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This Spring, Julia Bullock Headlines Dutch National Opera’s European Premiere of Perle Noire, Makes Concertgebouw Recital Debut, Premieres Exiles with Bavarian Radio Symphony, & More

(March 2023) — “One of the singular artists of her generation – a singer of enveloping tone, startlingly mature presence and unusually sophisticated insight into culture, society and history” (New York Times), American classical singer Julia Bullock headlines three major European productions and makes a key recital debut this spring. At the Dutch National Opera, she stars in the European premiere of Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine (March 9–13). Conceived by Bullock in collaboration with Peter Sellars and written for her by MacArthur “genius” Fellows Tyshawn Sorey and Claudia Rankine, this Joséphine Baker tribute has already won widespread acclaim in the States. Bullock then makes her house recital debut with a characteristically thoughtful and wide-ranging program at Amsterdam’s storied Concertgebouw (March 21), before giving the world premiere of Julian Anderson’s Exiles – Remembrances with Manfred Honeck and the Bavarian Radio Symphony (March 30–April 1). Finally, as a founding member of the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), she tours the collective’s staged production of Messiaen’s Harawi to Belgium and Germany (May 5–10). These spring dates follow the phenomenal critical success of Bullock’s solo recording debut, Walking in the Dark, named – alongside offerings from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar – one of NPR’s “20 Best Albums of 2022.”

European premiere of Perle Noire at Dutch National Opera

It was Bullock, working in close collaboration with visionary director Peter Sellars, who first conceived Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine. A layered interplay of song, poetry, instrumental interludes, improvisation and dance, the work offers an intimate reconsideration of the life and legacy of Joséphine Baker, the great Black American singer, activist and cultural icon who was, like Bullock, a native of St. Louis, Missouri. Weaving together texts written for Bullock by poet Claudia Rankine, music recomposed for her by musical polymath Tyshawn Sorey, and choreography that she developed with Michael Schumacher to create a deconstructed Charleston, the cycle began life as Josephine Baker: A Portrait, of which Bullock gave the world and New York premieres with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) at the 2016 Ojai Music and Mostly Mozart festivals.

A paean to a pioneering black performer and a haunting meditation on exoticism, objectification and mourning” (New York Times), Perle Noire went on to represent a highlight of the singer’s tenure as 2018-19 Artist-in-Residence of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where her account of the work marked the first full-length performance on the museum’s iconic grand staircase. The New York Times welcomed it as “one of the most important works of art yet to emerge from the era of Black Lives Matter” and San Francisco Classical Voice called it “a singular theatrical experience brimming with grief, resilience, and fury.” The review continued:

Perle Noire is a complex meditation on a multifaceted historical figure, but it’s more than that, too. It’s an elegy for the untold violence of white supremacy, and it’s a determined resolution to keep on living anyway. If Bullock ever presents it near you, see it if you possibly can.”

Amsterdam audiences will have the opportunity to do so this spring, when Bullock reprises the song cycle at the Dutch National Opera’s Opera Forward Festival (March 9–13). Joined on the company’s main stage by ICE, with Sorey himself on piano and percussion, she headlines a staged new production that marks Perle Noire’s European premiere. Looking ahead to this landmark engagement, Bullock reflects:

“To share our Perle Noire for the first time in Europe and in an operatic space carries significance for me, not only because I am now a permanent resident of Germany, but also because Baker fled the U.S. with the hope of escaping racism and various forms of oppression, and of living with more freedom. However, despite her status and privileges as an extraordinary performer, there was no denying the reality that dehumanizing colonialist practices and attitudes were still pervasive across Europe: the place she wanted so badly to feel safe in and call her home.”

Concertgebouw recital debut

While in Amsterdam, Bullock makes her recital debut at the great Concertgebouw with pianist Bretton Brown (March 21). Exploring love, grief, identity and freedom, her characteristically eclectic program features lieder by Schubert and Wolf, arias by Rossini, vocally experimental works by Cage and Berio, and songs by artists ranging from Kurt Weill to Nina Simone, including arrangements of Connie Converse’s “One by One” and Billy Taylor’s “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free,” two of those heard on Bullock’s acclaimed album debut, Walking in the Dark (see below).

The vocalist has long maintained a thriving recital career. The Boston Classical Review writes: “From Barber to Baker, Schubert to Simone, Julia Bullock shines. … A charismatic stage presence, she has a magnificent instrument.” Opera News affirms: “She communicates intense, authentic feeling, as if she were singing right from her soul.” As the San Francisco Chronicle marvels:

“It’s one thing to sing with grace, beauty and expressive depth, and it’s another thing to design an evening’s program that puts those musical gifts into an urgently meaningful context. Soprano Julia Bullock can do both. … Bullock brought an almost unearthly measure of eloquence to the proceedings. This was music operating simultaneously as probing social commentary and pure sensual delight.”

World premiere of Exiles with Honeck and Bavarian Radio Symphony

For the third of her four major European engagements this spring, Bullock headlines the world premiere of Exiles – Remembrances, a substantial new work for voice and orchestra from British composer Julian Anderson, whose honors include Gramophone and Grawemeyer awards. Characterized by Anderson as “a meditation on leaving one’s native country and the longing for return,” the piece was written in response to the pandemic, and addresses different aspects of exile, whether internal or external, and individual or collective. Originally scheduled to receive its first performances in January of last year, but postponed, ironically, by Covid, Exiles premieres in concerts with Munich’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus that mark Bullock’s first collaboration with Austrian maestro Manfred Honeck (March 30–April 1).

Messiaen’s Harawi with AMOC in Belgium and Germany

Bullock is a founding member of the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), the collective credited with “revitalizing what American music theater can mean with several of our most revolutionary young talents” (Los Angeles Times). To complete her European spring lineup, she reunites with AMOC to reprise their staged production of Messiaen’s Harawi (1945) in Germany and Belgium. Written in the composer’s own distinctive tonal language, the twelve-part song cycle was inspired by original Harawi music from a diverse range of Andean cultures, in which the genre’s soulful melodies and lyrics encompassed intersecting themes of love, loss, death, life, nature and the cosmos. In a statement about the work, Bullock and AMOC artistic director Zack Winokur explain:

Harawi explores dichotomies: life and death, pain and joy, spirituality and sensuality, sacrifice and preservation, fulfillment and loss. [Messiaen] seems to be asking from a place of personal grief: how do you stay connected to someone you love while the accumulated memories of your relationship begin to fade or drift? How do you recover and move on?”

With Conor Hanick on piano, and choreography by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber under Winokur’s direction, Bullock performs Harawi in Antwerp (May 5), Leverkusen (May 7) and at Hamburg’s already iconic Elbphilharmonie (May 10).

When she and AMOC premiered the production at France’s Aix-en-Provence festival last summer, observed:

“The singer and pianist face challenges that seem impossible, and yet are achieved. … Ms. Bullock dares to explore the extremes, musical and emotional. … All the gestures are spellbinding. Ms. Bullock’s remarkable voice is central. Over the years, each of her special talents has been enlarged. Her voice has become large, not by making it louder, but by enriching breath. Her quiet notes remain textured whispers. Always there is a special quality, whether Ms. Bullock is challenged by rapid rhythms or wide leaps. She remains a consummate actor who delivers great pleasure.”

Praise for first solo album, Walking in the Dark

Bullock’s spring engagements follow her solo album debut, with the release of Walking in the Dark on the Nonesuch label in December. Recorded with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and the singer’s husband, conductor and pianist Christian Reif, the disc combines orchestral works by John Adams and Samuel Barber with a traditional spiritual and songs by Oscar Brown, Jr., Connie Converse, Sandy Denny and Billy Taylor. The recording proved a resounding critical success. Hailed as a “stirring and lyrical debut” by The Guardian, it was featured in the New York Times’s “Best Classical Music Tracks of 2022” and named not only one of the “Ten Best Classical Albums of 2022” but also one of the “20 Best Albums of 2022” by NPR, which observed: “With its smart, wildly diverse repertoire, Julia Bullock’s Walking in the Dark is an album that shines, introducing us to an artist curating a career on her own distinctive terms.” Similarly, dubbing Bullock “an essential soprano for our times,” the Los Angeles Times concluded:

“Her voice is a resonant soprano, with hints of Nina Simone, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and, in its intensity and presence, Maria Callas. Bullock brings the quality of oration to all she sings. Words are always in the spotlight. By the end of the recording, you just may feel the world ever so slightly differently, with your perception a little changed, your receptivity a little enhanced, your sense of wonder a little improved. … The fullest revelation of who Bullock is, right now, a fully formed artist in her mid 30s at her vocal prime, is Walking in the Dark. It is likely to be the first of many such solo recordings for Nonesuch.”

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Julia Bullock: upcoming engagements

March 9–13
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Dutch National Opera & Ballet (main stage)
(with International Contemporary Ensemble)
Tyshawn SOREY: Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine

March 21
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Concertgebouw (recital debut)
Recital with Bretton Brown, piano
SCHUBERT: “Suleika I,” D.720
WOLF: “In dem Schatten meiner Locken” (from Spanisches Liederbuch)
WOLF: “Bedeckt mich mit Blumen” (from Spanisches Liederbuch)
SCHUBERT: “Rastlose Liebe,” D.138
CONVERSE: “There is a vine”
CONVERSE (arr. J. Siskind): “One by one”
WEILL: “Lost in the stars”
WEILL: “Denn wie man sich bettet, so liegt man”
WEILL: “Wie lange noch?”
WEILL: “Wedding Dream: The Princess of Pure Delight” (from Lady in the Dark)
BERIO: “Dolce cominciamento” (from Quattro canzoni popolari)
ROSSINI: “Mi lagnerò tacendo” from Stabat Mater
BERIO: “La donna ideale” (from Quattro canzoni popolari)
ROSSINI: “Mi lagnerò tacendo” from Sorzico
BERIO: “Ballo” (from Quattro canzoni popolari)
CAGE: “She is asleep”
CASTLETON / WILLIAMS (arr. J. Siskind): “Driftin’ tide”
AUSTIN (arr. J. Siskind): “Downhearted Blues”
AUSTIN (arr. J. Siskind): “Lovie Austin Tribute”
HOLIDAY / WHITE (arr. J. Siskind): “Our love is different”
SIMONE / IRVINE, JR. (arr. J. Bullock): “Revolution”
SIMONE (arr. J. Siskind): “Four Women”
TAYLOR (arr. J. Siskind / J. Bullock): “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free”

March 30 & 31; April 1
Munich, Germany
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Choir / Manfred Honeck
Julian ANDERSON: Exiles – Remembrances (world premiere)

May 5, 7 & 10
May 5: Antwerp, Belgium (De Singel)
May 7: Leverkusen, Germany (Erholungshaus Leverkusen)
May 10: Hamburg, Germany (Elbphilharmonie)
American Modern Opera Company (AMOC)

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© 21C Media Group, March 2023

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