Barbara Hannigan caught the new-music bug when she was 17. Having grown up in a village in Nova Scotia — where, she tells a Boston reporter, everyone was "a BoSox fan" — she moved to Toronto, where she attended the Etobicoke School of the Arts. She'd already been singing for many years, but it was now clear that she had the capacity to become a full-fledged artist. She credits her singing teacher and mentor, Mary Morrison, with encouraging her to open herself to as much music as she could, hearing concerts and investigating scores that went beyond the Mozart and bel canto repertoire she was studying.
During that heady year, Hannigan discovered Mahler, Bruckner, and Stravinsky at the same time as Ligeti and Boulez. "I didn't differentiate between the tradition and modern music," Hannigan said by phone last week from Toronto. "For me, everything was just so fresh in my ears."
Hannigan did her first world premiere that year — a song cycle written for her graduation recital by a young composer — and never looked back. To date, she's given the first performances of more than 80 works, including such recent operatic landmarks as Louis Andriessen's "Writing to Vermeer" and George Benjamin's "Written on Skin."
The most recent work she has midwifed is "let me tell you," an orchestral song cycle by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen that recently won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Musical Composition. She gave the first performance with Andris Nelsons and the Berlin Philharmonic in 2013; this week, she brings the piece to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
It's not that Hannigan isn't interested in other music – she's done a healthy amount of baroque and classical fare, for which her agile voice is well-suited. But, she said, "as the time went on, I noticed that other singers didn't have this passion for modern music that I had. And I realized, hey, I'm the only one raising my hand for this chance. This is something special, and I need to honor it." So immersive was her early involvement in the avant-garde that she calls Ligeti, Boulez, Dutilleux, and Stockhausen "my singing teachers. I was developing colors that I probably would have been too scared to develop in Mozart or Handel. So basically they developed my sound."
Hannigan has also developed a remarkable career as a conductor. She made her podium debut in 2011 after an executive at the urging of an executive at the Orchestre de Radio France who'd seen her preparation and rehearsals. She is now highly sought after for programs in which she fulfills both roles simultaneously, and she knows that conducting is an aspect of her career "which I can carry through for many years beyond my singing career."
Among the works on her conducting debut was Ligeti's "Mysteries of the Macabre," an excerpt from his opera "Le Grand Macabre" in which the singer plays a police chief so disoriented and divorced from reality that he can only speak in code. Phenomenally difficult and highly expressive, it has become one of her signature works since she first sang it in 2000.
A YouTube clip of her performing it with Simon Rattle, with Hannigan dressed as a sort of naughty schoolgirl, shows the ferocious dramatic intensity she brings to the piece. For the last few years Rattle has been the only conductor other than herself with whom she would perform the piece. She seems to be easing it out of her repertoire, confident that her mark on "Macabre" is well-documented. "Never say never," she said. But "it's so powerful that it keeps all the attention, and no one remembers anything else you did on the program."
As for the Abrahamsen, it originated as a birthday present for the librettist, music writer Paul Griffiths, a close friend of Hannigan's. Griffiths's wife proposed having Hannigan sing at a party for "a significant birthday" of his. Hannigan was unavailable, but proposed commissioning a new work instead. Abrahamsen was the natural choice, as both she and the Griffiths admired his music. The idea blossomed into a song cycle based on Griffiths's "let me tell you," a stream-of-consciousness novella written from the viewpoint of Shakespeare's Ophelia, using only the 481 words she speaks in "Hamlet."
"It was all done in friendship among the creatives," Hannigan said proudly. "It wasn't done with agents or anything. It was a beautiful, beautiful project among friends."
The music — a recording has just been released on the Winter & Winter label — is sensuous and exquisite. Though there are tonal signposts in the harmony, their reconfiguring is so innovative that the piece feels simultaneously foreign and deeply familiar — or, as a conductor who heard the premiere told Hannigan, "it's as if this piece has always been there."
She estimated that she's now sung it about 25 times. The BSO will be the 11th orchestra to accompany her. Asked what it was like to be onstage with the piece, she said "it feels like I'm witnessing Ophelia's experience on Feb. 4, 2016, or whenever. I feel like I, Barbara Hannigan, along with this orchestra and this conductor — [we're] the ones who have to come forward, and for everyone in the hall, I am the channel to witness her experience."
Barbara Hannigan with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
At Symphony Hall, Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Friday at 1:30 p.m. Tickets: $30-$119. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org