Part of our “Performer Picks” series of interviews with world-renowned artists about their favourite works in the B&H catalogue. Read other “Performer Picks” interviews with Patrick Summers, Marin Alsop, and Miguel Harth-Bedoya.
Acclaimed soprano Julia Bullock has captivated audiences around the world with her powerful performances while carving out a fascinating trajectory for herself, giving defining performances of operas by John Adams and Igor Stravinsky.
Her latest role is in Michel van der Aa’s new multimedia opera Upload, with upcoming performances at the Dutch National Opera (October 1–8), as well as Cologne Opera and the Park Avenue Armory in New York in future seasons. Bullock stars in this modern drama centered on a father and daughter who struggle to connect after the ailing father decides to upload his conscious mind into a digital version of himself. (See reviews from the world premiere in Bregenz last July.)
In addition to her renown as a singer, Bullock is celebrated for her curatorial instincts. She states:
When I’m thinking about curating, I’m looking for themes I’m grappling with as an individual, and how that is being echoed across what is happening in our world right now. When I look at composers like Michel van der Aa or John Adams or Benjamin Britten, they have a wonderful self-awareness for their own selves, while also referencing everything else that is going on around them. In that way, I identify with these composers because they are challenging themselves constantly.
Read on for Bullock’s insights into the music of van der Aa, Stravinsky, Britten, and Adams, and listen to Bullock's "Performer Picks" playlist on Spotify.
1. Michel van der Aa, Upload
First off, Michel is just a sensitive, patient person. And there is tremendous sensitivity and a level of grace that he demands from the performers in all his music. There’s something pristine that he’s always seeking—it’s in the orchestration and it’s in the vocal line.
The first piece he ever saw me perform was in The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky. And he told me, “You found a wonderful way to balance the demands of Stravinsky’s music, his architecture, and angular writing, and find the lyricism and throughline.”
In Stravinsky’s music, much like in van der Aa’s, it’s pulling from several different musical sources. He pulls from practically every period of music in The Rake’s Progress. For Michel’s music, he balances between the classical operatic space and popular music space. That is very apparent in the writing, and from Day One of rehearsal it was absolutely necessary to keep that in mind in order to satisfy the delivery he sought after. Michel wants the most direct delivery of his material possible with utmost clarity. He also values utmost balance in a person’s singing voice. So even if there are emotional extremes throughout the opera, that still needed to be translated into my voice with balance and grace. As a singer, I learned a tremendous amount from that, and for the development of the character, it was interesting to have that state of balance be the consistent point of return.
> Read Bullock’s full interview about Upload.
> Watch the trailer for Upload.
2. Igor Stravinsky, The Rake’s Progress
My invitation to first learn and perform The Rake’s Progress was for the Aix-en-Provence Festival by request of conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. I auditioned for him while I was at school at Juilliard—I had really bad bronchitis, was just coming off of a show and had flown back into town, so I told him, “I’m going to give you a minute and a half.” Yes, I really said that. [Laughs] But I ended up singing a fair amount of Anne’s main aria (which is almost nine minutes), and he said, “You know, I’d love to hear the high C.” And I was like, “You need to hear if I can sing a high C?” In retrospect, I was really combative during that first meeting! One thing I didn’t know until five years later, when we gave a duo interview together, was that apparently he was crying during my singing of this aria. I just found that really touching … and funny. [Laughs] Anyways, that was his introduction to me, me to him, and I suppose, me to Stravinsky.
But it was with this sort of fierceness that I approached the character of Anne Truelove. I’ve listened to and watched so many different productions of this opera, and when I’m looking at W. H. Auden’s words and Stravinsky’s music, I’ve always felt that Anne has real clarity of thought, devotion, and fierceness. Her commitment is so unshakable.
> Watch Bullock perform an excerpt of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.
3. Benjamin Britten, Les illuminations
There are certain pieces of music you hear, and it just knocks you over immediately—you are transported, transfixed, transcended in some way. Les illuminations was that way for me. The first time I heard it was in a studio class with a tenor and piano. I had not looked at the words, I didn’t understand the scope of what it was talking about, I didn’t know the poet Rimbaud—I didn’t know anything really about the work, but it just gave me that feeling.
The piece came across my path again when a friend performed it on her graduate recital at Bard, and I began to digest the text. I thought, wow, this is one of those all-encompassing works that demands physical investment from the performer and real technical capability, but also psychological commitment. And that’s when I started translating the work and researching Rimbaud.
I’m so grateful that I waited almost 10 years to sing it. It’s just as challenging as everyone says—not just the vocal line but also the poetry. Trying to sort out, what exactly is Rimbaud trying to rip apart here? What exactly is the reality that is so challenging for him to reconcile? As a young man for whatever his reasons were of needing to escape his life, whatever drove him to write these turns of phrase which challenged everything around him, while also coming to a place of communion with everything around him—and then you pair that with Britten’s music, and it’s, again, about having the capacity to hold these extremes in balance at all times.
4. John Adams, Girls of the Golden West
After I sang for John for the first time, I was surprised when “his people” got back to “my people” and said, he would like Julia to consider singing El Niño, A Flowering Tree, the Doctor Atomic recording, and also this new opera. Of course, I said yes.
Then Peter Sellars called me up and, in his effusive way, explained the whole project: “It’s about the history and development of America, and all it’s aiming for and also all that it fails to do.” The opera is set during this short period of time in the 1850s in California, a place that’s very close to John’s heart.
Peter gave me the book of Dame Shirley’s letters before I even saw or heard any of the music. And immediately I got this sense that she was projecting a characterization of herself—I mean, she chose this name Dame Shirley to represent herself, when her real name was Louise Clappe, right?
One of the things that I needed to ask myself in both the vocalism and her characterization was, what are the times when I’m projecting the character of Dame Shirley, and what are the times when I’m Louise Clappe? Because these two “characters” are intrinsic to each another. So are there times when that super flamboyant, hyper-charming persona is covering for some other tremendous trauma that she’s witnessing and trying (and perhaps unable) to process?
She describes the bar scene: “This is the most disgusting place in the world—isn’t it fabulous? These men are totally depraved—isn’t that curious?” [Laughs] I’m paraphrasing, but that’s sort of her way. And then there are other moments of searing friction she has with people and the decisions they are making. When I look at the closing aria, which is about gaining perspective on a shattered world and trying to maintain one’s hopes and aspirations for the place, I think John captured that in an extraordinary way.
> Watch Bullock perform an excerpt from Girls of the Golden West.
5. John Adams, El Niño (new chamber version)
El Niño was the first piece of John’s that I fell in love with. It’s a piece I feel so passionately about, and I want as many people to listen to it as possible. I’m grateful to John for letting me take it apart and re-work it into a more distilled version, to make more performances possible. Because of all these tremendous forces—the countertenors, three soloists, adult choir, children’s choir, full orchestra with extended instrumentation—it requires a lot of resources to make a performance happen, and I was frustrated when orchestras said they couldn’t perform the piece.
Of course, John conceived of El Niño in this other way—this is a story about the creation of life, and with it, all this extreme force and presence and brilliance. The version that I started to conceive of is much more gentle, very much distilled. It is a direct telling of the nativity story. It’s recontextualizes the work and finds a way for it to speak in a variety of places and to a variety of people.
Because yes, I think there’s a reason why my imagination soars when I’m listening to the material—John’s music or Michel’s music, Stravinsky’s music or Britten’s music. My enthusiasm for it is now unleashed and I want to make sure that it’s out there to be received.
[This hourlong chamber version of El Niño premiered at The Met Cloisters in 2018. The finalized version of this arrangement will be presented in a future season.]
Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein
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