Canadian-centric works about Canadian topics, it narrows our worldview. And furthermore, you can feel or almost smell when a piece was written by commission. You can tell when it wasn’t the urge of the composer to write about whatever story they’ve been told they should write about.

sM | What can you tell us about your upcoming world premiere of Zosha Di Castri’s New Work for Soprano and Orchestra with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra?

BH ── I’m super excited about it! When the Toronto Symphony came to me looking to commission a new work, I knew I definitely wanted to work with Zosha. We’re also working with Tash Aw, who is writing the text. What’s been really nice about this project is having Zoom calls together ─ we haven’t been able to meet in person as a group, but it’s still been quite a collaborative sharing of material and stories.

I can’t say too much about the idea of the piece yet, but it centers around the German word Heimweh, which means both longing for home and a kind of displacement. So the piece is kind of asking, “Where am I? What is home, and where do I belong?”

I haven’t seen any of the music yet, but it’s going to arrive soon. Sometimes I have a really good feeling about a piece, and other times I can be apprehensive, but in this case, I have a really good feeling. I did some world premieres last year, but this is the first major orchestral world premiere that I’ve done in a little while. I’m psyched.

sM | What are you looking for in the young artists selected for the Equilibrium program, and what do you hope they leave with?

BH ── First and foremost, I’m looking for a super high vocal quality; I can’t go below that level. But I’m also looking for personalities and for multitalented people. We’ve had several people who are dancers, visual artists, photographers, or writers. I’m also searching for people that are super curious and creative ─ not just the ones that can sing with a generic appeal. Those more generic artists are going to get snapped up and be busy all the time anyway, so they don’t need me.

Personally, I also benefit hugely from meeting all these young people: from their perspectives, the way they use language, and the way they look at music and programming. Yannis François, for example, has been with Equilibrium since the first season, but I’m not letting him go yet because he’s so brilliant; he’s an incredible album curator for some of the biggest artists right now on Deutsche Grammophon, and I would like him to curate some stuff for me personally.

I don’t always know what I’m looking for, but I know when I found it. When I do the auditions, if I hear somebody that ignites some kind of interest, I’m going to program for them, and we’ll find a place for them.

sM | For most, a career as a soprano is fulfilling enough, when did you know that you wanted to add conducting to your performances on stage?

BH ── It wasn’t always part of the plan, and I wouldn’t even say that I was looking to do more on stage at the time. The conducting career was simply a natural progression that began simply by saying yes to conducting one concert at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Some people who were watching and helping to guide my career had suggested that I should try my hand, literally, at conducting. Once I had done that, I found that conducting was another way to get close to the music and to develop my musicianship.

I also really like to develop my roles in leadership. Leadership means a lot of things: if I’m singing Lulu, I need to lead the cast, and there are different kinds of leadership involved with conducting a program or running Equilibrium. I’m really fascinated by leadership and how one can find its best applications and use that power justly. At a certain level, whether we realize it or not, some of us artists attain real power, and with that comes responsibility.

So when I started conducting, I realized I enjoyed certain aspects that didn’t necessarily have to do purely with music. Music was simply the medium through which I was developing those skills. Similarly, when I founded Equilibrium, I really felt a big sense of purpose because I found I could really make a difference.

sM | What is your advice to up-and-coming female conductors struggling to see themselves on a podium?

BH ── I noticed the other day that all of my engagements from December 2021 through to March 2022 were all either with myself conducting or with another female conductor. That isn’t something that I planned, so that’s a really good sign.

Because I didn’t start conducting until I was 40, I didn’t go through a stereotypical training program where I was the only young woman in a class of all men. But I have to say that on one occasion, I did experience the feeling that I had been hired because of my gender, not because of my quality. This was an orchestra that had made a noble effort to hire a lot of women conductors, but those conductors were not consistently of the quality needed to be with that orchestra. So by the time I got there, the orchestra only looked at me as, “oh no, another woman.” They were in a really bad mood before I even gave my downbeat, and that had an enormous effect on me, the orchestra, and the audience also. 

It’s a delicate issue. If you’re choosing to feature young or less-experienced conductors, then you really have to search and learn a lot about who you’re asking. Those young conductors need to be nurtured and be put into situations that they’re actually ready for because it can be really damaging if you’re not ready or if the orchestra feels that you’re not at their level.

sM | One female conductor that is flying under the radar at the moment?

BH ── Glass Marcano is very cool. She’s Venezuelan, but I think she’s based in Europe now. She’s a bit under the radar and doesn’t yet have a big media presence, which is good. She’s just been doing her thing; I saw her conducting Lucia di Lammermoor at the Munich Staatsoper a few years ago, and she was fantastic. She’s the real deal. You can tell as soon as she gives the downbeat. I don’t know if her big breakthrough has come yet, but she’s just pure music and absolutely one to watch.