Interview: Julia Bullock

American soprano Julia Bullock chats to Fest ahead of her arrival at the Edinburgh Internal Festival with a song recital

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 5 minutes
33981 large
Julia Bullock
Photo by Allison Michael Orenstein
Published 11 Aug 2023

“I’m barely ready for two hours of separation!” Julia Bullock laughs, talking about her nine-month-old. Tricky, then, that as we speak she’s heading into a ferocious concert schedule with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the days to come? Not for Bullock. “Honestly, it's been kind of great, because we're just sort of traveling as a small unit, and I bring the baby to rehearsals. When I'm on breaks he's just around in the halls and everyone is cooing.”

Even in 2023 it’s a surprising answer, and one which reflects just how far the world of opera and classical music has come. But then again, it might not have done that all by itself. “When I was pregnant with him. I said, Okay, would that even be professional? But it just doesn't matter, right? It's, like, I just ask for what I need in order to do my job.”

It’s a microscopic example of what the genre-spanning singer achieves in all that she does. She moves the world on. Here’s a brief resume: she graduated from Juilliard and set about aceing the opera stages of the world. She recalls: “there was definitely a time in my life where I wanted to amass as much new repertoire as possible… I don't know if it's just human beings or musicians, but the element of time is so critical in terms of our ability to deliver thought and messages with clarity.”

Thought and clarity feel like useful guides: In 2018 she was artist-in-residence at the New York Metropolitan Museum where she created History’s Persistent Voice, based on a discovered score of postbellum slave songs. She also devised, in collaboration with Peter Sellers, Perle Noir, a musical portrait of Josephine Baker. If you don’t think you know Josephine Baker, you do: the image of her in a short skirt made of bananas is the very definition of the roaring ‘20s. Bullock’s work, she tells me, gives her the “space and time” she’s owed, but had been denied as a Black artist.

In 2019 she had a residency with the San Francisco SO. In 2020 during the lockdown, she gave one of NPR’s coveted Tiny Desk (At Home) concerts. In 2021 she was named as Artist of the Year and an “agent of change” by Musical America. She’s played the title role in Handel’s Theodora at the RNO in early 2022. Since then she’s released an album (Walking in the Dark), rung in the new year with the Elbphilharmonie Orchestra – an astonishing programme that mixed familiar Gershwin with very unfamiliar settings, by Margaret Bonds, of the ‘Poet Laureate of Harlem’ Langston Hughes.

She brings a song recital to this year’s International Festival, alongside the part of Pamina in The Magic Flute. I want to talk more about her approach to programming – that Elbphilharmonie concert feeling tailor-made to lead an audience out of their comfort zone of (white) jazz-adjacent classical to something more richly infused with the cultural heritage of a Black art form.

“I guess, with my programming, I also am trying to show all these different facets of myself as in it. And my identity truthfully, just as an attempt as well to say, right, there are a lot of different ways that people can project onto me or somebody who looks like me.” We talk through her Edinburgh programme, much of which sits at the intersection of the classical canon and contemporary performance styles. There’s John Cage, a composer whose “entire philosophy around music is to give space for musicians to infuse themselves into the repertoire.” It’s an approach which, she cleverly observes, is “integral to Black American music”.

There’s songs by Kurt Weill, “a composer who's dealing with popular music and a composer who's also, you know, wanting to write classics.” She sings Rossini, who not only (like Weill) deals with power dynamics and misogyny, but was also “very much interested in attracting masses of people to enjoy and appreciate his music.” There are songs from Connie Converse, an American singer songwriter before that was even a concept, who “does have a have a place, a rightful place in in a recital hall. Her material is actually very comfortable laying next to [German Lieder].” And so, indeed, Schubert features. There’s more – on the links between John Cage and Nina Simone, on the way she sees music as a personal and vocal “investment” rather than being a passive vessel. But let’s not miss the woods for the trees, here: “[These songs] just delighted the fuck out of me, so I just wanted to put them together.

What I would hope is that people are walking away thinking, Oh, that's a full person up there. It's not a projection of a classical singer. It's not some entertainer. It’s not a Black person with a political message. It's not a woman with a socially conscious drive. I'm just trying to invite all of myself onto a platform when I'm given the opportunity, and I will love for the audience to join me in that in that space.”