Julia Bullock is one of the most compelling singers before the public today—but her effect on audiences may be more akin to that of a master magician. It’s not unusual for those experiencing the soprano to find themselves both awed and dumbfounded: one can marvel at the technique and charisma behind her artistry while not having the faintest idea how she does what she does.
On October 29 and 30, Bullock brings her musical and dramatic sleight of hand to Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival with the New York premiere of Zauberland (Magic Land), a stage work that interweaves Robert Schumann’s 1840 song cycle Dichterliebe with 19 new songs by composer Bernard Foccroulle and writer Martin Crimp. Inspired by the European migrant crisis, the piece tells the story of a pregnant refugee who leaves her husband and family in Aleppo for a new life in Cologne. Straddling geographic boundaries and the border between wakefulness and sleep, the woman waits for entry into a country that promises security and peace, while being haunted by nightmares about the war-torn city she left behind. The incisive British director Katie Mitchell stages the work.
“I did feel some trepidation about the project,” Bullock notes when asked about being recruited for Zauberland by Foccroulle, who served as general director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival from 2007 through last year. “Besides the physical demands of having to perform the piece, telling this story of a refugee is quite out of my frame of reference. One of the reasons that I choose some of the projects that I do is that I’m looking to educate myself. It’s not made clear why this woman is singing Schumann, or how that is linked to the rest of the material; it becomes something of a dream sequence. It’s not all rooted in one story, so there’s a freedom to it, room for more human truths. Anyone who has read about or seen images of this distressing crisis will immediately relate. We organize our minds by thinking, ‘This is my story, and that is their experience.’ That way of thinking becomes very hazy in this work.”
Onstage, Bullock’s luminous soprano and emotional specificity have proved as compelling in Purcell’s Indian Queen as in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress or John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, and so it’s no surprise that her protean talents have made her a muse for modern composers. “I tell them, write as you need to write, and if it’s done with intention, if it’s written really thoughtfully, I can always find my way vocally within it,” she says. “I’ve found myself quite liberated in what composers demand of me and the different sorts of vocalism that I am encouraged to find. Ultimately, that ends up serving the rest of my music making as well.”
Bullock’s explorations of standard repertoire clearly inform her interpretations of new music. Yet before taking on Zauberland, she describes her relationship with Dichterliebe—which sets the hyper-Romantic poetry of Heinrich Heine—as one of “utter fright and terror. It’s one of those major works of the canon, but this piece was the first time that I sang any Schumann publicly. He wasn’t a composer that I wrote off, but when I first started studying classical music, I thought it was really lovely material, but it didn’t grip me in the same way that Hugo Wolf did. Now, spending more time with his material, learning more about Schumann and Heine, I find there’s an irony that exists in Heine’s writing that I latch onto. It may be just coming to this material as a more mature human being, but I am not just looking for the easiest route through it. What they tap into is a hypersensitive way of looking at any love relationship that you might have. Yes, there is all of this overwhelming sweetness. But what happens at the end, when you come to a point of doubt about its legitimacy, is that you doubt your entire perception of reality.”
An artist of profound social consciousness, Bullock not only enjoys a steady stream of timely new works, she also finds opportunities to shape programming. Last season, she served as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s artist-in-residence, and used her tenure to curate and perform repertoire ranging from a chamber arrangement of John Adams’s Christmas oratorio, El Niño, to a program of settings of the poetry of Langston Hughes and a recital presenting slave songs alongside the world premieres of songs by four women of color. Also included that season was Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine, a haunting portrait of Josephine Baker that has become a signature piece for Bullock who, like Baker, was born in St. Louis. Created in collaboration with director Peter Sellars, the work features Baker’s songs re-composed for Bullock by composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Claudia Rankine.
“I’ve had my hands deeply involved in molding it,” Bullock says of Perle Noire, first presented at the Ojai Music Festival in 2016. “Each time we perform this piece, it has a legitimate improvisatory spirit. Truly, there are times when we’re not quite sure what is going to happen next.” Next April, the soprano will bring the piece to Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, but admits that she was initially unnerved when Peter Sellars suggested presenting Perle Noire in the city that Baker adopted as her home. “I thought, I don’t know if I’m ready to do this,” Bullock says. “Obviously, the relationship and history the Parisian public have with her, it’s long and deep. But Baker’s story, her impact on my life as a performer, the paths that she opened … I’m just very excited to see how I can live in this work even more.”
Bullock was recently named as one of the San Francisco Symphony’s artists-in-residence for the 2019–20 season, and her concerts with the orchestra, slated for February and April, will feature the music of Britten and Ravel. “Cranking out new things all the time requires me to internalize a lot of stuff,” she says. “But with pieces that I’ve kept in my repertoire and sung in many cities, my performance will change over the course of a season or two. There’s definitely some joy in just being able to sit with a work for a while.”
It’s no coincidence that, whatever the mood of a given piece, joy is perhaps the best descriptor for watching Bullock deliver her artistry onstage. “I don’t know if the thought of how I am being received will ever be fully obliterated from my mind when I step out onstage,” she says. “But it’s so good to know that what you’re aiming for artistically is more than a personal reflection of yourself. I can stop thinking so much about how I’m coming across personally, or how my voice sounds. My focus is on the material, the messages of the work, and feeling that more completely. That’s what liberates anybody.”
Adam Wasserman, Opera News’s digital editor, is currently at work on his first book, a geriatric murder-mystery.