At 32, Julia Bullock has already amassed a seemingly endless list of accomplishments. The soprano has a voice critics describe as “radiant,” “unfailing” and “dazzling,” and a career that includes performances at some of the biggest opera houses in the world. Most recently, she became the artist-in-residence at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where her unique performances of “A Dream Deferred: Langston Hughes in Song” and “History’s Persistent Voice” blended opera and social activism.
This month, Bullock will begin hosting opera programming for ALL ARTS, where she’ll add her insight and expertise to pre-recorded performances. The first installment airs Sunday, March 10, at 8 p.m., with Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s 2014 production of Leoš Janácek’s opera “Katia Kabanova.” The three-act opera explores themes of forbidden love as Katia contemplates life outside of her unhappy marriage.
We invited Bullock’s fans to submit questions via Instagram to celebrate the new partnership. In her answers below, Bullock talks about how she unwinds, what music she listens to in her free time and her goals for the jam-packed year ahead.
How do you stay vocally healthy with such an intense schedule?
My goal overall is to communicate naturally, immediately, directly, clearly and freely. If there’s anything interfering or hindering my ability to do that, I aim to address it. To maintain myself during this intensive period in my life has been challenging, and some months more difficult than others, but I try to sleep when I’m tired, hydrate regularly, eat when I’m hungry and do at least one physical activity a day, whether that be a long walk, yoga or even just dancing in my room.
I also have to always continue to work on my vocal technique. I can never take for granted that my body is going to be coordinated to my singing, so it’s important that I check in about where I’m at each day, and be critical about what I’m doing. I also can’t emphasize enough the importance of mental health enough. A calm nervous system is essential, and that’s why balance and self-awareness are paramount. But sometimes the best thing I can do to rest my mind and body is watch shows or movies and documentaries, read or take a break from work all together for a day or so. I’ve also realized it’s OK to be honest about the times when I’m not feeling my best. Self-imposed pressure has often been the most damaging.
What are the acoustics like in The Metropolitan Museum of Art? Did you have to do any extra work to perform there?
Three different spaces at the Met Museum were utilized throughout my residency, and I do feel that each space ultimately leant itself beautifully to the material performed, and not just to the sound. I wanted to ensure that the Met’s physical spaces would be somehow in conversation with the repertoire and provide a context that might further illuminate the material’s content, while drawing attention to the Met’s history itself.
There was the Grace Rainey Auditorium, which has a clear acoustic and proved to be brilliant for music performances (it has been a performance destination for performers of various genres since its opening in the 1950s). There was also the chapel, Apse from San Martín at Fuentidueña, in the Met Cloisters — an intimate space, but extremely resonant. It was also beautiful for voices and for the more still and transparent musical moments, but the instrumentalists did have to negotiate articulations and dynamics in John Adams’s more emphatic music, since the sound accumulated and didn’t decay quickly — but I think we found a good balance.
The third space was the Great Hall on the grand entry staircase. Because of the high ceilings, the stone surfaces and simply the open grandeur of that space, it was definitely the most complicated acoustic to figure out for musical performances. But I brought in a very skilled sound designer, and asked for the initial approval from the various departments at the Met in order to perform music in that space.
It was actually the first time a prolonged music performance was to take place space on the steps. Madonna performed on the steps for the 2018 Met Gala, but it’s my understanding that it was only after we had put in the requests with various departments to do so… which is pretty cool! “Perle Noire” was the only performance in my residency that was mic’ed and amplified, and we all needed monitors in order to ensure we could hear each other accurately.
What’s your favorite role, and why?
I have always said, and will likely continue to say, that my favorite role to embody is the one I’m working on at the time, as I want to be convinced of and committed to the work I’m offering in that moment. But I think one of my favorite roles to prepare and perform thus far has been Kitty Oppenheimer in John Adams and Peter Sellars’s “Doctor Atomic.” The lyrical material — from the words to the vocal lines — is challenging, intense, demanding of all of my attention, and brings forth the extremes of my voice and personality. Whether I was preparing for the recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, or the live performances at the Santa Fe Opera, that role was all consuming in the best way, because I could unleash myself into it fully.
What operas would you recommend to someone who is new to the genre?
I’m going to recommend the operas to which I was first introduced and subsequently made me fall in love with staged, classical music. The performances were illuminating and helped me understand the specificity a person can bring to material that seems to be derived from the most extreme of human experiences.
- Peter Sellars’s production of Handel’s “Theodora,” featuring Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Dawn Upshaw (two of the greatest interpreters of the 20th-21st century)
- Peter Sellars’s stagings of “Le nozze di Figaro” (set in the Trump tower), “Così fan tutte” (set in a diner) and “Don Giovanni” (set in an urban ghetto)
- The 1973 Glyndeborne production of “Le nozze di Figaro,” featuring definitive performances by Kiri Te Kanawa and Frederica von Stade
- Almost any performance that features the soprano Teresa Stratas, but her performance in the film version of “Salome” is unbelievably intense and an absolute must. In fact, I’d watch and listen to several performances of “Salome” — it’s probably my favorite opera of all time, and it’s a good intro piece as it’s approximately one-and-a-half hours long. Of course, you can also just watch shorter clips on YouTube of singers that appeal to you.
I also believe that if you find a composer or singer you like, one of the most exciting things to do is watch and listen to several pieces written by that composer, or performed by that singer. It’s a thrilling way to get immersed in the music and let your own tastes guide you, instead of just trusting “informed” recommendations.
When you’re not listening to opera, what type of music do you listen to? Who are some of your favorite artists right now?
Admittedly, sometimes I do enjoy just walking around and going about my day without music. However: Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Judy Collins, Chavela Vargas, the list goes on and on. More recently I’ve really enjoyed Solange and Kendrick Lamar. Regardless, my favorite way to listen to music is through good speakers in a room, not through ear phones.
If you weren’t singing, what other professions would you be interested in?
As long as my job has a creative aspect to it, I can imagine being involved in just about any field. I think what continues to attract me to music is that it’s challenging, demanding and asks for my best self to come forward. It also identifies the areas in my life that need some improvement or attention. And if I did need to stop performing for any reason, I would first want to teach performance/voice to about any age group, because assisting someone to become empowered through a means of self expression is one of the greatest things we can give each other and achieve.
What are some of your goals for 2019?
This year, I want to communicate with more clarity, ask for help when I need it, enter each new environment with openness and availability and be honest about my observations. And if I am put in a position of leadership, my main goal should be to create a culture where people can give of themselves generously and without reservation.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Top Image: Courtesy of Christian Stiner