The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Above: Julia Bullock.
“Good things, when short, are twice as good,” philosopher Baltasar Gracián once said. I expect that these words will apply to soprano Julia Bullock’s upcoming performance as part of the New World Symphony’s Chamber Music Series. The New World Symphony introduced Miami to then-ascendant sopranos Christine Goerke, Barbara Hannigan and Karina Gauvin, and now the Knight Arts grantee continues that tradition and affords us the opportunity to discover the voice of another rising star. While brief, Bullock’s visit will likely give music lovers much to rave about.
Since her magnificent rendering of “Somewhere” in the recording of “West Side Story” that Michael Tilson Thomas conducted, Bullock’s name has been on music lovers’ lips, and with good reason. An alumna of Eastman School of Music, Bard College and the Juilliard School, as well as the winner of a prestigious Naumburg Prize, the St. Louis native possesses a voice as atypical as her career. It is not surprising that venues are scrambling to snag a booking, given her outstanding vocal and acting skills. But what is really noteworthy about Bullock is her desire to capture the essence of what she is singing, while putting a personal stamp on it. That is her trademark.
“Music schools train extremely well, but they don’t encourage imagination,” she says. “They don’t stress individuality, but rather, precision–and that entails an immense risk for both the performer and the audience. I struggle against that uniformity, that sounding beautiful but the same.”
Bullock grew up professionally listening to songs of the ’60s and ’70s, musicals and jazz. When she felt the need to branch out, she happened to hear Régine Crespin’s legendary register in her performance of Hector Berlioz’s “Les Nuits d’Eté,” and her life changed. “She’s pure art,” says Bullock with devotion. “I go back to her when I need to be by myself, whether sad or happy.”
Crespin is one of the reasons for Bullock’s love of the French repertoire. Her other role models are Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Amália Rodrigues, Chavela Vargas and Billie Holiday.
“To achieve a different voice, from the inside out, with the material completely absorbed,” is what she works toward as a performer, Bullock says. “I’m ambitious, but I go slowly. It takes so much effort to train as a singer, to struggle with pressure, exposure, travel, stress. It’s so difficult for one’s own voice to come out and flourish. They don’t teach us to be patient, and they should!” she adds, laughing. “I prefer to take my time with each opera. I do one or, at most, two per year. I need to learn it, assimilate it, live it, enjoy it, and later recover from it. I end up exhausted.”
At Juilliard, Bullock performed in Jules Massenet’s “Cendrillon” and Leos Janácek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen.” In London, she became famous in the title role of Henry Purcell’s “Indian Queen,” directed by Peter Sellars. In Berlin, she headlined Katia Saariaho’s “La Passion de Simone,” and she’s scheduled to sing the role again at the Ojai Music Festival. Next in line are Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” and John Adams’ “El Niño.”
“In Europe, there are more offerings, and there’s the [concert] habit,” says the singer, who has performed in Russia, China, Madrid, London, Berlin and the United States. “Going to a concert is an everyday affair and therefore more relaxed. Here, it tends to be stuffier, more of a ‘museum’ thing, and something that’s totally natural becomes less natural. I try to get out of the concert hall bubble, out of that comfort zone, performing in alternative venues, adding appropriate repertoire. ”
The desire to create a more intimate concert experience is part of the reason she says she is looking forward to her performance in Miami. “I am convinced music should be well presented, without diluting or tempering it,” she explains. “Without compromise and with the intimacy necessary to reach people, the way the New World Symphony does it. It’s not about making music more accessible, but rather about exposing people to the genuine article.”
As for what audiences can expect, Bullock says she strives to “feel free in everything I do, without doubts or fears.”
Bullock is a singer for this moment–flexible, versatile, bold, responsible and talented. It will be worthwhile to hear her perform, and we should all hope that she returns soon to another Miami stage that is worthy of her skill.
Julia Bullock will perform with the New World Symphony during its “Iberian Impressions” program on Sunday, Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. at New World Center. Tickets are available online.