- Reading time
- 7 min.
‘One of the singular artists of her generation’ (The New York Times); ‘a lavishly gifted soprano’ (The New Yorker); ‘This Is Who We’ve Been Waiting For’ (Peter Sellars). For anyone still in doubt: she has the Big Apple lying at her feet. And now Belgium too. A conversation with Julia Bullock, the driving force behind Zauberland.
‘I did feel some trepidation about the project,’ Bullock notes when asked about being recruited for Zauberland by former La Monnaie director Bernard Foccroulle. ‘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 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 to it. We organise our minds by thinking, “This is my story, and that is their experience.” That way of thinking becomes very hazy in this work.’
Zauberland (Magic Land) is 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.
Onstage, Bullock’s luminous soprano and emotional specificity have proved as compelling in Purcell’s Indian Queen as in Stravinsky’s The 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. In the 2018-19 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 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 will be presented in the Parisian Théâtre du Châtelet, this April.
Unlike a new opera production, with Perle Noire and now Zauberland, too, Bullock’s interpretation has the opportunity to ripen. ‘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 on stage,’ 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.’