Barbara Hannigan on mentoring the next generation of classical music stars

7 October 2022, 14:31

Barbara Hannigan, 51, is an internationally renowned soprano and conductor
Barbara Hannigan, 51, is an internationally renowned soprano and conductor. Picture: Alamy

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

The legendary Canadian soprano, Barbara Hannigan, scooped the award for ‘Artist of the Year’ at the Gramophone Awards 2022 earlier this week. We got a chance to speak to her about how mentoring influenced her career as an artist and how she wants to pass on her ingrained feeling of ‘hope’ to the next generation of classical stars.

Canadian soprano and conductor, Barbara Hannigan, was in London earlier this week for the Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2022, where she won the Contemporary Music Award for the fourth time, and was also honoured as ‘Artist of the Year’.

Her win at the ceremony, also known as the ‘Oscars of classical music’, is hardly a surprise for those who have followed her unparalleled musical career over the last few decades. As a soprano, she has sung at the world’s leading opera houses, and has a particular mastery for contemporary music, which she has prominently championed throughout her career.

As a conductor, she’s directed some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, and has recently had her current contract as the principal guest conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s extended until 2025. Earlier this year, Hannigan was also announced as the London Symphony Orchestra’s first Associate Artist, contributing to the orchestra’s choice of repertoire for the next three years.

Alongside her impressive CV, Hannigan has an evident passion for helping and inspiring the next generation of young classical stars and runs two mentorship schemes for upcoming artists – Equilibrium Young Artists, and Momentum: our Future Now.

“I’ve had a lot of mentors,” Hannigan told Classic FM backstage at the awards. The 51-year-old musician admitted she had a “bit of a talent” for finding mentors earlier in her career, and wanted to encourage others to do the same.

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Barbara Hannigan: ‘It gives me a lot of joy to help younger artists’

However, as her career developed, Hannigan realised she may have been in the minority when it comes to finding mentors.

“I’ve noticed sometimes that young artists can be too shy to ask,” Hannigan told Classic FM. “And some leading artists don’t realise how valuable their mentorship is.

“I think artists love to be generous, but they genuinely don’t realise just how many young people would benefit from their insights and would love their mentorship.”

In 2020 Hannigan set up ‘Momentum: our future, now’, a collective of leading solo artists (singers, instrumentalists, conductors) who have pledged to act now to support young artists in the first substantial phase of their career.

Leading artists share their main-stage performance opportunities with a young, professional singer or instrumentalist, and conductors bring on a young conductor as an assistant. Hannigan describes the scheme as her way of helping set up these relationships, “sort of speed-dating if you will”, she remarked.

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Barbara Hannigan on mentoring: ‘Some leading artists don't realise how valuable it would be’

Notably, ‘Momentum’ was started during the pandemic, and the loss of talent from the industry due to lockdowns across the globe has clearly saddened Hannigan.

“[The industry] did lose a lot of young artists who went on to other things, because the uncertainty during the pandemic kind of brought home to them that they may not be able to go through with their dream. And that’s very sad.

“I hope that an initiative like Momentum has given hope, and I say hope a lot, because it’s part of me. I feel Momentum has started a dialogue as to what it is to support our younger colleagues – in all fields, not just in music.

“This type of mentoring can be done in any industry, in any field, from medicine to law, to business, and technology.”

Hannigan hopes the audiences, who are coming and seeing these young artists perform with leading ones, will leave the concert thinking, ‘that was great to see a young artist up there. How can I do something similar for a young professional in my industry? How can I help?’.

Barbara Hannigan accepts the ‘Artist of the Year’ award at the Gramophone Awards 2022
Barbara Hannigan accepts the ‘Artist of the Year’ award at the Gramophone Awards 2022. Picture: Telling Photography

Hannigan’s other scheme, Equilibrium Young Artists, has been running since 2017, and has produced an impressive alumni of musicians, with a focus on singers.

This February, Hannigan was named an LSO Associate Artist with the London Symphony Orchestra. As part of her role, she’ll be appearing with the leading orchestra in March 2023, alongside an Equilibrium alumni, Greek soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou, who Hannigan speaks highly of.

A big win for Hannigan has been seeing young artists who have been part of both Momentum and Equilibrium, go on and bring up other young artists as they progress in their careers. She touched on this during her acceptance speech for the ‘Artist of the Year’ award, sponsored by Raymond Weil, at the Gramophone Awards.

Barbara Hannigan: ‘Don’t be afraid to reach out to the person that may be able to help you’

And in terms of what advice she has for young people, across all industries, looking to find mentorship for their careers Hannigan told Classic FM, “Don’t be afraid to reach out to the person that you think may be able to help you.

“Because if you don’t reach out to them, you never know if they’ll say yes or no. And if you don’t have a direct contact to that person, find your one degree of separation.”

And most importantly, “don’t be shy!”.