Barbara Hannigan: desire and discipline

Antonio Mancinelli

Not just a triple threat, a quadruple threat. In Spoleto – where she will be the first woman orchestra conductor in the festival’s history – Barbara Hannigan, singer, director, performer and conductor (not to mention acrobat and actress) will bring together all of her areas of expertise for various events: in Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, based on the legendary monodrama by Jean Cocteau, she will be conducting from the podium and the lead on stage, covering both roles, thanks to specially-made screens; then she will perform in Jumalattaret by John Zorn, songs inspired by the Finish epic poem Kalevala; and lastly she will sing in the final concert directed by Sir Antonio Pappano, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber. Her journey, from Händel to Bach, Mozart to Ligeti, has garnered too much recognition to sum up in a few lines. Not to mention she became a member of the Order of Canada, her home country, in 2016 and received the Rolf Schock Prize in the Musical Arts in 2018. For several years she has also been running the Equilibrium Young Artists project, a mentoring program that helps young artists with professional development and elevating their expressive abilities. Despite all this, she’s no diva. She remains grounded and incredibly full of life. In our brief conversation we saved room for a few laughs, some interesting thoughts and an exchange of ideas. Even a few emotional moments.

Barbara Hannigan © Marco Borggreve

I read that you prefer to avoid talking about the lower percentage of women conductors to men because you don’t like to “look at everything from the perspective of gender”. Isn’t this contradictory?

What I said in that interview was a wish, not a statement. With my work and my story, I embody a situation with a deep gap that I know all too well. I believe training and educating youth is fundamental. When I perform in front of young spectators, I can feel that it is normal for them that a woman is conducting an orchestra. For some adults, it isn’t normal yet because it is still a matter that is too connected to gender. In any case, what I truly want is a society in which everyone has one single mission: to be faithful to him or herself. For example, I do crazy things. I sing while hanging upside down from a piano, while pedaling my feet in the air laying on a chair, while running in place or dancing, without missing a note. I am curious whether I can do something I’ve never done. It’s fun. I was born a woman, but what I’ve truly mastered is being free.


In fact, she’s difficult to define because she’s good at what she does and because she approaches the musical arts in an infinite number of ways…

I don’t want to be put in a box with a label. This is the true mission of an artist: giving shape, voice and movement to the most diverse sentiments. With Equilibrium I try to use this non-method method, being authentic and trying to bend my passion into different disciplines.


What does “leadership” mean to her?

You can see it in the way I conduct: I express myself with movements that imply others are invited to collaborate, as if I were calling on the musicians to be part of a team. Being a leader for me does not mean you are a dictator but rather quite the opposite.

Let’s deal with reality. Contemporary music is considered “difficult” and not easy listening like pop. How might one appreciate it more?

I’m sure you know that almost every pop song is based on repetition and a combination of three chords. Then I listen to the wind, the complexity of nature, and I wonder if it isn’t our ethical duty to understand better the non-simplicity in which the sounds of our world can be found immersed. Although I must confess one thing. When I have children listen to various composers, often they prefer Ligeti to Beethoven. It surprises them more. They never know what note or instrument will come next. Maybe we should listen to contemporary music from childhood.


Dostoevsky believed that “beauty will save the world”. But will the world save beauty?

I’m moved. In recent days I have been thinking about this: the mystery of being human, capable of sowing death then creating beautiful masterpieces. Perhaps the only way to save beauty is to continue to do what one knows. And always at our best.