A soprano takes to the stage in a black leather coat, with matching black wig and knee-high boots. Before long she is deep in the heart of a musical “nonsense monologue,” showering the audience with a fusillade of sounds both high and low. Just when she seems about to scream or faint, her incredible voice soars out of trouble and toward the ceiling, delicate as smoke – but only for a second. There’s more drama to come.
That, more or less, is what it’s like to watch Barbara Hannigan (Mus Bac 1993, Mus M 1998) sing György Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, a modern piece that’s been the highlight so far of her very promising career. While she’s entirely comfortable with Mozart and Bach, modern music is her real passion.
Hannigan credits her mentor Mary Morrison, an operatic performer and contemporary music champion who teaches in U of T’s Faculty of Music, for pointing her in that direction. “She recognized an affinity in me for this kind of repertoire,” says the 33-year-old singer.
The sheer clarity of Hannigan’s voice is what makes it so suitable for these pieces. “In modern music, composers generally tend to want a very clean sound, they don’t want a very heavy operatic sound. The pitches, the diction, the colour – all have to be as clear as possible.”
The Amsterdam-based Hannigan is at the forefront of an opera renaissance that incorporates literature, film and performance art into the mix. She cites her role in the opera Writing to Vermeer to illustrate the kind of contemporary multimedia works that are enriching her artistic development.
Of everything she’s sung, however, the Ligeti piece remains closest to her heart. “Once I started singing that, I wanted to sing it all over the world – and I have,” she says happily.
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