“I have an obligation and an understanding and a passion for contemporary music which very few people have,” explains Barbara Hannigan, “so I know what I'm supposed to be doing. It's my purpose.” The Canadian soprano’s working relationship with George Benjamin and Katie Mitchell goes back to 2012 when she created the role of Agnès in Written on Skin at the Festival d’Aix, an opera which has gone on to be touted around the world as the finest thus far this century. The trio are reunited at Covent Garden for Benjamin’s latest opera, Lessons in Love and Violence, which is about to receive its world première. During a break in rehearsals at the Royal Opera House, we talked about many of her recent roles and her move into conducting.

Barbara Hannigan in rehearsal for Lessons in Love and Violence
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

Hannigan plays Isabel in Benjamin’s new opera, which is loosely based on Christopher Marlowe's Edward II. Mitchell gave Hannigan a 21-page back-story, but of the character, not of the real Isabella, or Marlowe’s Isabella. “I've got my text and my music and I don't pay a lot of attention to what happens when I'm not on stage because that means my character didn't know that that happened, so I'm only dealing with the stuff that happens that I'm privy to. In this story, I have a husband – I'm the queen – we've had two children, and he is clearly bisexual or homosexual. But this has been going on for several years so I don't think it's a matter that I cannot tolerate, as queen. I think what I cannot tolerate is that the kingdom is on the verge of civil war.” Isabel's solution is to conspire in the murder of Gaveston, the king's favourite. 

“It's not as virtuosic as Agnès. In Written on Skin, you could say that the story was about Agnès’ liberation, and that's not what this story is about. Isabel is in a slow downward spiral and she doesn't recover. I develop coping mechanisms as a character, but there's no catharsis and I don't have a peak. I start at a certain level and I just go down. It's not tough to play, but it's a bit depressing. We tell a lot of jokes on stage just to lighten the mood.”

George Benjamin and Barbara Hannigan in rehearsal for Lessons in Love and Violence
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

Lessons in Love and Violence also reunites Hannigan with French baritone Stéphane Degout, her Pelléas when she sang her first Mélisande in Aix, also directed by Mitchell. I get a clear sense that, with her busy schedule, Hannigan only has the time – and patience – to work with colleagues she admires. “I'm on the side, watching constantly, learning constantly. Katie's craft as a director – how she organises a team, how she sculpts a show – is amazing. It's not always easy; she pushes a show through and she wants to stage it all very fast. Even until yesterday afternoon, we were changing big things. It's extraordinary and it's hard and it's intense. There's a lot of understanding of one another, and forgiveness and respect and honesty as well.”

“When you first do a production with someone, you don't want them to see you screwing up. When you work with a director for the second or third time – the same with a composer or a conductor – it's a little bit easier. They know you, they know your skills, they know how you are as an actor. Katie knows what I can do and so she will help me get to the next level, and then I'm not bored. Mélisande was crazy – I was on stage all the time. I'm almost on stage all the time in this too.”

Barbara Hannigan
© Elmer de Haas

A lot of Hannigan’s operatic roles are contemporary, roles she helped create. I wondered how involved she likes to be in the creative process. “It depends on the composer. Brett Dean workshopped Hamlet, but I wasn't free and I don't like workshops anyway. I mean, a composer does not workshop a symphony! But Brett and I have known each other for a long time. George knows me. Hans Abrahamsen and I really worked together quite extensively for let me tell you and, vocally, that piece is probably the most tailor-made piece for me ever. I would say Agnès was very close to that. You'd also say Hamlet is tailor-made for me, absolutely. It was made for my capabilities and staged on my capabilities, but I'm not usually that involved any more. Composers now know what kind of actor I am, what kind of singer I am, they know that they can really be free and so any confinement is coming from them and not from me. I have my limits, but…”

Abrahamsen’s 2013 song cycle, based on text manipulating Ophelia's words in Hamlet, has been a huge hit. Hannigan still holds an exclusivity clause on performing it. “First we set it for three years and then somehow the idea came up that it would be mine for five years. Hans wanted that. I sing it next season in London, tour it with the Bamberger Symphoniker, and at the Paris Philharmonie with Daniel Harding, so that's my last year of ownership, I guess. We wanted to make sure that when the work was going to be heard in different places for the first time, that it was going to be at the quality that Hans could control.” She clearly looks forward to hearing different sopranos sing the piece. “I know a few people who I'm really eager to hear sing it. I think once we've set a certain standard, then they're only going to take it further, which is great. It's the same with Dutilleux’s Correspondances, which I sang so many times. It sets a bar and then you invite other people to make the same commitment.”

Barbara Hannigan as Agnès in Written on Skin
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

Hannigan recently said farewell to Agnès. When, I wondered, is the right time to hang up a role? “In my case, because I'm conducting so much, I have to be so selective about what I'm doing and where I'm doing it. I have certain composers I want to work with, I have certain repertoire I want to sing and I have certain directors I need to be working with. Part of the way in which I can give something up is if I know that it has been established in the canon as a respected piece that has had enough exposure. Written on Skin doesn't need me any more! The same with the Dutilleux, the same with Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre. Those pieces do not need me. Everybody wants to do them.”

With roles created specifically for her vocal 'fit', I ask Hannigan if she thinks that makes it harder for other sopranos to take them on. “I don't think so. A lot of singers can sing Lulu and nobody's writing stuff outside the range of Lulu. Basically, that's the perfect role for me, so there is nothing that it's not possible for someone else to take care of. Lauren Fagan got great reviews for her Agnès! And I know a whole bunch of other sopranos who should sing Agnès too.”

In terms of new works, Hannigan has the title role in Michael Jarrell’s Bérénice in Paris this September. “I've seen the score. It's very virtuosic, very demanding. I think it's going to be fun.” And then she has a new opera by Hans Abrahamsen, The Snow Queen, in which she sings in the international premiere (in English) at the Bayerische Staatsoper.

Hannigan’s conducting career has grown. She was recently appointed Principal Guest at the Gothenburg Symphony from the 2019-20 season. “Almost 50% of my year is now conducting. It's intense. I wish there were more hours in the day. I wish I didn't have to sleep as much, but as a singer, you need to get seven hours. Next season is a big one. I have my American debut with The Cleveland Orchestra and I've got the LSO, returning to Gothenburg and to the Munich Philharmonic, orchestras with whom I have strong relationships, so it's very exciting. I think conducting makes me a better musician all round and a better colleague as a singer as well.”

Barbara Hannigan
© Musacchio & Ianniello | Accademia nazionale di Santa Cecilia

I imagine Hannigan enjoys putting together eclectic programmes and her face lights up when I ask if there are any pieces in the repertoire that she can't wait to get her hands on. “Stravinsky's works really interest me. I'm looking forward to Mahler 4 and being an opera conductor is really important for me. I think my experience as a singer will bring something to conducting opera, my awareness and empathy will be of use.” Next season, Hannigan conducts semi-staged performances Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in several European venues, featuring singers on her mentoring scheme, Equilibrium Young Artists.

Hannigan made the transition into conducting via works where she was also involved as soloist. “Conducting and singing is kind of funny! It's not easy to prepare but it's very natural. I’m doing Sibelius’ Luonnotar next season and it works so well. I've sung it with amazing conductors but when I do it on my own and the orchestra plays, this creation myth gets a completely different dramaturgy." Her passion for conducting is clearly as intense as her passion for creating new roles. 


Lessons in Love and Violence opens on 10th May at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and on 25th June at the Holland Festival. 

Click here to see Barbara Hannigan's upcoming performances.