Conductor and soprano Barbara Hannigan: ‘I think of Haydn as my 250-year-old boyfriend’

“Why do we have to talk about gender?” shrugs Barbara Hannigan. As one of the world’s leading female conductors, the 51-year-old Canadian is – understandably – fed up with journalists asking questions about being a woman in a traditionally male position of power when all she wants to do is talk about the music she’ll be conducting with the London Symphony Orchestra this month.

The release of TAR – Todd Field’s psychodrama about a monstrously controlling conductor played by Cate Blanchett – hasn’t helped. Although it’s a great film, some fear that it may set back the progress of women in the conservative world of classical music. “But I haven’t seen it,” grins Hannigan, sipping milky tea after a long rehearsal at the LSO’s HQ in St Luke’s church. “So we can talk about something else. Right?”

Born in the small town of Waverley, Nova Scotia in 1971, Hannigan made her name as an adventurous soprano, bringing wit and vigour to the title role of Alban Berg’s Lulu and stripping to her underwear as Ophelia in Brett Dean’s Hamlet. Her intense physicality meant that a number of her friends and colleagues – including Sir Simon Rattle – suggested she’d be a natural conductor.

“I’m a very expressive performer,” she says. “I’ve got these tiny hands, tiny wrists…” she holds them out, delicate and sinewy. “They’re always in motion. I tried using a baton, but I didn’t enjoy it”.

Hannigan says she’s always been this way. “My mum first noticed it when I was really little. She took me and my twin brother to the public gardens in Halifax when there was a band playing in the old band stand. She said it was like I was possessed, my whole body was vibrating.”

Adventurous soprano: Barbara Hannigan as Ophelia in Glyndebourne's production of Brett Dean's Hamlet - Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images
Adventurous soprano: Barbara Hannigan as Ophelia in Glyndebourne's production of Brett Dean's Hamlet - Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images

Her early passion for music was nurtured by an “extraordinary” school music teacher Miss McEwan, who “had us doing graphic drawings of Beethoven Fifth, and played Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony for us when we were six or seven.”

At 17, Hannigan went to study music at the University of Toronto where she developed a voracious appetite for contemporary music, and an interest in forming “personal relationships” with long-dead composers. She talks merrily of Joseph Haydn as “my 250- year-old boyfriend, oh so much fun-fun-fun!”

What does she love about him? “Well,” she confides as though he might hear us, “I’m not that fond of his vocal music but I always loved the string quartets and piano sonatas. And once I started conducting the symphonies – which are too often treated as programme fillers – I realised they’re like operas, so theatrical!”

Hannigan first tried conducting in Finland 2011, starting with Stravinsky’s Le Renard. “I’d been gigging with Simon [Rattle] quite a lot and he texted me [asking] what I was up to… and of course there’s no soprano in Le Renard so it was obvious I was conducting… Then he suggested I take some conducting lessons with Jorma Panula.”

What happens at a conducting lesson? “It’s different for different people,” she explains. “You bring your score. You have a pianist. Then you conduct as if the whole orchestra is there. You’re learning new motor skills.” Hannigan enjoyed lessons during which Panula would “speak like Yoda, pointing out what I was getting wrong. ‘Don’t bend knees, kangaroo’, he would say. He told me to tick the upbeats though I was fishing. I know how to fish so that was helpful.”

But then, just before Hannigan was due to make her Dutch conducting debut at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 2014, Panula gave a TV interview in which, she winces, “he said some not smart things about women. He said women should only conduct what he called ‘women’s music’: Debussy, Faure… I don’t understand why he said those things. I was really surprised. I called him up and he was kinda blustery. I thought: what a pity.”

Although Hannigan has had the last laugh, Panula’s public dismissal of her ambition hit her already wobbling confidence. In 2015 she wrote an article in which she admitted that “turning 40 was painful for me. I had ideas about my worth and place as a performer – perhaps also outside performing – that were related to my age. I started to avoid myself in the mirror. I wanted to keep my age a secret. I spent way too much money on useless face creams. In part, it had to do with my shelf life as a singer. Many of us feel we have a best-before date stamped on our foreheads. Once we pass 50, voices, especially the higher, lighter ones, lose elasticity, flexibility and beauty of tone…”

She credited playing Berg’s “fascinating, deliciously contradictory” Lulu, at 41, for helping her “grow older”. In 2017, she was photographed dancing on a restaurant table on the sleeve of her album Girl Crazy Girl, which won 'Best Classical Solo Vocal Album' award at the 60th annual Grammy Awards.

Natural conductor: Barbara Hannigan leading the LSO
Natural conductor: Barbara Hannigan leading the LSO

Next week she’s thrilled to be leading the LSO “Into the Infinite” in a concert opening with Messiaen’s L’Ascension and ending with Mahler’s 4th Symphony. Raised a Catholic – “my mother had a very personal relationship with God, angels and icons” – Hannigan realised in her teens that she had no faith in God but minored in theology at university and retains a “deep fascination with the philosophical and historical aspects of religion… I’m so curious about our ideas of heaven, hell, purgatory… ”

For Hannigan, the “huge” Messiaen piece “leaves no room for doubt or cynicism, it’s pure ecstasy, serenity,  surrendering to a higher power. Like, if you’re drowning you have to surrender to the water to let it support you?”

Hannigan only wishes her mother were alive to enjoy the concert. “She died just before the pandemic. But I know she would have loved discussing these pieces with me. What they meant to the composers then, how we feel that today…” She pauses. “Do you know, when I was growing up I thought I might like to be an archeologist. I loved the idea of the little brushes. The careful discovery. Putting the fragments together. Knocking the dust off to find the DNA.” She smiles and stretches again. “I think, with music, I’m doing something similar.”

Barbara Hannigan conducts the LSO ‘Into the Infinite’ at the Barbican on 12 March. Tickets: