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#UofTGrad17: Opera singers who were teacher and student at U of T to receive honorary degrees

Soprano Barbara Hannigan studied under Mary Morrison in the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music (photos by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images and Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Two acclaimed voices in Canadian opera who met as student and teacher are receiving honorary degrees from the University of Toronto on Wednesday.

Before singing at venues like the Royal Opera House in London or conducting leading orchestras, Barbara Hannigan studied music under Mary Morrison, an accomplished soprano in her own right who has taught at U of T since 1979.

Despite Hannigan’s packed schedule – she has engagements in 10 cities before the new year – she keeps in touch with her university mentor.

“I usually know what she’s up to,” Morrison says, “and she knows that I’m here.”

Although their singing careers are separated by decades, Hannigan and Morrison’s biographies offer striking parallels.

Both studied music from an early age and left their hometowns before their 18th birthday to pursue singing in Toronto and earn recognition as new-music sopranos.

Morrison, who turns 92 next week, grew up in a Scottish family in Winnipeg. She started singing almost as soon as she could speak, winning awards at Gaelic competitions. While in her teens, she made her radio debut on CBC. She has performed lead roles in Canadian Opera Company productions from Marguerite in Faust to the countess in The Marriage of Figaro, and is known for bringing contemporary music to ears around the world.

Morrison says her policy with students has always been to be honest about their progress. She can be blunt, but she tries not to.

Like her U of T mentor, Hannigan is also known as an advocate of new music. “Mary makes sure that all her students respect the composers of our time, but with me it was clearly a passion that needed attention,” she says.

Hannigan grew up in the gold rush town of Waverley, N.S., singing and playing piano and oboe before moving to Toronto when she was 17.

She says Morrison encouraged her to take risks in performance, ”to not choose the safe route, and rather pursue other heights which are not possible when one plays it safe under pressure.”

Morrison also taught her how to sing in less than perfect circumstances. “We are never working under ideal conditions,” Hannigan says. 

Flight delays, dry throats and colds are obstacles all opera singers must contend with. “And yet we need to maintain a certain level of not only consistency but musicianship under the pressure of performance.”

Morrison remembers Hannigan as a keen student with a work ethic to match her rare talent. “She was tremendously disciplined and she just knew where she was going,” she says.

Morrison warned her student before her university audition that she might be too young to pass, but she breezed through it. Morrison looked back on the audition in a 2016 video by U of T Music: “Whoever was adjudicating at the time said, ‘Oh, you know this piece,’ and Barbara said, ‘Never seen it in my life.’”

Hannigan went on to star as Berg’s Lulu and Debussy’s Mélisande and to premiere about 80 works. 

In 2011, she made an unusual step for a female soprano: a foray into conducting. It was a career choice that hadn’t crossed her mind when she was young because she had never seen a woman conduct an orchestra, she told The New York Times.

Read more about Hannigan in The New York Times

She made her conducting debut in Paris singing and leading Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre. This year, she has engagements as a singer/conductor in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and France.

She is known for not shying away from criticizing sexism in the opera world. She fell out with her teacher, Jorma Panula, after he suggested in a TV interview that female conductors should stick to “feminine” repertoires like Debussy and Ravel. And at the Lucerne Festival last year, she mocked an illustration of a female conductor's hand holding a baton with painted nails and a bracelet.

In between recording sessions, recitals and concerts, Hannigan will reunite with her mentor at U of T to accept their honorary degrees on Wednesday.

Asked how it will feel to share the convocation stage with her former student, Morrison says: “Overwhelming, exciting and thrilling.”