Barbara Hannigan honorary degree

Barbara awarded honorary doctorate from Mount Allison


On May 15th, Barbara was awarded an honorary doctorate from Mount Allison University in Canada.
Mount Allison has a long tradition of offering honorary degrees to individuals who reflect the vision and values of the community. Honorary degrees are awarded to those who are nationally or internationally recognized in their fields, those who have demonstrated service to Mount Allison or the wider community, or prominent public persons.

Alongside Barbara, three others received honorary degrees: University of Regina president and vice-chancellor Vianne Timmons, the founding chair of Partners for Mental Health and former senator Michael J.L. Kirby, former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour.
“Each year we choose honorary degree recipients who reflect Mount Allison’s values and vision,” university president and vice-chancellor Robert Campbell said. “This year’s recipients come from very diverse fields and backgrounds, but collectively represent areas that are dear to Mount Allison: education and inclusion, mental health, and justice.”
Campbell said it is also fitting to honour a distinguished musician this year as Mount Allison celebrates the 100th anniversary of the school’s first bachelor of music degree.

After being awarded an Honorary Doctorate (Degree Doctor of Laws, honoris causa) by Chancellor Peter Mansbridge and President Robert Campbell, Barbara addressed the graduates of Mount Allison University:

Mr Chancellor, platform guests, members of the faculty and staff, graduands of the Class of 2017, families and friends: thank you so much for this honour, and for the opportunity to celebrate with you on this special day.

In 2012 I was in Europe singing a rather extreme opera called Lulu, by Alban Berg. Not only did I have to sing (lets call it cultivated screaming) at the top of my lungs for over 3 hours, but I had to dance on pointe shoes for the first time in my life for most of the show, and was thrown around the stage as the opera progressed until I was brutally murdered at the end. There was a review in one of France’s national papers that said “this woman must come from another planet”. Just for the record, it was a good review. And though I rather liked being compared to ET, there was a little voice in me that piped up, “No, I don’t actually come from another planet, I come from Waverley, Nova Scotia.” And I can’t tell you how important that is to me, to have grown up in a village in the Maritimes, with dedicated school music teachers who fostered a passion for music and instilled a discipline in my development, and parents who encouraged me with love and support, and who drove me and my siblings to music lessons in the nearby towns and cities almost every day of the week. I knew from age 5 the answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. And yet today I love that I am still asking myself that question, and a million others. I never expected when I was a kid that I’d become an opera singer, and I certainly didn’t envision myself becoming an orchestral conductor. I didn’t even know women could do that! After more than 20 years as a freelance musician, I have learned to accept the uncertainty and embrace the unexpected. I love my work. Its not work for me, its a vocation. I can’t really imagine doing anything else, but it can be really tough, having a job that keeps me on the road 11 months a year, away from the comforts of home and my friends and family. Its not always an easy road, by any stretch of the imagination. I was going through a rough patch recently and a friend said to me, Barbara, you chose a really rocky road, and you’ve got to learn to love the bumps. And that would be one of my messages to you, graduating with a degree in the Arts…what does that mean today, and to you?

Today we celebrate your achievements at Mt Allison, as you graduate from one stage of life and move upwards (or sideways) to another. The answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” may have more clarity for you today: you may already have new goals firmly underway, plus a whole new set of questions. You may already have an innate sense of your place in the world, and your passion will drive you towards establishing that place. The “What next?” question may be more clear or more scary for some of you than others. And that seems just about right. You are where you are, right now, and like everyone, you have and will continue to experience what feel like triumphs and what feel like failures. I have had many, of each. This university created a structured program in which you could learn and develop skills in your chosen field. These next years are crucial as you have to create your own structure and discipline in order to have a chance at achieving your goals.

For the past few weeks I’ve been rehearsing in England for the world premiere of an opera called Hamlet. I play Ophelia, and by the end of Friday’s stage rehearsal I’d had gone mad, rolled around in a muddy grave, and drowned. I’m pretty used to it, the dying thing, as sopranos have a high onstage expiry rate, Since the new year I’ve leapt to my demise from the top of a house, had my throat slashed by Jack the Ripper, drowned among the willows, and died of a broken heart. And I’m not even halfway through the year yet! Across the street from the apartment where I am staying in England, is a building which dates from 1605. Every morning when I check to see if its indeed raining again, I notice the date, 1605, engraved under the roof, and the same date is engraved on my memory as the first Maritime winter that Samuel de Champlain and his entourage managed to survive in what is now Canada. And to help themselves endure the bitterly cold weather, if you remember from your history classes, they’d have a big gathering every fortnight called the Order of Good Cheer, where they’d make music, eat great food, dance, perform theatrical sketches, and read poetry. It was like a kind of kitchen party to celebrate their survival of the elements. As governments look to cut programs, one of the first things they do is cut funding to the arts, and important for us to remember that the arts were a big part of the development of Canada, and to remember that they lift the spirits and bring solace. A colleague said to me last autumn, after a certain person was elected president of a certain country, that we artists have to consider ourselves now, more than ever, as doctors and nurses, that we are working as healers.

I own a little piece of the planet not very far from here, about 5 acres of waterfront land on the Northumberland Straight. It means a lot to my heart, somehow, to know it is there, no matter where I am in the world. At the edge, there is drop of 15 or 20 metres to the water. And depending on the ferocity of the winter storms, and how much ice there is, the bank erodes, sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes in big chunks that break off. The land becomes part of the ocean floor, and the place where the land was, becomes air. Just…air. Though at first glance it seems like a loss, another way to consider it is as Equilibrium.
I think about how the erosion is predictable and yet different every winter, and how as an artist, I have to allow room to surrender a part of me, to aspects of the creative process which I cannot control, and which may also feel, at the moment, like loss. What I can control is my daily study, my discipline in preparation, towards creating a situation for myself and my colleagues, that allows for the possibility of a very good performance. What separates a very good performance from a great one is an unexpected change…often in the form of a mistake, that ripples through the orchestra and alters the dynamic. We think we’re on a particular path and suddenly the ground drops out from under us and we have no choice but to fly.

Nothing can prepare you for those incredible moments of redistribution of the elements, where, for example, an entire orchestra of 80 musicians is playing and breathing as one creature, and where the energy from the audience mixes with the performers onstage and everyone is flying in a sacred moment we will cherish for a lifetime.

I wish you all many unexpected mistakes, that you always have a million questions, that you find and feed your passion with the discipline to support it. And that every once in a while, when you least expect it, you might just fly.

photos courtesy of Mount Allison University
banner: Barbara pictured with President Robert Campbell and Chancellor Peter Mansbridge