A Gut-Feeling for Opera

Encounter between Barbara Hannigan and Yannick Haenel — By Yannick Haenel, Alexandre Lacroix and Simon Hatab

With Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of the diptych comprising Bluebeard’s Castle and La Voix humaine once again on the bill, Yannick Haenel and Alexandre Lacroix met Barbara Hannigan, who is singing the role of Elle in Poulenc’s opera, electrifying each performance with the intensity of her stage presence. Recently awarded the Medici Prize, the writer Yannick Haenel and Alexandre Lacroix, editor in chief of our partner publication Philosophie Magazine, interviewed this outstanding performer.

Yannick Haenel: What struck me first – fascinated me, I might say – is the way your appearances structure the evening as a whole: you appear in the prologue of Bluebeard’s Castle as the assistant of a strange magician who performs conjuring tricks before our eyes – is he the devil? An assassin? – and who finally makes you levitate. You are thus implicated – an accomplice? – in the great crime scene that is Bluebeard’s Castle. Then, as the final chords of Bartok’s work resound, you reappear, advancing from the distance to the front of the stage, already a vehicle for passion and for the words – themselves also criminal - of Cocteau’s text, La Voix humaine. Thus your very body is dramatic, since it carries the beginning of the performance, welds the world of Bartok to that of Poulenc, then occupies the space until the end. I wanted to ask you how you considered the relationship between these different roles, physically and vocally – even if your character is silent during the first half.

Barbara Hannigan: To my mind, links develop between these different moments. In the prologue, I am the illusionist’s accomplice. But I am perhaps already one of Bluebeard’s wives. When I’m levitating, it’s violent: it’s as if she’s been taken hostage, being abused. Is he a former lover? Perhaps she was just sitting there in the audience a few years ago. Perhaps he chose her, and perhaps she knows deep down that one day, he’ll choose another spectator sitting in the stalls to take part in this number and replace her. And yet, she loves him. Between them, there’s something similar to the telephone call in Cocteau: the final link that joins two beings. Ultimately, I’m like the little white rabbit the magician pulls out of his hat: longing for his affection, terrified at the idea he might abandon me. It’s strange, I imagine that woman as being drugged; I don’t see how she could survive without taking drugs.

“The women I play at different points in the production are the same and yet not the same: Warlikowski’s theatre is built around these contradictions.” Barbara Hannigan

Alexandre Lacroix; Is the woman we see in the Prologue to Bluebeard’s Castle the same as the one who comes back in La Voix humaine?

B.H.: They are the same character and yet not the same. Warlikowski’s theatre is built around these contradictions.

Y.H.: That’s what I feel too: this production plunges us into an hallucinatory logic, a dream logic. There’s a crime, but the victim is also a killer. The woman in La Voix humaine is going to commit suicide, but she may have killed someone. Is that her lover on the phone? Is he dead? Who is dead? Who is alive? What’s beautiful is that Cocteau’s text, a sort of highly psychological French vaudeville, has been made into an immense metaphysical crime scene.

B.H.: At one point, my character says: “Things I can’t imagine don’t exist, or at least, they exist in a kind of very vague place which hurts less…” As a performer, my character’s indecisiveness regarding the past could be my undoing. But it’s not the case. On the contrary: this contradiction is necessary. I am nourished by it.   

Le Château de Barbe-Bleue / La Voix humaine
Le Château de Barbe-Bleue / La Voix humaine © Bernd Uhlig

Y.H.: The performing space of this production seems to me to be a place in which life and death are not contradictory. It’s an impossible space but it is the space of art, in which life and death converse, where one is dead and where one lives, where one is alive and where one dies. When you appear at the caesura, at the cut-off point between the end of “Bluebeard” and the beginning of La Voix humaine, one has the impression that you are returning from the kingdom of the dead and that you are making your way along what the Tibetans call the bardo, the passageway just after death, when one isn’t yet altogether dead. Do you read French?

B.H.: Better than I speak it.

Y.H.: I’ve written about Bluebeard. A little book entitles Le Sens du calme. In it I explain that when I was a child, I was obsessed by Perrault’s tale of Bluebeard. I must have been twelve and I was convinced that I was living on the other side of that door, with the dead.

B.H.: That’s an idea both terrifying and fascinating. I’d like to read that book. In this production, I find it interesting that Bluebeard’s wives aren’t dead.

Y.H.: Yes. They’re on stage, they’re alive.

B.H.: The relationship these women, supposedly kept prisoner, have with their tormentor, Bluebeard, is complex. When I discover them, on stage, I sense a lot of love.

Y.H.: Perhaps that’s what death is.

“When you appear in the caesura between the two pieces, you seem to be making your way along what the Tibetans call the bardo, the passageway just after death in which one is not yet altogether dead.” Yannick Haenel

B.H.: At another point, my character says: “Yesterday evening, I wanted to take a sleeping pill; I told myself that if I took more of them, I’d sleep better and that if I took them all, I would sleep a dreamless sleep, without waking, that I’d be dead.” As I pronounce these words, I make a gesture that refers back to the scene with the magician at the beginning. As if death weren't serious, as if it were a simple conjuring trick.

Y.H.: It’s no longer the bourgeois little drama by Cocteau, nor even that by Rossellini with Anna Magnani. This production touches on the origins of crime. When I saw you in Le Grand macabre and in Lulu, I wondered if there was a certain distance, irony, perhaps even sarcasm. Your body is deliberately contorted. In La Voix humaine, with the vertical video projection, it’s as if you are crawling, like an animal, like an insect. This is a story of women, men and lovers, but there is something about it in the order of a graphic struggle with powers that are not assigned to human bodies. Usually, the voice emerges from the body. Here, it’s as if the body emerges from the voice. A strange body. This very dark humour, aggressive, almost expressionist, reminds me of Schönberg.

B.H.: “The body that emerges from the voice”, yes. Earlier, you talked about interpretation. It’s a word often associated with singing, but I don’t like it. I prefer to say embodiment, because interpretation is superposed. Embodiment is inside. I don’t interpret, I embody words, music and all the rest of it. As for the dark humour, it’s true. For me, Schönberg and his period evoke Transfigured Night, the poem by Richard Dehmel. He wrote a book entitled Weib und Welt (Woman and World) for which he was prosecuted. In it he talks about a woman who wants to commit suicide because she is pregnant by a man she does not love. As in La Voix humaine, at the heart of the work there is anxiety, solitude, isolation, the impossibility of connecting with someone else, the impossibility of really loving, of living with someone and, basically, living with herself… 

Barbara Hannigan et Krzysztof Warlikowski lors des répétitions de La Voix humaine
Barbara Hannigan et Krzysztof Warlikowski lors des répétitions de La Voix humaine © © Eléna Bauer - Opéra national de Paris

A.L.: Could you tell us about your collaboration with Krzysztof Warlikowski, the director?

B.H.: This is the third opera I’ve done with Krzysztof Warlikowski. The first time we met, when we did Lulu in 2012, there was an instant rapport of profound trust between us. That’s important because with my colleagues, stage managers, pianists and conductors, I always have genuine relationships. Also, the first encounter is like a first date. A connection is established. Since then, the second and third productions have given us the opportunity to reveal something beautiful, intimate and awe-inspiring.

A.L.: What memories do you have of rehearsals?

B.H.: When we began rehearsals for La Voix humaine, I had a pink dress. I hadn’t got my costume yet. There was a telephone, but I said I couldn’t do it with a telephone. It was impossible. We didn’t want anything bourgeois. The first image happened by accident. During rehearsals, I asked if I could open the door and the draught made my hair fly about. Krzysztof kept this effect which gave the character a savage side. I’m Bluebeard’s wife, but deep down, I don’t know this man.   

“In Bluebeard’s castle, we plunge into a series of rooms, within the confines of the castle. In La Voix humaine, the character of Elle is linked to the outside world by the telephone cable: we have here two very different visions of love.” Alexandre Lacroix

A.L.: In the scenography of Bluebeard’s Castle, we discover a series of rooms: a spatial arrangement that takes us into caves of sorts, into a form of interiority, plunging us deeper and deeper into the castle. We are shut up inside and the outside world becomes inaccessible. On the other hand, there is that cable – a symbolic one at least – the telephone cable that connects Elle to Lui, therefore to the exterior. It’s the exact opposite. We have here two very different visions of love.

Y.H.: In reality they are both forms of confinement – confinement in a room or internal confinement, like opposite sides of the same coin. But the mirror effect doesn’t stop there: in “Bluebeard”, the women are perhaps dead. In La Voix humaine, a man who has been killed rises again, as if Elle had become Bluebeard. This is theatre of cruelty. Even if, in Warlikowski’s production, the telephone doesn’t exist, the question of communication – impossible communication – remains strongly present. Someone intercepts it. There’s another woman: on the switchboard. I know that Warlikowski is a great reader of Proust and devoted one of his recent productions to him. Now Proust refers to “telephone operators” who, for him, represent death: “Danaïdes of the invisible ceaselessly filling up and emptying the urns of sound, transmitting them from one to another” like funeral urns. I said to myself that this production had something of the sacrificial ceremony about it, as in antique theatre. The body and voice of one woman become humanity in its suffering, trying desperately to speak, stumbling up against the telephone operators, priestesses of the invisible.

B.H.: Yes, I find that passage rather violent – when the voice of Elle comes up against that of the switchboard operator. Her “Hello, miss, hello,” over and over again. She needs the operator, she needs sympathy, but the operator does nothing but condemn her to solitude.

Le Château de Barbe-Bleue / La Voix humaine
Le Château de Barbe-Bleue / La Voix humaine © Bernd Uhlig

Y.H.: Listening to that woman talk to someone else and/or to herself, I was also reminded of a tale by a Jewish mystic about the heart and the spring. The entire history of life, of existence is contained within this separation between heart and spring. The spring is remote, on top of a mountain. The heart tries to approach the spring, but the nearer it gets to the mountain, the less it sees the spring, because it’s at the summit. The only way they can meet is to sing for each other.

B.H.: Perhaps that’s why Cocteau’s words are stronger when you sing them than when you say them. In opera, the singers have a mysterious connection with the audience. That’s why audiences either love them or reject them violently. It’s different for a cellist or a pianist. Basically, a singer is a bit like Elle. The voice elicits violent, passionate, amorous reactions because it offers something primal, something true. You can’t cheat. In C’est presqu’au bout du monde (Almost at the end of the world), Mathieu Amalric filmed me warming up my voice. It’s something I do every day but it’s very private, very intimate.

Y.H.: Yes, I saw that film. You can see very clearly that the voice – your voice – comes from the lower abdomen. That’s what I call the spring.

B.H.: Yes. It’s possible to hear immediately if someone has a problem by listening to their voice, whether it’s too high, too low, too tight. In this opera, there are no grand vocal demonstrations. There’s one top C and two top As. That’s nothing. Anyone can sing La Voix Humaine. The difficulty comes from the fact it’s just a little higher than the tessitura of the speaking voice. This is the least powerful sung register, the weakest for a soprano. It’s a register that creates a situation of tension, of struggle.

Y.H.: That state of struggle is visible on stage. It’s almost breathlessness. I also get the impression that the – very organic – movement from the back of the stage, when you’re crawling, when you move to the sofa, delineates a definite territory. Like a feminine human animal, pacing this territory for 40 minutes, stubbornly, insistently. When you watch the performance, a map is drawn before your eyes.

A.L.: During rehearsals with Krzysztof Warlikowski, how did you work on your trajectory?

B.H.: We found the beginning of it on the third day. It was during an improvisation. Krzysztof asked me to fall, or I fell over. I don’t remember now. With Krzysztof, rehearsals don’t only take place in the rehearsal room. In the evening, when we have dinner together, we go on discussing things, trying new ideas.   

“I don’t want to calm down on stage. Especially when singing this woman who is, by turns, woman, man, child, baby, telephone, revolver, dog.” Barbara Hannigan

Y.H.: When one reads Le Théâtre et son double, Artaud refers to athleticism with regard to Balinese theatre – that anti-psychological theatre of unleashed power and crude gesture. There is something very athletic about you when you are on stage, something one doesn’t often see at the opera: something in the nature of a confrontation with elemental forces.

B.H.: I don’t want to calm down on stage. Especially when singing this woman who is, by turns, woman, man, child, baby, telephone, revolver, dog. In opera, during rehearsals, we sometimes wear knee-pads, for example. I refuse to because one falls in a very different way with them on. I’m bruised from hurling myself against the walls, but it’s necessary, because it is aggressive, it is violent. It’s necessary to sing like that. I’ve inflicted violence on my voice and on music, in favour of dischord. The last note of La Voix humaine is a G. Why a G? Because it’s the only note that isn’t part of the chord. It’s a form of violence, dissonance. All the same, Krzyzstof and I have reduced the physical, acrobatic side because he didn’t want anything too spectacular.

A.L.: Do you still have to pace yourself in order to sing an entire run?

B.H.: Not really. A baby can cry for hours without having vocal problems, because it's completely committed to the crying, s/it “is” the crying. It’s the same thing with singing, according to schools like those of Roy Hart or Alfred Wolfsohn. Wolfsohn was a nurse during the First World War. He listened to the cries of the men at the front. He then became a singing teacher in London and made it possible to cover six octaves, where there were only three before. He completely changed vocal expression thanks to his total commitment. One of my singing teachers was from the Roy Hart school, and Roy Hart was a pupil of Wolfsohn’s. It’s a question of using the voice with total commitment, without protecting oneself.

Y.H.: Those cries from the First World War are also the voices that Freud heard, of soldiers he tried to heal, suffering from schizophrenia and hysteria.

B.H.: Yes, Wolfsohn was to the voice what Freud was to psychoanalysis. The voice doesn’t originate in the throat, it emerges from your guts.

A.L.: I’d like to ask Yannick what ‘total commitment’ in terms of writing would be.

Y.H.: I think that to write with total commitment, is to be open to things that can’t be depicted, like madness or death. I don’t think one can be mad in writing. But one has to get as close as possible to supplication, to tortured bodies, to obtain that. In opera, song changes everything, it sets language singing. If Cocteau’s text is orchestrated or sung, suddenly it becomes a monologue linked to death, to madness, to excess. Writing is that too, when it sings.   

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