Barbara Hannigan, Rubies 2020–“Anytime I win an award I put it toward something”

by | Nov 7, 2020 | Featured, Interviews, News, Rubies Awards

Maven, visionary, trailblazer – what else can one say about Canadian-born, Europe-based soprano/conductor Barbara Hannigan? One might well add ‘committed supporter of young talent’ to the list since the launch of Momentum in August. 

Born out of the coronavirus pandemic to cultivate young talent, the initiative is intrinsically linked to a deep-seated desire to give back. As Hannigan herself puts it: “It just so happens that music is my medium, but at the core of it is vocation, to feel I am being of service.” The Nova Scotian soprano is being honoured with an Opera Canada ‘Ruby’ award on Nov. 23rd, as much for her work with young artists as for her own fabled career. 

Barbara Hannigan (second from L) with Equilibrium artists Jenavieve Moore, Charles Sy, Jillian Bonner, Trevor Eliot Bowes & Simon Rivard at Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance, 2019

Momentum pairs young talent with established artists, allowing them to share the stage while ensuring payment. After being awarded the 2020 Léonie Sonning Music Prize (past honourees include Igor Stravinsky in 1959, Dmitri Shostakovich in 1973, and Miles Davis in 1984), Hannigan is putting the prize money (€100,000) towards Momentum. Though separate from the soprano’s other young artist initiative, Equilibrium, Hannigan is blunt about how she uses her prize money: “Anytime I win an award I put it toward something – I give it away.” Early on in the 2020 lockdown, Hannigan says she was “bringing people into Equilibrium to talk about PR and social media, about how to handle the crisis psychologically and one’s identity as an artist, and everything [young artists] were telling me was, ‘We just need to get onstage. This is all great if we learn how to not be performing, but what would help is to have an actual gig.’ So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll make it happen.’ And I did. ”

Hannigan worked out a payment model which makes the inclusion of a young artist manageable within the current atmosphere of rare live performance. In ‘normal’ times for instance, an assistant conductor might, if they’re paid at all, receive €1200 to €1500 for a week of work. Momentum guarantees that, “the [principal] conductor would give €500, the organization – the orchestra – gives €500, and the sponsor” – Hannigan places her hand on her chest – “gives €500.” Performer payment works the same, with young singers coming away with publicity and the ability to link to any video footage the organization might have utilized.

Equilibrium artists Jillian Bonner, Trevor Eliot Bowes & Simon Rivard working with Barbara Hannigan at Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance, 2019. Photo: Raoul Manuel Schnell

Momentum is supported by a range of figures from the classical world, including singers (Sir Bryn Terfel, Dame Sarah Connolly, fellow 2020 Ruby honouree Michael Schade), instrumental soloists (Nicola Benedetti, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Leif Ove Andsnes), conductors (Sir Simon Rattle, Vladimir Jurowski, Karina Canellakis), and composer-artists (Sir George Benjamin, Mattias Pintscher, Roderick Williams). That support, says Hannigan, came largely from those within her own circle, underlining the importance of positive relationships and the connections Momentum hopes to reinforce. “What I’ve been saying for years to young artists is that it’s about your relationships made within a gig: did you connect? Did you say ‘thank you’? Did you send a card a month later, and send an email afterwards, saying ‘this was a great experience’? That’s how it goes.” 

Hannigan had originally planned to introduce the initiative in mid-September but recalls that the music director of the Royal Opera House “got so excited and wanted to implement it on an event he was doing August 29th, and I thought, ‘We can’t miss this chance – it’s Sir Antonio Pappano!’” The concert was performed under the auspices of arts charity Britten Pears Arts; together with players from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and tenor Tony Spence, the concert featured baritone Yuriy Yurchuk as part of the Momentum initiative.

With Pappano playing piano, Yurchuk performed Yeletsky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen Of Spades and songs by Rimsky Korsakov and Georgy Sviridov. Other opera figures have followed; at his Wigmore Hall recital in October, tenor Allan Clayton featured mezzo-soprano Stephanie Wake-Edwards singing works by Brahms, Mahler (selections from Kindertotenlieder), and Frank Bridge. Conductor Francois-Xavier Roth (whom Hannigan fondly describes as “going Momentum crazy!”) has shared the podium with young conductors in concerts with the London Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony, and Gürzenich Orchestras. 

Barbara Hannigan & stage director Linus Fellborn working on The Rake’s Progress as part of the Equilibrium initiative at Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Dec. 2018

The things young conductors get from Momentum are unique: payment and podium time. “That is very rare,” says Hannigan, “because when they do assist, they usually sit in the back of the hall, take notes, and say, ‘Third oboe from the left is too soft’ – that’s what they do. An orchestra often doesn’t know who they are; they’re just literally shadowing the conductors. I insisted [via Momentum] they get twenty minutes on the podium, and that the conductor introduces them to the orchestra – it’s invaluable because it’s the only way they can learn, and if the orchestra likes them, it may lead to another gig, which has already been happening.”

An actualization of this scenario occurred earlier this autumn with Simon Rivard, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s RBC Resident Conductor and Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra Conductor, an Equilibrium artist since 2019. Hannigan had already planned for Rivard to assist her at Gothenburg Symphony (the National Orchestra of Sweden, of which she is Principal Guest Conductor), where she was leading performances of Haydn’s Symphony No. 44 in E Minor and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Rivard was given podium time during rehearsals and the day following the performance “we did a recording of Schoenberg songs – we added it because we couldn’t do our second concert [owing to pandemic-related cancellation],” Hannigan explains. “I said to orchestral management, ‘Can Simon conduct and I’ll sing?’ – he ended up getting a paid engagement out of something he would’ve normally just come and sat and watched. I think it’s great to get [assistant conductors] on the podium and just force it.”

Hannigan laughs recalling a comment by pianist Hyung-ji Joo (of classical comedy duo Igudesman and Joo, both of whom are Momentum supporters). “He said, ‘You’re like the Justice League, like a superhero!’ And yes, we are the Justice League – all of us.”

Barbara Hannigan’s Opera Canada Award is generously underwritten by Marjorie and Roy Linden.


Barbara Hannigan will receive her ‘Ruby’ at Opera Canada’s first-ever ‘digital Rubies’ on Nov. 23rd at 8 pm EST. Sign up for our newsletter for the latest updates on how to watch this year’s Rubies! 



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