Renowned Canadian soprano, Barbara Hannigan, will be performing with the Schönberg Ensemble for the Melbourne International Arts Festival on October 10 in the Hamer Hall. She spoke to Australian Stage’s Olympia Bowman-Derrick about her passion for contemporary music.

Barbara HanniganYou completed your Master of Music under the tuition of Mary Morrison, at the University of Toronto in 1998. Can you reflect on her role in developing your voice? What elements of your vocal training have shaped the performer you are today?
Mary Morrison is one of Canada’s best known voice teachers, and is also known for her commitment to contemporary music. She taught me a solid classical technique, encouraged me to explore all kinds of music, and to LISTEN to as much as possible… to OPEN MY EARS!

I have worked with other teachers who had a great influence on me as well – theatre, dance and movement, percussion, piano and even composition. All these factors have helped me to understand a little better how to bring out my voice and physical qualities into performing opera, or concert music.

Your repertoire is extensive and varied – encompassing the timeless works of Mozart, to the twentieth century works of Stravinsky, and, for example, contemporary works by Alexina Louie titled, Toothpaste, and Burnt Toast – I’m sooo over you. Do you have a favourite style or piece?

One of my favorite pieces to perform is the Ligeti Mysteries of the Macabre, as the audience will quickly understand once they see it in Melbourne. I do not have ONE favourite piece – often my favourite piece is the one I am working on TODAY.

The contemporary works you mention above by Alexina Louie were very fast forays into the unknown genre of mini-opera composed for film. It was certainly fun, but I prefer the LIVE music experience – the onstage collaboration with colleagues for the live audience. I have had the privilege to work with composers like Jan van de Putte, whose work I’ll be singing in Melbourne; our collaboration over the years has been so enjoyable and artistically inspiring.

Reviews consistently refer not only to your technical skill, but also to your emotional range and passionately nuanced performances. How do you prepare for a role, especially a new and demanding one?
My preparation involves a lot of work away from the piano and without singing. That is to say, research, translation, quiet study, and searching for depth. I have memorized whole sections of operas before I even sang a note, therefore saving my voice to work on it once I knew where the music was going!

I try to understand what the composer, of any era, is trying to convey – first of all in a harmonic sense, then in a dramatic way, working through the text, and the way the composer set it within the harmonic structure of the piece. Of course it’s impossible to do this without my own personality or preferences (or weaknesses!) coming through, but I try to be a channel for what the composer wrote!
I have memorized whole sections of operas before I even sang a note, therefore saving my voice to work on it once I knew where the music was going!{/xtypo_quote_right}
In the Melbourne International Arts Festival, you are performing with the Schönberg Ensemble – described as, ‘one of the most radical classical musical groups of the time’, because of  their emphasis on the performance of bold contemporary works by composers such as Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. What excites you about 20th and 21st century composition?

First of all, it is always a great pleasure to work with the Schönberg Ensemble, and with their conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. He has been a great mentor for me these past years, and his feeling for music has influenced mine very much. I appreciate all kinds of music, from all genres, but singing new or recent compositions is always a great adventure, and allows me to explore my vocal and artistic possibilities in a special way, because there is little precedent for HOW the piece should be performed. Of course, it should follow the score, if the composer has the skill to notate his/her wishes, but, for example, doing contemporary opera is really unknown territory, and can be an exhilarating experience to develop a work from paper to stage for the first time.

You will be performing Jan van de Putte’s Uma Só Divina Linha, and György Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw. What should Melbournian audiences expect – and look forward to?
I hope the audiences in Melbourne can arrive with open ears and an open mind… no expectations, except that they will hear MUSIC!

Barbara Hannigan performs with the Schönberg Orchestra, Oct 9 & 10, as part of the 2008 Melbourne International Arts Festival. For further information -

Top Right - Barbara Hannigan. Photo - Marco Borggreve

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