Versatile Soprano Does Double Duty With Toronto SO

Soprano Barbara Hannigan conducted -- and sang with -- the Toronto Symphony
Soprano Barbara Hannigan made her North American conducting debut with the Toronto Symphony. She also sang.
(Concert photos by Malcolm Cook)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — It’s by no means unusual for instrumental musicians, once they’ve achieved a certain stature, to become conductors. But singers who have taken up the baton are rarer. There’s Plácido Domingo, of course, plus Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nathalie Stutzmann, Thomas Quasthoff, and a few, but only a few, others.

When singers do ascend the podium, it may be at a point when their singing careers are winding down. And they often stick with what they know, conducting opera, choral works, or other repertoire with a prominent vocal component.

Hannigan in Skin
Hannigan, with Bejun Mehta, in George Benjamin’s ‘Written on Skin.’ (Boris Horvat)

Then there’s Barbara Hannigan, who made her North American debut as a conductor on Oct. 7 leading the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall. (I heard the Oct. 8 performance.) She also sang on the program — and even at one point sang while conducting. At 44, the Canadian soprano’s vocal career continues to advance full-steam ahead. Mostly, she sings in Europe, with recent appearances in Berlin, Rome, Brussels, Munich, and elsewhere. These days, her big role is Agnès in George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin. Contemporary music is her strong suit.

Hannigan made her conducting debut in 2010 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris leading Stravinsky’s Renard. But she soon moved from the opera pit to the stage, conducting works by Mozart, Haydn, Stravinsky, and other composers with various European orchestras.

Hannigan sang Nono’s ‘Djamila Boupacha’ and a Mozart concert aria.

At the Toronto Symphony concert, Hannigan opened the program with an unaccompanied vocal composition, Djamila Boupacha by Luigi Nono, a 1962 work about a figure in the war for Algerian independence. The piece was an excellent vehicle for highlighting Hannigan’s pleasantly light, lyrical voice, keenly accurate sense of pitch, and seamless negotiation of register. Her intense performance did much to explain why she’s in demand as a singer of contemporary music.

Yet without pausing for well-deserved applause, Hannigan whirled around to face the waiting Toronto Symphony players and began conducting Haydn’s Symphony No. 49, “La Passione.” She led the orchestra without baton or score, but with a generous outpouring of interpretive gestures from her bare arms. (Her penchant for sleeveless dresses has been much discussed by some writers, who apparently find her choice of attire a tad shocking.) The results were impressive: an organic and dramatic reading.

It was in another classical work, Mozart’s concert aria “Bella mia fiamma … Resta, o cara,” that Hannigan stepped forward as both conductor and soloist. Here, she turned to face the audience, and as she sang with pathos-drenched drama, her arms were a swirling melange of conducting technique and operatic histrionics. This, combined with the fact that the soprano stood with her back to the orchestra, clearly challenged the orchestra members, who at times found themselves flying on a wing and a prayer. The performance wasn’t especially tidy or crisp, but Hannigan’s total involvement with the music created an exciting tension.  (The YouTube link above shows her singing and conducting three Mozart arias with the Göthenburg Symphony Orchestra.)

Hannigan led two other pieces on the program in a much more conventional style. With score and baton, she dove with conviction into Concert Românesc, an early work by György Ligeti. In this folksong-infused suite, strongly reminiscent of Bartók, Hannigan effectively drew vivid colors from the orchestra as she tightly held the band together and handled sudden tempo changes with a clear beat.

However, in Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, Hannigan’s sense of style proved less acute. Largely absent from her interpretation was the suave jazziness that makes this piece sexy and fun. Instead, in the outer movements, she allowed the orchestra to blast without finesse. The middle movement fared better, with delicate, mysterious passages from the flute and harp.

Hannigan’s concert with the Toronto Symphony was a unique event for me; I’ve never before seen or heard anything quite like it. And those who enjoy scanning the classical musical world for “new trends” are advised to look elsewhere, because singing and conducting at the same time isn’t about to catch on in a big way. That said, there was nothing in Hannigan’s performance that was gimmicky. It was a fascinating presentation by a genuinely multi-talented artist.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications.