04 Jul 2020

Taking Risks with Barbara Hannigan

A Louise Brooks look-a-like, in bobbed black wig and floor-sweeping leather trench-coat, cheeks purple-rouged and eyes shadowed in black, Barbara Hannigan issues taut gestures which elicit fire-cracker punch from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

She turns, fixes the audience with a steely stare then whips off her coat to reveal fishnets and PVC basque, and, as the audience chuckles, she clicks four brisk beats and a whiplash strike brings in the orchestra behind her, to accompany her launch into the peaking, plunging, faltering soprano solo of György Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, a concert setting of his operatic scene (from Le grand macabre) for an unhinged, soprano chief-of-police and orchestra. Just singing this work is challenge enough for most, let alone conducting it at the same time.

The opening moments of Taking Risks, a double-disc documentary/performance offering an insider’s look at Barbara Hannigan’s first opera production as a conductor - The Rake’s Progress, in December 2018 with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra - certainly justify the DVD’s title. Directed by Maria Stodtmeier, Taking Risks is the second documentary DVD that Accentus Music has released with Barbara Hannigan, following the award-winning release of I’m a creative animal in 2015. This film follows Hannigan through auditions, casting, workshops and rehearsals, to first night.

“As a singer I probably have ten more good years left, and I’m doing more and more conducting, and I’m making this strange, funny path as a singer-conductor and eventually I’ll just be a conductor,” Hannigan begins. “So, now, yeah, my first opera, and I do think, ‘What was a thinking?’ On the other hand, I think that I got it. I can’t wait, I’m super-excited and I’m very scared.”

The Rake’s Progress was the first opera that Hannigan sang, at the age of 19: “It’s in my blood - but that doesn’t mean that anyone who sang an opera years ago can conduct it.” Never one to take a short cut when she could tackle a marathon, there was no chance that Hannigan would select a cast of experienced professionals all of whom had sung their roles before - which would have meant “I don’t need to worry about them, only my own responsibilities as a conductor” - when she could choose to work with young singers at the start of their careers, only one of whom had performed their role before. She was looking for “like-minded” musicians, but these were people whom Hannigan did not know; as she says, she was “taking a huge risk”.

So, Equilibrium Young Artists was born. And one thing that is clear is that the process of giving her younger colleagues exciting opportunities and mentoring them as they overcame their own challenges and fears, was as important to Hannigan as the actual performance. 350 applications, from 39 countries, were whittled down to 125 who were invited to audition live. The auditions became mini-mentoring sessions, and she hoped that “everyone walked away with a personal connection”.

Certainly, she was generous with her time, advice and kindness. We see her discussing her feelings about being a female conductor: she wondered why she kept be asking questions about this, but realised that she had to answer the questions since they were not really about “women and conducting”, but “women and leadership”, a social issue. She puts candidates at ease by joking that she must have chosen the right opera because after 300 or 400 applications she’s not yet sick of The Rake’s Progress!

takingrisks1.jpgBarbara Hannigan during auditions at the École Normale de Musique de Paris.

Auditions begin in the École Normale de Musique de Paris and, via Stockholm and Zurich, conclude in Greenwich, London in the historic grandeur of the Royal Naval College, now home to Trinity Laban Conservatoire. We see both a sequence of hopeful young singers come and go, and Hannigan herself, working on her score on an airplane, in hotel rooms, her plans disrupted by train cancellations which leaving her sitting on the floor of a crowded train carriage trying to study The Rake’s Progress, and arriving tired and stressed at her destination. At the end of a casting day, she is tearful with tiredness.

Hannigan explains that it’s not technical ‘perfection’ that she’s looking for, it’s “something else”: how they look, move, talk to the pianist, work in the group. Several singers have caught her eye and interest from the start of the process including Greek soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou: she has a certain “seriousness” and Hannigan is willing her on during her audition, “don’t disappoint me”. She doesn’t.

We see the successful singers receiving a call from Hannigan, offering them a role: dodgy telephone and wifi connections, incredulous responses and absolute joy … in one case a singer’s inability to provide a correct ’phone number prompts a rueful reflection on whether this means he shouldn’t get the job. Fortunately for the said singer, Hannigan follows her instincts and finds a way to contact him. It’s a good lesson to learn about professionalism.

As she works on this project, Hannigan’s own singing career continues to make personal, musical and practical demands. She finds herself at Dutch National Opera singing in a production of George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence. She explains that she couldn’t imagine herself singing beyond the age of 40, and talks honestly and openly about the fast-paced intensity of an international singer’s life, and about her own performance anxiety and how she has learned to manage it.

Rehearsals involve workshops with diverse professionals: Jackie Reardon, a performance coach; conductor/composer/pianist Reinbert de Leeuw, a special mentor for Hannigan; Natalie Dessay and Daniel Harding. It’s interesting that something that Hannigan mentioned right at the start of the auditioning process, when asked about her own career, is reprised by Dessay and Harding: the loneliness that professional musicians at the top of their profession experience.

The final rehearsals in Gothenburg with the orchestra - breaking with convention, Hannigan requests that the singers are present and involved from the start - are obviously tremendously exciting for all involved, and the premiere sparkles with musical commitment, intensity and that first-night ‘dust’ that magical moments sprinkle.

In May 2019, Hannigan toured Europe with a new bunch of Equilibrium Young Artists but this inaugural venture must have been something very special. The risks were worth taking.

Claire Seymour