Barbara Hannigan gave a masterclass for four students last night at Mazzoleni Hall. I’ve been to quite a few masterclasses and it’s the second one of Hannigan’s that I have sat in on. Like everything else she does her teaching style is unique, fascinating, incredibly illuminating and, at the same time, slightly terrifying. Part of me wants to review like an “event” and part of me wants to be very subjective and impressionistic. I think I’m going to do a bit of both.
First up we had Maeve Palmer and Rachel Andrist with the Nightingale’s soliloquy from the Stravinsky opera. Maeve seemed pretty nervous (understandably!) but the singing was very decent. Barbara listened and then came out with an almost mind blowing mix of technical and interpretive advice; some of it is really insightful. The Nightingale is “an animal”, “very pure”, “distant from the words”, “make it very easy, don’t chew it so much”. Some of it had an almost Zen like quality. One verse is yellow. Another is blue but translucent and more viscous; watercolour not oil. And there’s the almost obligatory When-I-had-tea-with-the-pope moment™. This time “When I did this with Boulez”. The improvement in Maeve’s performance was enormous. Even when I have no idea what she’s talking about and, I’d suggest, nor does the student, it still has an impact.
Whitney Mather and clarinettist Brad Cherwin were next with Dusapin’s To God. This is a five minute meditation on the Blake text “If you have form’d a circle to go into, Go into it yourself and see how you would do.” It’s quite a challenging piece for everyone concerned and I thought it was maybe the best thing I’ve heard Whitney do. Barbara honed in quickly on a number of issues. Here the focus was on minimizing vibrato (“the ego of the vibrato”) and maximizing attack and “relentlessness” with the same mix of the helpful and the almost mystic advice; “Is the music vertical or horizontal and is there a diagonal?” Again, though, the speed at which the performance got tuned to a different level was remarkable.
Lynn Isnar, with Rachel Andrist, provided the one more conventionally operatic piece; Take me back from Ned Rorem’s Our Town. It’s unusual in that the soprano is already dead when she sings it. Most soprano parts the singing happens first. This time the critique and advice were more conventional. For example, using more contrast in colour to bring out the mystery and spontaneity of the words. (We are dealing with a recently dead woman who hasn’t quite figured out yet what being dead means). It was beautifully sung on the initial run through with Lynn’s super easy top navigating some seriously high passages. But, once more, the improvement in no time flat was impressive.
The final piece was Rebecca Gray with clarinettist Tiego Delgado performing excerpts from Eliot Carter’s Poems of Louis Zukofsky.. By now, we were well over time and my brain was spinning. I have a few notes about achieving “a mathematical quality” and, again, thoughts on vibrato. In fact vibrato as an issue in atonal works came up a lot with the suggestion that perhaps composers don’t always know what they are asking for and likely wouldn’t like it if the work was performed as written. And that’s a good transition point.
Interspersed with the conventional master class stuff were questions from the audience and anecdotal observations from Barbara. At lot of this was about routines and self care and if you are interested in that then I recommend Barbara Hannigan – Concert Documentary. The bit that really interested me were her observations on what she called “co-creation”; the role she plays in both new works and stage productions in which she is central. I’ve seen something similar go on between Jonas Kaufmann and Antonio Pappano but the stakes seem to be higher where edgy new work is concerned. It’s also clear that there are limits to even her influence. She talked about a dispute she had had with Gerald Barry over the opening of Alice in Wonderland where she had to sing 47 (I think) high Cs in the first few minutes. Although we were assured that this had all been made up it was clear that both parties had been very hurt by the process and the manner of telling the story was indicative that this might have been forgiven but was not forgotten.
And there I think is the essence of what makes Barbara Hannigan unique. Most of the time, at least in her teaching persona, she’s engaged, analytical, insightful, kind (she’s very generous with praise) and funny; the bird like small women constantly playing with her shock of blonde hair. Then there are moments when the steel comes through and you wonder what it’s like when she is in her less collegial moments. It’s a bit like a snow capped volcano; incredibly beautiful with just the odd whiff of smoke as a reminder. But I wouldn’t want to be within a hundred miles when it erupts.
I took a bunch of photos but the quality is just awful!