Barbara Hannigan, CM, soprano, conductor (born 1971 in Waverley, NS). Operatic soprano and orchestra conductor Barbara Hannigan is known across Europe and North America for her innovative performances in the operatic canon and modern operas, and for being one of the few women orchestra conductors. She is perhaps best known for singing in concerts that she conducts, and for concerts that verge on performance art. A Member of the Order of Canada, her recordings have won Gramophone Awards, a Grammy Award and other prestigious honours. She was named France’s Musical Personality of the Year in 2013.
Hannigan took piano, singing and dance lessons while growing up in Nova Scotia. At age 17, she moved to Toronto to study music at the University of Toronto, notably under Mary Morrison. While there, she made her operatic debut in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and became interested in contemporary music, especially opera, singing in many premieres. She graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1993.
She then studied at the Banff Centre for the Arts, the Orford Arts Centre, and in Holland at The Royal Conservatory of The Hague under Meinard Kraak and privately with Neil Semer. In Holland, she sang in contemporary as well as early music roles, an unusual repertoire combination that she continues today. Hannigan returned to the University of Toronto and earned a Master of Music degree in 1999. There she appeared in The Merry Widow and in Alexina Louie’s five-minute televised opera, Toothpaste. She also continued to perform in Europe and made her base in Amsterdam as her European singing career took off, primarily through an association with the Asko-Schönberg Ensemble and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.
Singer and Actor
Hannigan has sung in over 80 opera premieres (often in roles written for her), such as Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer (1999), Michel van der Aa’s One (2003) and Pascal Dusapin’s Passion (2008). Composers whose works she is associated with include George Benjamin, Pierre Boulez, Unsuk Chin, Henri Dutilleux and György Ligeti. She has also performed Canadian works such as Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child.
Hannigan has become internationally renowned for her interpretations in Dutilleux’s Correspondances; Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, which she has performed frequently in North America (e.g., with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic) and in Europe; and Benjamin’s Written on Skin, which she has sung at Covent Garden, the Festival d'Aix en Provence, and in Munich. She has frequently appeared in Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you, a piece dedicated to her and whose commission by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra she initiated. She sang in its world premiere in December 2013, its New York City premiere at Carnegie Hall in January 2016 with the Cleveland Orchestra, and later with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Hannigan is also renowned for her very physical interpretation, including ballet movements, of the title role in Berg’s Lulu.
Hannigan returns often to sing in North America, for example with the Canadian Opera Company in 2015 in Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, and with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO). She made her Carnegie Hall debut singing the music of Peter Eötvös on 29 January 2009, and has returned to Carnegie Hall to sing from Mysteries of the Macabre and Berg’s Wozzeck with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle.
In February and March 2015, Hannigan returned to Canada to perform several celebrated premieres with the TSO’s New Creations Festival, including the North American premiere of let me tell you and the Canadian premiere of Written on Skin.
While Hannigan’s concentration is on contemporary and particularly new 21st-century opera, she has often appeared in works by earlier composers including Rossini, Mozart (Cosi fan tutte), Handel (Rinaldo), and Gluck (Orfeo ed Eurydice). Operas from the early and mid-20th century that she has sung in include Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine (in which she debuted at Opéra de Paris asElle in 2015), Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, among others.
Prominent conductors with whom Hannigan has worked include Pierre Boulez, Sir Simon Rattle, Susanna Mälkki, Kent Nagano, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Peter Oundjian.
Film roles in addition to Toothpaste include the award-winning 2014 Casanova Variations, Alexina Louie’s 2005 TV opera Burnt Toast, and Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
In 2010, Hannigan expanded her performance career to include orchestra conducting. Her conducting debut took place at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, where she led the orchestra for Stravinsky’s opera-ballet Renard. This performance resulted in invitations to conduct programs in which she would also sing. Her concert at Holland’s Royal Concertgebouw, which won an Ovatie Award for Best Classical Concert of the Year in 2014, established an unusual pattern of performing and conducting in the same production, a dual endeavour that sets her apart from most other conductors or singers.
After embarking on this trailblazing new career path, Hannigan studied conducting with Jorma Panula and conducted operas such as Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, as well as instrumental works. She has conducted orchestras in Europe (e.g., at the Lucerne Festival in 2014 and 2016 and in Italy, Germany and Sweden) and in Canada (her North American conducting debut was with the TSO in October 2015). In 2016, Hannigan was appointed music director of California’s Ojai Music Festival for the year 2019.
Hannigan has recorded a variety of works from the Baroque to the 21st century, some of which (Correspondances and Written on Skin) have received Gramophone Awards. She sang on The Importance of Being Earnest, which received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Canadian composers whose work she has recorded include Harry Freedman (Spirit Song) and Michael J. Baker. In 2008, she sang on the TSO’s recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4.
In 2018, she won a Grammy Award for Crazy Girl Crazy (2017), her first album as both conductor and singer. Praised by CBC Music as “Hannigan’s most audacious, risky, confident record to date,” and by the Guardian as “a reminder, in no shy terms, of what a stupidly seductive vocalist she is,” the album features Hannigan leading Amsterdam’s Ludwig Orchestra as she tackles Alban Berg’s Lulu Suit, Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III and Ira Gershwin’s Crazy Girl.
Hannigan has achieved renown in Europe and North America as a singer and advocate of new opera. She is noted for passionate, innovative, physical performances that challenge preconceived notions and border on performance art. By often conducting the orchestra in the same performances in which she sings, she has further broken boundaries and proven her versatility. Hannigan stands out as a high-achieving iconoclast in a profession where women orchestra conductors are rare.
The recipient of several awards, Hannigan was named the 2013 Musical Personality of the Year by France’s Syndicat de la Critique, the first Canadian so honoured. She was also the subject of the documentariesI’m a creative animal (2014) and Canadees Podiumdier (2014).
- Singer of the Year, Opernwelt (2013)
- Music Personality of the Year, Syndicat de la Presse Française (2013)
- Ovatie Award, Best Classical Concert of the Year (2014)
- Gramophone Classical Music Award, Gramophone (2013, 2014)
- Best Album, France Musique (2014)
- Der Faust Award for music theatre, Deutsche Bühnenverein (2015)
- Best Classical Solo Vocal Album (Crazy Girl Crazy), Grammy Awards (2018)