At the moment she’s pretending to eat a cooked human heart. A few months ago, she was singing opera en pointe and conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
The Canadian multi-tasking soprano Barbara Hannigan is starring in the U.K. premiere of “Written on Skin” by George Benjamin at the Royal Opera. She plays Agnes, a medieval wife who finds liberation in an adulterous affair. When her husband finds out, he makes her eat the heart of her lover. Funnily enough, Agnes quite enjoys it.
Benjamin’s music is often exquisite and ethereal, in a glacial and detached way. What gives the production its mojo is a terrific central performance from Hannigan, for whom the role was written, and powerful support from Christopher Purves (the husband) and Bejun Mehta (the lover).
Hannigan’s voice has a pure beauty, and her acting is physically mesmerizing.
I meet up with the 41-year-old singer in Covent Garden. Bouncing with energy after a rehearsal, she wears skinny jeans and high-heeled boots. Flinging her legs over the arms of a chair, she stretches like a contented cat. She talks about her character, whom she plays with a taut, agitated stillness.
“Her situation feels real, and like something we can all identify with,” she says. “These are primal feelings and emotions. It’s oppression and liberation.”
The composer asked her to play a game with him to work out how best to write for her.
“He took a sheet of music paper and wrote a note,” she says. “Then I wrote another, and he another few. He was trying to work out how I liked to move. He saw I liked to leap around, and not hang about in one register for too long.”
Hannigan, who has a virtuosic, flexible technique and openness to experimentation, has performed in more than 80 world premieres and worked with masters of contemporary music such as Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux and Gyorgy Ligeti. The situation has brought its own problems.
“Some composers think I’m just some crazy virtuoso, and try to outdo each other in a kind of one-upmanship game,” she says. “It’s got to be crazier, higher, faster. George Benjamin didn’t do that. Agnes is a more lyrical role -- he stayed true to the character and himself.”
Agnes, who kills herself after she eats her boyfriend’s heart, is not the only heroine in Hannigan’s repertoire who comes to a sticky end.
Last year in Brussels she sang the role of Lulu in Alban Berg’s opera of the same name, and spent most of Act 1 and Act 3 en pointe, and plenty of the show in nothing but lingerie.
She must have had great ballet training, I suggest.
“No, I’d had some dance training, but I’d never been en pointe in my life. It was the director’s idea. They took me to a ballet shop, got me some shoes, and that was it.”
Wasn’t it agony?
“You know what? It was comfortable. Not physically -- it hurt like hell. I mean it was right, and good, and symbolized the drive that Lulu has to get anything she wants. It felt real, and natural. I felt invincible in those pointe shoes. Then I’d finish a show, limp to my dressing room, and there’d be a doctor to give me some antibiotics.”
You can’t help but sense the perfectionist in Hannigan; she carries it around like a force field. With her sense of humor, it’s easy to see why composers fall over themselves to write for her. If she’s going to do a thing, she gives everything to it.
Not one to shirk a challenge, she’s also taken up conducting, starting with a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Renard” in Paris in 2011. In December last year, she shared conducting duties with Simon Rattle in a performance of “Facade” with the Berlin Philharmonic.
When she had the baton he narrated; when he did, she was the speaker. In other concerts she’s sung and conducted simultaneously.
Isn’t that rather like riding a unicycle and juggling live cats at the same time?
“Not at all. Conducting gives me a parental feeling,” she says. “It’s something neither male nor female -- that’s why I say ‘parental.’ And I don’t mean that the players are like children. I mean it’s a form of leadership that I don’t have when I’m just making sounds myself.”
She’s in great shape. Has she ever felt a pressure to stay slim to work in opera? “No, I’ve never had anyone say that. I like to stay in shape because it makes me feel good, and I know I benefit from being a good-looking person. Hey, the audience benefits too.”
Her smile returns. “I sing some of the most challenging and difficult repertoire ever written. When I come on stage and look good, it softens the blow for the audience. At least for a minute or two before the music starts.”
Rating: ***** for Hannigan, *** for the opera.
Barbara Hannigan is in “Written on Skin” at the Royal Opera, Bow Street, London WC2E 9DD until March 22. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.
For more information, and audio and video clips of Hannigan at work, http://www.barbarahannigan.com
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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)