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Barbara Hannigan sees similarities between her creative roles: ‘Whether you’re a singer or a conductor, your body is your instrument.’

Musacchio & Ianniello

Barbara Hannigan, although she was born in Nova Scotia and studied in Toronto, was a name many in the Canadian musical community heard only when a classical-music video first appeared on TV, on Bravo!, CHUM's arts channel and a sister station to MuchMusic. Toothpaste was a five-minute, mini "soap opera," with an original score by Alexina Louie, about a couple who split up because she leaves the cap off the toothpaste tube. It was silly, but a first for CHUM. Hannigan played the offending wife in the video.

Toothpaste appeared in 2001, a mere 14 years ago. Since then, Barbara Hannigan has transformed herself into one of the seminal musicians in contemporary music in the world, a singular presence in modern music. She is a regular collaborator with conductors such as Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Alan Gilbert, in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London and New York. She has put her fearless creative spirit and crystalline soprano voice in the service of contemporary composers around the world. And they have responded enthusiastically – she has performed close to 100 world premieres in her career, many of them pieces written especially for her.

Her list of creative colleagues reads like The Oxford Companion to Music's entry on the most significant composers of the 20th and 21st centuries: Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Henri Dutilleux, Gyorgy Ligeti. The opera that British composer George Benjamin wrote for her in 2012, Written on Skin, has been called the most successful contemporary opera of the past 30 years, a masterpiece.

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Hannigan has become a central player in the world of contemporary music. And she's done so almost entirely on her own terms. Her career is as original as her extraordinary performing style.

In 2010, Hannigan started to conduct as well as sing – well actually, conduct and sing. In original programs of her own fashioning, she might include a concert aria, which she will both sing and conduct, an a cappella solo contemporary performance, and straight renditions of classical symphonies and 20th-century works. Until now, her conducting work has been confined to her European home base. But this week, she appears in this newer role with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It will be her North American conducting debut. Her program in Toronto includes vocal pieces by Luigi Nono and Mozart, as well as orchestral works by Ligeti, Stravinsky and Haydn.

Hannigan's unique success is a combination of artistic daring and extreme creative discipline. "The red thread that runs through my career," she says, "is that I only perform music about which I'm passionate. I've turned down many big opportunities because it didn't feel right for me. It's like food allergies. There are foods I just can't eat. And pieces I just can't perform. I'm very careful. It's physical for me. It affects my body. "

Hannigan may be selective, but her taste and musical instincts have been proven true, time and again. Her interest in contemporary music began in Toronto, in her student days, under the tutelage of Mary Morrison, the patron saint of so many Canadian singers. "Mary would encourage me to seek out contemporary scores in the [University of Toronto] library and then listen to the recordings of the pieces. I spent hours in the U of T stacks. It was like educating your palate, developing your taste buds."

But her interest in contemporary music also had its roots in her fiercely independent personality. Hannigan's glassy, perfectly focused coloratura soprano made her a perfect match for the angular, acrobatic vocal writing that has characterized so much contemporary music over the past 30 years, the "crazy stuff," as she calls it. Her alternative was to be forced to sing, over and over again, the few traditional operatic roles that suited her unique range and voice. No way.

"I did a Queen of the Night for Opera Atelier here," she says, "and I thought – I'm never singing that again. Ever. It was too easy to be put in a box. A box I didn't want to be in."

And it's partly to avoid other boxes, ones that she has fashioned for herself, that has led Hannigan to conducting. It's a different experience for her, but one that has similarities to her performing self. "There's less anxiety with conducting. It's a different kind of focus. But I feel I'm the same musician, working the same way, with the same concentrated attention. Maybe more attention. You have to hear everything in conducting. There's more responsibility of service."

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There's also a whole new set of technical skills to learn and absorb. Conducting an orchestra isn't simply waving your hands about and looking inspired. "I've had great mentors help me not just in the technique of conducting, but also in the planning and scheduling of my programs," she says. "They've been very generous. When I was in New York for Written on Skin in August, Alan Gilbert of the New York Philharmonic turned to me and said, 'See? When I do this, this is how the orchestra reacts. This gesture gets that effect.' It was very instructive.

"Whether you're a singer or a conductor, your body is your instrument. And however I perform, I'm not thinking about intervals or harmonic progressions, the technical side of things. I'm thinking about emotional connection, about passion."

And for you Canadian nationalists out there, even though Hannigan has made Europe her professional base, she says Canada will always be her home. It's not just that she has purchased property in her native Nova Scotia and that a picture of that property is the wallpaper on her iPhone. It's deeper than that.

"I'm free," she says, "in a way that's very Canadian. Clearing a path – that's what we do."

Barbara Hannigan conducts and sings with the TSO at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall on Oct. 7 and 8 at 8 p.m. (tso.ca).

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