On April 5, 2016, Kaufman Music Center welcomed soprano Julia Bullock to Merkin Concert Hall, where she performed a Tuesday Matinee of pieces carefully curated to reflect her unique identity. Originally from St. Louis, the fast-rising Millennial’s resume already boasts degrees from the Eastman School of Music and Bard College, an Artist Diploma from Juilliard, and numerous awards. She is, as The New York Times declared, “poised for a significant career,” and we were eager to talk with her about her upcoming concert and how it connects to her heritage.
Looking at the program that you’ve scheduled at Merkin Concert Hall, there’s quite a variety of pieces. Why did you select these pieces?
I was introduced to Henry Cowell at Julliard because I was doing a concert for Joel Sachs for a book that he wrote about Henry Cowell, and the variety of music and the piano techniques that he explored are super interesting. So he’s a composer that’s really new to me, and I wanted to share some of his music.
The three Scandinavian tunes—I’m sure you know Steven Blier; he’s the artistic director of the New York Festival of Song—he shared these pieces with me several years ago. In the Scandinavian tradition, they didn’t really have composed folk songs, or they didn’t have folk songs that were written down. So in this effort of the Scandinavian composers to find a true Scandinavian sound, they composed these very folk-like, original tunes, which I think are so beautiful. They’re almost like spirituals to me.
The Ravel—again, folk tunes. Those are the five Greek songs, and those were originally written in Greek.
And then Kurt Weill. It took me some time to have the courage to sing him because the things that he touches on in general are pretty heavy. He wrote a couple of very funny songs, and one of them is on the program, but we’re dealing with some pretty deep and complex human emotions because he came out of World War II and this totally destroyed, destructed world that he was trying to reflect in these seemingly innocuous pieces.
Then I put together a nice group of flower songs that includes Barber, Hindemith…and also another Henry Cowell piece.
After that we’re going to continue slightly with the flower theme but go to some music of the Harlem Renaissance because right now in my life, I’m feeling like it’s really important to sing music that is authentic to me and addresses all parts of my identity.
And then the last two are traditional Negro spirituals.
You mentioned your identity. What is your background, exactly?
In almost every article that’s been written about me recently, it’s like, “and the black American soprano,” which is not quite accurate. I’m actually of mixed heritage. My mother is white, and my father was black.
Going into classical music, I knew that 99% of the time, you’re going to be singing music that’s written by white men, most of them dead white men, and also working with white people. And that’s not something that felt uncomfortable for me in any way at all because I am of mixed heritage, but there was a part of me that felt there was going to be some sort of denial of a piece of my identity. As time has gone on and also as I’ve started to program more and come to terms with myself as a full human being, now I’m starting to reject this self-imposed idea of what it is to be a classical singer—how I need to sound, how I need to look. Even as a black soprano, it’s like people are looking for who’s going to be the next Leontyne Price or the next Jessye Norman. You do feel this odd need to fill a certain role because as Americans we love to have our icons continually in place. We set them up, and we like to slot people into them. Whatever these imposed or self-imposed limitations or restrictions on being a classical musician [are], I’m trying to shake all of that off because all this is really just about one human being sharing something with another.
You’ve organized benefit concerts for non-profits that help war-affected youth in countries like Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and Uganda. What inspired you to give back relatively early in your career?
My parents were both very much involved in socially-conscious work. They dedicated their lives to social programs and social issues…So I felt very early on that I needed to live somehow into this legacy of service within my family. I just felt responsibility for that. I’ve been given a lot. I was blessed in a lot of privileges that I was just born into and with a great education. If you find a platform to stand on and speak about and speak from, it’s a tremendous opportunity to be an advocate for something.
So when I program things and also if I’m curating something or putting together a benefit or giving a master class or singing for kids in schools in an outreach program, I’m…hoping that whatever themes that I’m touching on are reaching beyond the concert hall setting.
Education seems to have been integral to your path as an artist thus far. What is one valuable piece of wisdom that one of your teachers has given you?
The one that comes to mind is: every morning when you wake up, know that you’re starting from zero. You can’t think about where you were yesterday or what you accomplished yesterday or where you want to go later on in the future or trying to recreate things. You just have to deal with the body and the mind that you wake up with, and then you have an opportunity every day to build yourself again. I really love that idea because it takes the pressure off of trying to live up to your expectations, and it keeps you totally present in what’s ahead.