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Barbara Hannigan

A Canadian Music Icon Wearing Multiple Hats on Stage

BY ARLAN VRIENS | May 3, 2022


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The genre-defining soprano and conductor weighs in on nurturing young artists and steering classical music through the 21st century.

Barbara Hannigan - by Kalya Ramu

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.



A Very Fine Art

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Hayao Miyazaki

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Anthony Barfield



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Emily D'Angelo

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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.

smART Magazine 
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Barbara Hannigan - photo by Marco Borggreve

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.

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