World renowned soprano Barbara Hannigan is no stranger to the spotlight, performing on main stages around the world in an array of roles. Recently we spoke with her about her love of music, her passion for her profession, and her Celtic-Canadian roots.
What’s it like being Barbara Hannigan?
Haha. Good question. Perhaps you might be better off asking my family and friends. From what I can tell, I am fairly well-grounded most days. Credit my Nova Scotia roots for that; I grew up in Waverly, just outside of Halifax. My family is still there. They instilled some pretty solid values in me; my work ethic, especially, comes from both my father and my mother – you know, the apple never falls too far from the tree kind-of-thing. Perhaps it has something to do with their Irish-Scottish heritage. I still see it every time I go home to visit, which isn’t often enough. Those beliefs have served me quite well over the years.
When I left home at 17 to study music in Toronto, I brought those values with me. I had no choice, to be honest; they were ingrained in me from a very young age. Later, as my career evolved, with new challenges and opportunities presenting themselves both at home and away, it was the simple, little things that made all the difference in my professional life; the courtesy of saying please and thank you, respecting others, making oneself available, giving back to the community in some form or another, or just lending an ear or a shoulder here and there. I was thinking recently that, with all of the digital distractions available at our fingertips all of the time, the art of good conversation seems to be slipping away. I like to think that I have become a good listener, and I believe that this, along with the other things I just noted, came from the home I grew up in, in the part of the world I grew up in.
Along with that Irish-Scottish work-ethic, what else do you bring to your profession?
There are a lot of intangibles at play each day; a positive mind-set, living a healthy lifestyle, consistency, and self-discipline are the first things that come to mind. Bringing these things to the studio or the stage – whether as a performing artist, a conductor, an arranger – helps me to achieve and maintain optimal performance which, in turn, occasionally allows me to experience peak performance. I was taught that if I am going to do something, then I should do it well and to the very best of my ability.
The results speak for themselves – you have enjoyed great success.
I have been very fortunate through the years to have met so many incredible people who have brought out the best in me by inspiring me to push myself as an artist. Without their love and support, I would not be enjoying the life that I do. That said, and I say this in all modesty and humility, I was the one that showed up, suited up and did the actual work each day; studying, practicing, educating myself, exhausting myself. I believe it was Wayne Gretzky – perhaps the greatest athlete that Canada has ever produced – who said that talent alone wasn’t enough; without hard work, talent would only take you so far. He was right, and that is why we call him the Great One.
He always made it look so easy on the ice.
Well, that is the trick right? Practice hard, play hard. He was on the ice all of his life; before school, at lunch, after school. Even as a professional he was the first one to the rink at practice each day, and the last one to leave. He never took a day off, because he loved what he did – it wasn’t work to him, it was his passion.
And you feel the same about what you do
Yes, absolutely I do.
And you make it look so easy on the stage.
Oh my goodness, I really hope so. Haha. If people only knew how much time and dedication was involved in making it seem that smooth! It is a good thing that they only experience the end result; much of what goes into a production can be quite messy! Rehearsal spaces and backstage areas are often littered with both production materials and people’s emotions.
And yet, there is the prestige of the actual performance.
Haha. Ok, here’s some prestige for you. Before speaking with you now from my hotel room here in Germany, I spent seven hours in transit, sitting on an old newspaper on the floor of a train. There were no seats left, and so I simply sat on the floor…on an old newspaper. And then, tomorrow night, I will be performing to thousands of people in one of the world’s great concert venues. That’s prestige. Haha.
You seem to be handling it well.
Haha. Yes, no drama for this diva, thank you very much. I am grateful that my Nova Scotia roots gifted me with a good sense of humour. You have to laugh at these little things in life or you will never make it out alive. I mean, really, what else are you going to do in these situations except make the very best of it and try not to complain too much?
The impression is that performing artists, especially those in the music industry, can be full of ego.
In my experience, I would say that is mostly a myth. The reality is that the majority of us are professionals who are devoted to the music. We serve the music, and keep it at the top of the page at all times. I have rarely had issues with anyone. Listen, there are always going to be people in life, no matter what industry you work in, who are going to complain. For whatever reasons, that is what they do. That isn’t exclusive to the music world. People are people wherever you go; our stories may differ, but our emotions, our thoughts, are issues, are mostly the same.
Speaking of the music industry, it has changed greatly in recent years.
It has, yes – for better or for worse. In many regards, it has made things significantly easier for both listeners and performers. There has never been a time when so much music has been made so accessible to so many people. We have the music of Mozart, Miles Davis and Miley Cyrus at our fingertips – literally. As a conductor and performing artist, the convenience of communicating with my musical peers whenever I need to has become vital in properly preparing for a performance. And I have greater access to more resources than ever; I can be sitting on a train bound for Germany studying scores and sheet music, listening to rehearsals, or watching Netflix documentaries on my musical heroes.
Is there a downside to this technology?
Well, it is a lot easier to be distracted for one thing. A lot of us – myself included – waste time on YouTube watching funny cat videos or whatever has gone viral that particular day. I also think that people tend to isolate a little more when they are holed-up with their phones or tablets. We need human contact, and it is important that we connect with each other in person, face-to-face, on a regular basis instead of via social media. And, the amount of disinformation out there these days is staggering, even frightening – especially with everything that is going on in the United States right now.
Do you pay attention to that stuff?
I do and I don’t. I mean, I keep an eye on world events, for sure. It is unavoidable. I suppose it is a little like reviews of productions or recordings that I am involved with, in that I will sift through them, but I don’t really give them a lot of weight or headspace. In truth, I am so busy and focused with my work that there is little time for much else. Ask my boyfriend – he will confirm that. Haha.
Still, the challenges of doing what you do – time, travel, toil, etc – likely pale in comparison to the rewards.
Yes, oh yes. I wouldn’t be doing what I do if it were not rewarding in all manners, especially creatively. When I was younger, and just starting my career, audience response and critical reviews meant a lot to me. And getting positive feedback from people I meet after a performance is still important to me – a few kind words go a long way. However, my greatest reward today comes from knowing that I have done my very best and given my all. Call it the simple reward of a job well-done – something that I learned long ago from my father and mother growing up in Nova Scotia.