Barbara Hannigan: ‘You must go all the way’
There’s a newish arrival on the classical circuit who has that same quality. She’s the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan. She does the kind of high-wire acrobatics with her voice that very few singers can manage, and she does it with a bravura that stops you dead in your tracks. All this is joined to a startling stage presence and cool blonde beauty that contrasts interestingly with the heat in her voice (think Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s film The Birds).
Hannigan could have had a great conventional career as a coloratura queen. But she’s an unconventional soprano, to say the least, as I discover when I catch her on a rare break at her home in Amsterdam. She’s just been performing one of the great classics of modern music, Pli selon Pli (Fold by Fold), Pierre Boulez’s setting for soprano and huge orchestra of some beautiful but obscure poems by Mallarmé. Next weekend she brings it to London’s Southbank Centre as part of a three-day survey of Boulez’s music aptly entitled “Exquisite Labyrinth”.
“I’d just sung it in Lucerne, and then the next day I had a day off in Zermatt,” she tells me. “I set off for a walk and I had the mountains in front of me, it was a beautiful day and guess what? I found I was whistling tunes from Boulez’s piece!”
Tunes? Come on now. This is modern music we’re talking about, so how can there be tunes? “Oh well, maybe that’s the wrong word. It’s just very beautiful in the way it unfolds. What I love about Boulez is the way the music is very strict in its structure but inside it’s beautifully fluid. It feels like I’m singing liquids of all different colours and viscosities, which are constantly changing.”
Does she need to know what the structure is before she can sing one of these thorny pieces? “Well, I think it’s important to try. I went to a six-hour seminar on the piece by a musicologist. It was fascinating.”
Not many performers attend analytic seminars on music. But one way in which Hannigan is just like every other virtuoso is in her steely determination. She was born in a little village in the depths of rural Nova Scotia, which turned out to be a very good place to develop her talent.
“There wasn’t much to do there and it was before the internet, so there were no distractions. We just got on with doing things for ourselves. Every household had a piano, so I just got into music and singing.”
Read the full interview from The Telegraph here. Then go practice.