It is almost ten years now since stage director Peter Sellars created a sensation with his own version of Purcell's unfinished semi-opera »The Indian Queen« (1695). His opulent and sensuous production focuses less on historic figures than on topical subjects, ranging from European colonialism to woman's role in society. The singer Julia Bullock was a member of the ensemble: a singer who was still flying a bit below the radar at the time – she was at the start of her career; but since then she has climbed quite a few rungs up the ladder.
Special projects like »The Indian Queen« have long since become a trademark of this highly versatile artist. She recently collaborated with Peter Sellars again on »Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine«, a tribute to the legendary Josephine Baker. And the opening of the 2021 season at the New York Met also caused a stir: on the programme was Terence Blanchard's opera »Fire Shut Up In My Bones«, which deals with police violence and Black people. But Bullock feels at home in traditional repertoire as well; she sings Handel and Mozart as well as contemporary works. In the latter department, she has a special relationship with John Adams, who wrote a part specifically for her in his 2017 opera »Girls of the Golden West«.
Representative of change
Julia Bullock is also a committed artist away from the stage, organising charity and educational concerts, lending her support to social projects and to the cause of equal rights for women and Blacks in the arts. Vanity Fair described her as »young, highly successful and politically committed«, while the magazine Musical America chose her as Artist of the Year in 2021 and awarded her the title »Representative of Change«. Born in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1987, she studied at the Eastman School of Music and Bard College before enrolling at the elite college Juilliard School.
It was there that she met her husband, conductor Christian Reif, with whom she has been living in Munich for a while now. Towards the end of 2022 she had a baby – and only a few weeks later she was making her Elbphilharmonie debut at the New Year's concert with songs by George Gershwin and his contemporary, the Black composer Margaret Bonds.
Mrs Bullock, what was it like appearing at the Elbphilharmonie on New Year's Eve?
It was a special experience in very different ways. On the one hand, I had the chance to work with Alan Gilbert again after a long break. Then I walked to my hotel, which is in the same building, after the concert and met people from the audience on the way there. This contact between artists and concertgoers has been incorporated into the open and flowing architecture as part of the Elbphilharmonie's DNA, so to speak. Moreover, the architecture is simply spectacular: it can't help but inspire the imagination.
Not long before the concert you not only had your first baby, you also made your debut on CD with the solo album »Walking in the Dark«. Isn't that rather a gloomy-sounding title?
For me, darkness is not only something negative. It can also be fascinating, mysterious, a place of peace and quiet and a place of contemplation where you can find yourself. We always perceive light as something positive, while darkness generally has negative connotations. But this is one projection I don't agree with.
The album features a remarkable variety of genres - jazz, blues, spirituals and classical pieces. Do you see yourself as a classical singer at all?
Oh, I definitely see myself as a classical singer! But I wouldn't necessarily describe myself as a soprano any more. It's true that I sing soprano repertoire for the most part in opera houses. But where recitals are concerned, I feel freer and put pieces on the programme that speak to me, pieces whose spirit I can do justice to on the concert platform. In these cases, I am not trying to deliberately break through barriers or be unconventional: I'm just following my love of song, and want to share it with the audience.
When classical singers perform non-classical repertoire, you often hear that their voice was classically trained. That doesn't apply to you. How do you manage that?
That may have to do with the fact that I didn't grow up with classical music. I simply try to adapt my singing style to the repertoire I'm performing. That's the wonderful thing about singing, the fact that the human voice is able to express itself in so many different ways. My own voice has become lighter and more direct since I had the baby, something that I value a lot.
Other female singers have also said that their voice changed after giving birth. Anita Ratschwelischwili, for example, said she had to find the right physical »position« for her voice. How was that for you?
I have felt even more comfortable in my body since I gave birth, I feel a stronger connection between mind and body, which has enabled me to get to know myself better. What's more, I don't feel that I have to prove myself so much. Of course I still want to develop my voice more. But because I feel so at ease in my own body, I have the impression that the channels are open in that direction. Let's see where it takes me!
»I'm just following my love of song, and want to share it with the audience.«
You just mentioned your love of singing. Where does it come from?
I've been singing as long as I can remember. It was totally natural for me to express my feelings through music. No idea where that came from. Maybe because I was constantly surrounded by music as a child: my father had a lovely voice, and my mother often sang to us as well. To this day I love listening to other singers. Music has truly enriched my life, and that makes it a special experience today to share that with audiences.
Which other singers do you particularly enjoy listeníng to?
Goodness, where should I start? Folk singers Judy Colins and Joni Mitchell, in jazz first and foremost Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. I also love Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. And one of the first concerts I went to was a Tina Turner concert! There are just so many musicians who have inspired me. But if we are talking about classical singers, Régine Crespin comes to mind. In the 1960s she recorded an album of songs by Berlioz, Ravel and Poulenc: wow! That literally changed my world. Then there is Edita Gruberová with her unsurpassed interpretation of the »Bell song« from Delibes's »Lakmé«. Not to mention Frederica von Stade, Renée Fleming, Kiri Te Kanawa, Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
Many singers name Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as a role model, yet she was as good as unknown in Europe. Bejun Mehta once told me that her performance of »As With Rosy Steps The Morn« from Handel's »Theodora« shows what singing is really about: truthfulness.
And he is so right! This production of »Theodora«, directed by Peter Sellars in 2004, was one of the first staged performances of classical music that I saw. When Lorraine Hunt Lieberson came on to the stage, it literally changed my life: I suddenly knew what's possible in this art form.
Lorraine Hunt Liebersen in Glyndebourne (2004)
About Olivier Messiaens »Harawi«
Let's come back for a minute to the subject of darkness, which alsoplays a role in your next appearance at the Elbphilharmonie. In May 2023 you're singing Messiaen's 1945 song cycle »Harawi«, which ends with the song »Dans le noir« (In darkness). What does the work mean to you?
I remember the very strong impact the music made on me when I heard the cycle for the first time. And not only the music: the powerful poetry of the song texts also cast its spell over me. I somehow felt called upon to perform it myself – but I decided to wait for the right moment. My initial idea was to split the songs between two singers and even two pianists in order to do justice to the different in the work – between man and woman, nature and the cosmos, love and loss.
But in Hamburg you are singing the cycle on your own. Why?
Now that I have matured as an artist, I feel able to cope with the cycle in a solo capacity. But we are still taking up the duality theme, albeit in a different way, by incorporating dance into the performance. Messiaen took his inspiration from the traditional music of the Andes in »Harawi«, and dance is part of that tradition. Thus there will be a male and a female dancer on stage as counterparts to myself and the pianist. »Harawi« has a subtitle, namely »Song about Love and Death«.
What kind of love is the subject here?
Messiaen was in a difficult personal situation at the time. His first wife, Claire Delbos, was suffering from a mental disorder and had to undergo treatment in a clinic. As it became increasingly hard to communicate with her, Messiaen fell in love with another woman, Yvonne Loriod, whom he later married. For me, this is reflected in »Harawi«: it is as if one were saying goodbye to someone with whom one had a close relationship, and beginning something new at the same time. The score consists of fifty minutes to bid farewell and then welcome a new love into one's life. It's like a love letter written by Messiaen to his two unusual wives, and I hope that the combination of music and dance will help bring this story home to the audience.
»The score consists of fifty minutes to bid farewell and then welcome a new love into one's life.«
»Harawi« has an ethnic background as is also the case in Purcell's »Indian Queen«, which you once put on in cooperation with Peter Sellars. Do you deliberately look for projects like this, or do producers or concert organisers approach you to see if you're interested?
Probably both. Obviously my appearance and my ethnic origin mean that I get asked to take part in particular projects. As an artist at the outset of her career, however, I felt drawn to a particular repertoire and the stories it tells; »The Indian Queen« (2015) is an example of that. In the case of »Harawi« I didn't know anything at first about the tradition that it's connected with, yet I immediately felt drawn to the material and knew that I wanted to sing it. Of course there are often latent overtones of cultural appropriation, and I have no answer to this question. Rather, as an artist I see it as my responsiblility to ask questions and to think about exactly what I want to portray on stage.
Trailer: »The Indian Queen« at the English National Opera (2015)
During the last season you enjoyed great success in Terence Blanchard's opera »Fire Shut Up In My Bones«, which revolves around the life of Black people and police violence in the USA. Do you feel particularly committed to works about subjects of this kind?
Do I feel responsible here? Absolutely not! I don't like it one bit when other people try to use me for their own ends. I feel more motivated to sing certain works, and if I don't feel the motivation, I leave it alone. When I decide to take on a project, my first priority is that everyone in the team takes it seriously: the time we spend on stage together is unique and precious. And I have the feeling that this represents a good opportunity for us to practise how best to treat one another: with mutual respect, with honesty, candour and responsiblility. I can't bear it when people overstep these boundaries.
Several albums by Black female opera singers have been released recently, by Golda Schultz, Jeannine De Bique and Pene Pati. How do you feel about this as a member of the Coloured community?
Every singer that I admire has a recording history, making him or her part of a history of singing that has been preserved for posterity. Recordings were the source of my first encounters with classical singing, and of course I am happy that we are now part of this history. Not least as the singers you mentioned are friends of mine.
Where does your strong sense of social commitment stem from?
I assume that has to do with my immediate family biography: both my parents were active supporters of social causes. They were always keen that we should be aware of what's happening in the world and how to respond to it. Sometimes things happen that I am unable not to comment on. Luckily I live in a time and a place where I can say freely what I think. But there are still many artists who have to fight to state their opinion in public. As long as I have the opportunity, I will continue to do so.
You live with your husband and your baby in Munich. Why did you move to Germany instead of staying in the US?
Part of the reason for our moving to Germany was that we wanted to change something. I was ready to leave New York, and that had to do with the present conditions in America: with the firearms laws, the lack of health care, with the welfare system in general. It's like a political wrestling match where the law of the jungle applies – the survival of the fittest – with little consideration for weaker members of society. These are all realities that I was able to see for myself. But I want my child to grow up in a place where it can feel comfortable and safe.
Interview: Bjørn Woll, last updated: March 2023
This interview appeared in the Elbphilharmonie Magazin (2/23)