Artist Portrait: Barbara Hannigan

Conductor and soprano Barbara Hannigan features in our Artist Portrait series at the Barbican and takes the reins for her own programme on Sunday 17 March.

What are your memories of working with the LSO?

I think my first project was Gerald Barry’s La Plus Forte – a one-woman Opera – with the LSO, Thomas Adès conducting, and Zoltán Kocsis on the piano. It’s an amazing piece – a Strindberg play about a woman who walks into a café on Christmas Eve. She’s an actress and meets another actress she used to be good friends with and tries to work out why they aren’t so close any more. By the end she’s figured out that the reason they don’t talk is that the other woman had an affair with her husband so … awkward!

Then in 2015 we did Berg’s Wozzeck fragments and Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre. I think the Ligeti made a big impression. Somebody put the video on Youtube without permission, but I was actually happy they did that, because I loved that so many people got to see it.

Returning to sing Hans Abrahamsen in January …

I’ve been singing let me tell you for five years and actually it was commissioned for me by the Berlin Phil, and Simon Rattle was a big part of the commission. Funnily enough, Simon hasn’t conducted the piece up to now so this for him is such a special moment!

The piece is a collaboration between Hans Abrahamsen and the Welsh writer Paul Giffiths. Paul wrote a book where Ophelia retells her story in her own words, using only the vocabulary Shakespeare giver her in Hamlet. So Paul wrote this story where Ophelia talks about the past, the present and the future and Hans and I worked together to condense this into seven movements. So I become Ophelia, and I’m playing her, but I’m witnessing her, and the orchestra are playing her. We’re all part of the story. 

What’s something you’re working on right now?

About two years ago I started an initiative called Equilibrium, mentoring professional young artists. I started it because I could, because I realised I was in a position to create projects for young professionals and help them.

It’s a tricky phase not just for musicians; the first few years working in any industry are delicate and to have mentors is helpful. So we put on The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky, and we’re touring it to Europe and the States. We don’t just work on the opera, we also work in intensive workshops with amazing guests. It’s a kind of retreat to come back to that reason we became musicians as children. With the pressure of beginning a career – or with the frustration and disappointment that can happen later in a career – it's possible to forget why we do this.

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Barbara Hannigan performing at the Barbican with the LSO, 2015

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Barbara Hannigan and Sir Simon Rattle at the Barbican, January 2019 (Photo: Mark Allen)

 Barbara Hannigan returns to LSO as singer and conductor at the Barbican on Sunday 17 March.