What do you do when you're asked to sing for someone's birthday and you want to but can't make it? That problem was Barbara Hannigan's, and her solution resounded far beyond a party among friends.
The Canadian soprano is pals with Paul Griffiths, the former New Yorker music critic and novelist, whose wife asked her in 2011 to surprise him with a song on his 64th. "I said, 'I'm busy that day, let's commission a piece instead,'" says Hannigan, in a sunny room at her temporary digs in Toronto, where she is preparing for three concerts with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
She first thought of something for voice and piano, but the idea gradually expanded into a work for soprano and full orchestra, which Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, who also knows Griffiths, was eager to write, based on Griffiths's novella let me tell you. "So I wrote to the Berlin Philharmonic," Hannigan says, "and said, 'Why don't you take this on?'"
They did, and paid for the commission, and premiered the 30-minute piece, which Hannigan has since performed with 10 other orchestras across Europe (and will do again with the TSO on March 4). At some point during that surprising outcome, she says, "I finally sat down with Paul and said, 'I have a little present for you.' Can you imagine?" Her slender, pale form curls up with laughter.
That anecdote tells you several things about Hannigan – that she likes a good story, has sway with the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, and is really good at bringing new things into the world. She has built an international career on her fearless performances of mostly new music, no matter how thorny or challenging.
She's the star attraction at the TSO's New Creations Festival, singing in all three programs curated by English composer George Benjamin. His 2012 opera Written on Skin, which the TSO plays in concert form on March 7, was custom-made for Hannigan's talents, and has played to full houses at half a dozen European opera theatres with her in the leading role.
"It's like a 13th-century thriller," she says, "but the subject is very timely, because it's about liberation, about being trapped and how one emerges from that." She connected with that theme right away, she says, in part because that's how she sees the challenge of performing classical music in the 21st century.
The field is full of enticements, she says, to go along with convention, to follow received ideas about how a piece or a style should be communicated. She could feel the trap closing the first time a voice teacher showed her how a piece should go by doing something that was at odds with the marks on the page.
"I have never, ever met a composer who said to me, 'Don't sing what I put in the score, sing it the way the other singer did it,' and I've spent my life working with composers," she says. "I can't imagine that anyone would do that, so I just try to go from the score and apply it to my possibilities."
New music appealed to her early on because there are no conventions specific to a brand-new piece. "I've always felt more free in repertoire that was untouched, where I didn't have anyone saying, 'This is the way everyone else does it.'" She has given the first performances of more than 80 compositions.
She was born in 1971 in Waverley, N.S., a town near Halifax, and had only a vague notion of what classical music was when she left to study music at the University of Toronto. After singing for a few years with contemporary ensembles, Hannigan moved to Europe, where her career blossomed.
She became associated with top-drawer composers such as Gyorgy Ligeti and Louis Andriessen, and with conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen (who is also a composer). She's famous for excelling in bravura pieces that other singers might consider barely singable, such as Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre.
"I love lyricism, and there are places for it in every piece that I sing," she says. "But I also like to jump around, and I need some angularity in order to negotiate the line and the phrase. If I'm given a very melodious line, I'll look for the edges."
But new-music specialization is just another captivity she'd rather avoid. She has performed and recorded music by Handel, Haydn and Mozart, and in December sang her first performances as Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni, at Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels.
On the same stage two years earlier, she gave a much-lauded role debut as Alban Berg's Lulu, dancing en pointe in some scenes. She has even performed a souped-up pop version of Nessun dorma, from Puccini's Turandot, for a huge outdoor audience in Amsterdam, where she lives with her husband, Dutch theatre director Gijs de Lange.
In 2011, she appeared with the Avanti Chamber Orchestra at Le Châtelet in Paris, where she sang and conducted Stravinsky's Renard and Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre. She has since moved comfortably into that unusual double role, as she'll demonstrate in Toronto next October, when she returns to conduct Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements and to lead in her own performances of arias by Mozart.
"As a young person, I didn't even really know that women became conductors, except of choirs," she says. But she has always had a conductor's interest in compositional structure. René Bosc, the Festival Présences director who arranged that first gig at Le Châtelet, told her that her gestures while singing already had a directive quality.
When rehearsing a piece she is also singing, she says, she starts by conducting the players in a more or less usual way. "For the second or third rehearsal, I turn my back and do less and less, until I'm doing almost nothing. That gives them the feeling that we're all making chamber music together, even if it's a large group."
Earlier this month, in a concert with the Helsinki Philharmonic, Hannigan conducted Henri Dutilleux's Sur le même accord with violin soloist John Storgards, then sang Abrahamsen's let me tell you with Storgards conducting. She's negotiating right now to close another circle, by conducting a full production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress – the piece in which she made her operatic debut while still a student.
She has also returned home to Nova Scotia, in a way, buying land along the Northumberland Strait where she plans to build a house.
"I feel most at home there, and I feel very focused," she says. "I can get really good work done there, better than anywhere else." At least once a year, she'll spend several weeks on the North Shore, studying, practising and taking the next steps in her campaign – quite unforeseen when she first left home – to conquer the classical-music world on several fronts at once.
Barbara Hannigan performs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on all three programs of the New Creations Festival, from Feb. 28 to March 7 at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall.