American soprano Julia Bullock is a force of nature. The expression seems to come up often in conversations, whether with admiring fellow singers or senior composers who have written for one of the most arresting voices of her generation. “Julia Bullock is ravishing as Kitty,” wrote critic Steve Moffatt of the recent Warner Classics account of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, winner of 2018’s Limelight Opera Recording of the Year. “It would be hard to imagine a better Dame Shirley than Julia Bullock,” I wrote of her performance in Adams’ latest opera, Girls of the Golden West, following its San Francisco premiere. “Her smoothly energised soprano caresses Adams’ lyrical lines while her immaculate diction ensures not a syllable of [her] memorable words are lost.”

Julia Bullock & Davóne Tines in Girls of the Golden West. Photo © Corey Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Force of nature, yes, but also a force of nurture. “The first solo I ever sang in public was a slave song,” Bullock writes in a think-piece for the Metropolitan Museum in New York. “My sister and I performed the song in front of an all-white congregation at my home church in a historically – and still very much – segregated suburb in St. Louis, Missouri.”

A singer of mixed heritage, white and black, she grew up well-educated and loved with a father who would sing his children civil rights songs and take his family to support groups for mixed families. A student of African American studies, her music is infused with a rich legacy of gospel and traditional song, yet she’s open about the challenge of coming to terms with the complexities of skin colour and an insidious racism that found her often characterised as neither one thing nor the other. “I also developed a special sort of shame that was a dreaded accompaniment to my external colour,” she writes, “so I intentionally left no space to internalise the depths and beauty of my heritage.”

Through it all, the music was a comfort and support. “Your father shared a jail cell with Dr. King after a sit-in,” Bullock recalls her mother saying. “What did you do when you got scared during the protests?” her mother once asked her father. “We sang,” is what he told her.

Although she didn’t grow up listening to classical music, coming to the performing arts as many of today’s young singers do through musical theatre and dance, she was introduced to opera in her teens by her stepfather. “He gave me his favourite recordings and DVD performances of opera and classical vocalists and I just fell in love with their sound,” she tells me. “I fell in love with the complexity of the poetry, the music, all of it, and it changed my focus.”

Asked to name a few inspirational singers, she thinks a little before naming Régine Crespin as top of her go-to list, but the names soon come tumbling out: “There was Kiri Te Kanawa and Frederica von Stade in a Glyndebourne production of Le Nozze di Figaro. Cecilia Bartoli as well. She just knows how to deliver music in a way that convinces everyone to go on a ride with her. Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker – there’s a lot of mezzos, now that I think about it. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Theodora was one of the most stunning performances, even on a 14-inch screen. Even if that was the only thing that I had seen, it would have helped me understand what staging classical music was about and the potential and depth of the experience in classical music.”

Julia Bullock. Photo © Derrick Belcham

In fact, the director of that Theodora, Peter Sellars, would go on to have quite an impact on Bullock’s life, but first she had to acquire a little polish and determination. “I was taking voice lessons but not super seriously. I wasn’t really practising,” she admits. “I was studying with this one teacher in St. Louis and she said, ‘I think if you really wanted to go into this you could. You have a voice that could develop into something, do you know anything about classical music at all?’ I just didn’t so she introduced me to my first Mozart arias and then around that time I got into the Artists-In-Training Program at the Opera Theater of St. Louis where they give you free voice lessons every week, free coaching, and they take you to concerts. I was grateful because I went on to the Eastman School of Music right after that. But I started taking responsibility for my voice and an interest in the repertoire pretty early on.”

Winning the Young Concert Artists competition six years ago at the age of 26 was an important step up the ladder for Bullock. They managed her, helped build relationships with small orchestras across the US, and set up her first recital tour. She immediately found the freedom to program as she wanted for the first time liberating. “I had been waiting for quite some time to program songs by Josephine Baker for example,” she explains. “The entire second half was focused on the objectification of people of colour, specifically of black women and when Peter’s producer saw me in that recital in New York she said ‘oh Peter, it might be interesting to work on a project where Julia’s exploring more of Josephine.’ So, he called me up and said if you want to keep looking at this subject matter, focusing on her, I want to help create a platform for you to do that.”

The result was Perle Noire: Meditations on Joséphine, a show that Sellars and Bullock have been refining since 2016 and which last month she presented to critical acclaim on the grand staircase of the Metropolitan Museum. But Sellars has proved more pivotal than even that. “I would say that every time I’ve worked with Peter it has been pretty instrumental in some sort of big shift,” she declares. “He just helped me take more ownership of my truest self, because he’s so not interested in quote unquote opera singing, he’s looking for human utterances from his performers.”

Julia Bullock and composer-percussionist Tyshawn Sorey in Perle Noire: Meditations on Joséphine at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo © Stephanie Berger/2019 Metropolitan Museum of Art

It was soon after Sellars came into her life that Bullock met another important influence. Composer John Adams was looking to cast his nativity oratorio El Niño, and knowing of her work with his long-term collaborator, was keen to hear her. “I sang music from Messiaen to Billy Taylor and then we chatted for a while,” she recalls. “Within the week, his managers asked if I wanted to sing El Niño in LA and at the New York Phil, if I wanted to do the recording of Doctor Atomic, and if I would be interested in a role in the opera that he was writing.”

The new opera was Girls of the Golden West, a look at the real lives of 19th-century women in Gold Rush California. “I immediately felt comfortable with him. I don’t want to say I understand how to deliver his material, but I think I’ve internalised his compositional voice. I don’t know if that’s true, I just get him,” she laughs. “I understand the melodies and the pacing of the language he sets. It was just an immediate and very good collaboration. We don’t talk that much about how to deliver what he writes, but I feel like I’m at this amazing point in history where myself and a few other colleagues, we’re understanding what John is after.”

El Niño was a work at the forefront of Bullock’s mind when the Met Museum came to call, inviting her to be its 2018/2019 Artist-in-Residence. A reduced version of Adams’ original won plaudits when it was performed in the heady atmosphere of the medieval Fuentidueña Chapel at the Met Cloisters in uptown Manhattan just before Christmas. “John is so generous. When I came to him with the idea, he said okay this will be my donation to your residency,” Bullock explains. “He didn’t have time to do the arrangement himself, so he hired a young man that he respects very much [to do it for us].”

Julia Bullock as Kitty Oppenheimer in Santa Fe’s 2018 production of Doctor Atomic. Photo © Ken Howard 

So far, her residency has been an eye-opener, both for audiences and for Bullock herself who far from being short of ideas found herself almost spoilt for choice. “I felt overwhelmed, to be honest, especially once I realised that they were essentially opening up the entire museum to me,” she admits. “The beauty of the MetLiveArts series is Limor Tomer. She was really one of the first people to encourage museums to put live performances in their spaces. She saw me in a recital and initially just asked if I would like to walk through the museum with her while she told me about the different projects they’d done there. Then she asked me if there was anything in particular that I thought I could do at the Met that I couldn’t do anywhere else. I went home and put together a couple of ideas, but later she came back and said, instead of just doing one show why don’t we open the whole season to you?”

“I spent about six or seven months talking to various friends – my creative team – and we put together a 13-page list of potentials. After Limor explained to me that she wanted to remove the threshold of entry into the museum – that is such an amazing comment – I started researching the Met’s history to see what thresholds the Met had put up since their founding that had either encouraged or even discouraged people wanting to visit.”

Her residency opened with a program called History’s Persistent Voice, in which contemporary female composers of colour reset traditional slave songs against a backdrop from the concurrent Met exhibition History Refused to Die, a show of contemporary self-taught black artists. It continued with site-specific concerts of musical settings of Langston Hughes, followed by El Niño and the performance of Perles Noire. All of which has involved a lot of work and a steep learning curve.

Julia Bullock performing History’s Persistent Voice at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo © Paula Lobo

“I spoke to Limor after the initial concert,” Bullock explains. “She said that ‘it’s for you to figure if you are somebody who dreams on a small scale or if you need a larger team around you’. I think that’s part of what this residency is about. I want to take some risks out there, and there are some projects that are going to be highly produced experiences while other things are really just experimentation. It’s a hard thing as a performer to step into that mindset because obviously you’re wanting to present something that is developed and fully conceived for an audience. It’s a new phase for me and I’m just learning to be at ease with that.”

Next up will be one of the residency’s more ambitious projects, a production of Hans Werner Henze’s rarely staged opera El Cimarrón (The Runaway Slave). Featuring rising star bass-baritone Davóne Tines and co-produced by the American Modern Opera Company under director Zack Winokur, the work is based on the oral autobiography of Esteban Montejo, an Afro-Cuban who escaped from slavery on a sugar plantation and survived in the jungle before joining the fight for Cuban independence and finally passing away at the remarkable age of 113.

So, who is it that Julia Bullock would like to see at her events? And who would she like to find an entry point to her program? “Hmm…” she muses. “I’m not trying to cater so much to any one audience. But when I was deciding to go into classical music, I did have to ask myself at one point, am I denying a part of my identity because I’m singing material that’s based in the Western European world?”

“Honestly, a part of it is me wanting to look at my own history and both represent it and contextualise it in a way for others to understand. Being of mixed heritage, I think that I am in a unique position to give a platform to many voices. Because I’ve had to navigate that space for my entire life, and I’ve been trying to make peace with navigating that space my entire life.”