Picking up her third Grammy nomination is wonderful in itself, but for Nova Scotia opera singer Barbara Hannigan this one feels especially personal.
It’s because members of the recording academy selected “Benjamin: Lessons in Love & Violence” for best opera recording. The project was written by English composer George Benjamin with Hannigan’s voice specifically in mind.
And unlike many of the fellow nominees, which include works by German composer Richard Wagner and Austria’s Alban Berg, this one doesn’t have the track record of a tested classic, which suggests voters found a certain magic in the album.
“To have a world premiere nominated for best opera recording is totally cool,” Hannigan says with a laugh during a rehearsal break in Munich, Germany.
“It’s not an oldie-but-goodie, and it’s not a new recording of something everybody knows.”
Hannigan has a fresh perspective on the Grammy process now that it’s been two years since she picked up her first golden gramophone.
She says calling herself a Grammy winner is certainly a “feather in your cap” because it places her within a community of other creators who’ve gained that rare internationally recognized award.
The 48-year-old contemporary opera singer says it’s amusing to know that nearly three decades after making her professional debut in Toronto she appears to be hitting a new stride.
“I’m a real ‘slow burn’ kind of artist,” she says.
“I’m just so happy that I’m here still doing what I love. I feel that even more so now than I did 10 years ago.”
“Lessons in Love & Violence” was created by Benjamin who drew from the real-life relationship between King Edward II and Piers Gaveston. Hannigan plays Isabel, the king’s scheming wife who tries to usurp his power and replace him with their son. It’s a part the Waverley, N.S.-born performer found especially fun to portray.
“The whole opera I had a fake gin and tonic in one hand, and a fake cigarette in the other,” she says. “I don’t often get to play those kind of people.”
Hannigan won her first Grammy with ”Crazy Girl Crazy” in the classical solo vocal album category. The ambitious project allowed the soprano to steer the ship in more ways than one — she was also co-arranger and conductor.
“Lessons in Love & Violence” was a reunion of sorts with Benjamin who previously worked with Hannigan on his first full-length opera “Written on Skin” in 2013. She says the composer has a general rule where he doesn’t work with the same singer twice, but he made an exception to collaborate with her again.
“When a composer writes specifically for you it is a privilege,” she says.
“I often say that composers are also my singing teachers because they’ve taught me things about my voice and my musicianship… I’m their muse when they’re writing but then they become mine. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.”
This report was first published Nov. 21, 2019.