“My Gestures Are Different for Every Piece.” An Interview with Barbara Hannigan

Barbara Hannigan conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Ligeti's "Mysteries of the Macabre," Lucerne 2014 (photo: Priska Ketterer/LUCERNE FESTIVAL)

Barbara Hannigan conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, Lucerne 2014 (photo: Priska Ketterer/LUCERNE FESTIVAL)

In the history of music I cannot recall any woman who was sung and conducted simultaneously. It seems that you are a “prima donna” in the literal sense of the word: of being the first woman to do so. How did you come up with this idea of singing-conducting?
It wasn’t exactly my idea! It was the idea of Rene Bosc, who used to run the Presences Festival of Radio France. He had been watching my development as a singer for several years, and in 2007 he took me aside and suggested that I consider conducting as well. He saw something in the way I was singing that suggested to him I should explore this kind of music-making as well. It felt to me to be an exciting and risky challenge which I wanted very much to undertake. Rene Bosc arranged my debut at Chatelet in Paris in 2011, to conduct Stravinsky’s Renard. And it was also his idea that I should simultaneously sing and conduct Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre. I was already well known for “just” singing it, but to add conducting to the mix as well made a big impression! Soon after the Chatelet debut, orchestras began to approach me to make special programmes where I would sing and conduct, and I carefully combine both vocal and purely instrumental repertoire which I feel makes a strong programme.

Regarding your physical position on the stage, singing and conducting are diametrically opposed. As a soprano you sing while looking out towards the audience, while as a conductor you turn your back to them. How is it possible to combine both?
Physically, yes, there are some issues to be addressed. I rehearse with the orchestra, facing them, giving a lot of cues and direction in the first rehearsals. Then as we become more familiar with how we will present the music, I give less gesture, and the players take more responsibility. It becomes more like chamber music with a VERY large group. In the final rehearsals, I turn my back to them. It is challenging for me and for them at first, and each orchestra responds differently, but we find our way and it can be very rewarding to make music like this.

Take for example when you conduct a piece by Stravinsky where there is nothing to sing – as you will do in Lucerne – does your conducting technique change?
When I am leading a Stravinsky symphony, it is in many ways easier for me, because I can concentrate purely on the orchestra, face them, not worry about my own voice. I am breathing only for them and the music. My gestures are different for every piece, for every phrase. When it is required that I am very rhythmic and clear, I do my best to give that clarity to my colleagues. When the music is more free and we are searching for other textures, I try to express that…liquid, air, transparency of sound. The body responds to the imagination – at least this is how it works for me. I do not have a formula, and my gesture is developing all the time.

As a soprano and especially as a performer of modern music, you belong to the international rank of top stars. Do you think that this reputation helped when you started conducting?
Absolutely. Many musicians with whom I was working already knew me as a singer and knew and respected my musicianship. I entered the conducting ring as a “player,” as, I feel, one of the team.

Even today female conductors are an extreme minority. How do you explain that in the conductor’s realm masculine attributes are so much more dominant?
Hard to explain and not so very interesting, is it? Gender issues will continue to be discussed and fascinating to some. I certainly had not seen a woman conducting an orchestra until I was 27 years old. I have only worked with one female conductor (Susanna Mälkki). There are not so many yet! It is a leadership position and is one of the last positions which remain male-dominated. Yet I do not feel there is a shut-out at this point. I think women are now encouraged to explore careers as conductors. But this has only been in the last years, and it will take time. I am always touched when I notice girls in the audience when I am conducting. I hope they see me and my other female colleagues and see it as something…normal!

Looking into the future: Where will we find Barbara Hannigan in ten or fifteen years: will you continue singing operas and concerts or are you planning to change completely to the conductor’s podium?
Of course I am looking ahead. My schedule is planned 4 or 5 years in advance and I am planning what singing I will do, what new opera roles I will take on, and what repertoire I want to explore as conductor. I try to balance things in a busy but effective way, which will probably, in 10 years, mean less singing and more conducting. The voice, like and athlete, gradually loses the ease and finesse it has in one’s 30’s and 40’s, and I need to be accepting of that, and of the limitations I will eventually experience. I am eager to conduct opera, and to work on opera productions in the way that I appreciate most – being present, as conductor, during most of the rehearsal period and helping to guide and understand the total experience of opera (music and theatre) with a dedicated team. I am a firm believer in wisdom and skill gained by the investment of time, and I expect my musicianship will only get stronger, even when my singing voice weakens. Therefore I can give this other voice to my conducting and continue performing in this way, health-willing, long into my golden years.

Interview by Susanne Stähr

23 August 2016 | Barbara Hannigan sings and conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in works by Haydn, Sibelius, Debussy, Berg, and Gershwin.

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