Barbara Hannigan. A Soprano Finds a New Voice: Conducting

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — Barbara Hannigan was lying on her back onstage a few weeks ago during a performance of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” a dreamlike, demanding production at the Aix Festival here, in which Ms. Hannigan, playing Mélisande, barely left the audience’s sight.

Ms. Hannigan’s lithe body was still at first. Then, in eerily smooth slow motion, she began to contort her limbs, mashing the side of her face into the floor, arching her back and twisting her torso until she rotated and raised herself to standing — in four-inch heels — without propping herself on her hands or arms. It was an excruciating, mesmerizing spectacle, though hardly unusual coming from a singer as notable for her intense presence and choreographic control as for her voice.

Over the past two decades, Ms. Hannigan, 45, has wielded her pristine soprano, with its easy extension to the stratosphere, as an expressive tool in blazing performances, whether as Berg’s Lulu or in contemporary masterpieces like George Benjamin’s opera “Written on Skin” and Hans Abrahamsen’s wintry song cycle “let me tell you.”

Recently she has been stretching herself into a new role, one virtually unheard of for a female singer. In 2011 she made her conducting debut in Paris, simultaneously leading and singing Ligeti’s crazed “Mysteries of the Macabre,” a daunting enough assignment purely as a soprano soloist. On Aug. 12, she will deliver the keynote address at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland. This year it is presenting a broad array of female conductors, including Ms. Hannigan, who will lead the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Debussy, Sibelius, Haydn, Berg and Gershwin on Aug. 23.

Instrumentalists, female and male, have reinvented themselves as conductors. So have male singers.


Barbara Hannigan. A Soprano Finds a New Voice: Conducting