BBC Music Magazine


Barbara Hannigan’s quantum career leap came with a wig, latex and Ligeti. 2011: the Canadian soprano turned-conductor strode onto stage in thigh-high PVC platform boots, shushed the audience, opened her mouth, raised her arms and proceeded to sing, conduct and utterly inhabit ‘The Mysteries of the Macabre’ – a scene from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabrein which a police chief inflicts S&M with brutal dexterity. It was Hannigan’s conducting debut, and she set the bar as high as her top notes.
That performance explains why Hannigan became muse to the world’s major composers. She calls them her ‘gang’: Sciarrino, Dutilleux, Brett Dean. Some she refers to with first names only: Gerald [Barry], George [Benjamin], Hans [Abrahamsen]. These composers have created new roles, often new sound worlds, around the high-wire allure of Hannigan’s voice and the way she lives the music with a take-no-prisoners authority. She has a megawatt package of charisma and control. Conducting was an inevitable extension.
We’re at her Paris home, an airy loft conversion in boho-chic Oberkampf where manuscripts line the room-length bookshelves and the kitchen is kitted out with the professional-grade knives Hannigan brings with her on tour.
(Cooking is no fun in a rental apartment
with blunt knives. First of several life lessons she imparts during the morning: always travel with knives.) She and her
partner, the filmmaker Mathieu Amalric, split their time between Paris and Brittany, where Hannigan feels at home because it ‘looks like the east coast of Canada’. Nova Scotia, to be precise. She grew up in a village called Waverley, where school was at the end of a dirt road and music lessons were a 40-minute bus ride into Halifax. Her three siblings are also musical, with a jazz-drumming twin brother and a sister who plays cello in Yannick Nézet-Seguin’s …

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