Julia Bullock '05 was profiled in Vanity Fair on 12.13.18 for her work as an artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (you can find the story online here):
"The Metropolitan Museum of Art has always been a place of astounding artistic breadth and diversity—one might take in Grecian statues made in 1200 B.C., medieval Italian paintings, 19th-century Tiffany vases, and a contemporary copper wire and aluminum quilted wall hanging by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui in a single afternoon. For world-renowned soprano Julia Bullock, the 2018-2019 MetLiveArts artist in residence, the challenge of her tenure was to set a program of performances that pushed that celebration of diversity to include the artists themselves, and to grapple with the fact that the Met—no matter how expansive the collection—has historically been under the supervision and control of white men. All artists in residence are encouraged to draw inspiration and resources from the museum, its collection, and its history. Performances are primarily held in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, which is tucked into the Egyptian Wing, and tickets include museum admission—roaming before the performance and during intermission is encouraged. Bullock, who is in her early thirties, grew up the daughter of a white mother and black father (he once shared a jail cell with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. following a sit-in, her mother likes to tell her) in what she describes as a racially segregated St. Louis. She has spent a lifetime exploring her own identity as a woman of color working in music—in the historically white space of the opera world in particular. Her year at the Met Museum is a natural progression of that ongoing inquiry. The soprano, who trained at Eastman School of Music and Bard College’s graduate vocal-arts program, is noteworthy in her field for a number of reasons—she’s young, highly successful, politically engaged—but not least is her ability to inject each note she sings with a sense of grace and urgency, lending her performances the feel of being both of the moment and incredibly timeless.
Her first performance of the residency was titled History’s Persistent Voice and comprised a collection of slave songs—an early idea that fell organically into conversation with an exhibition, then on view, showcasing work from African-American artists from the American South. Another recital, A Dream Deferred: Langston Hughes in Song, performed earlier this month, set the immortal words of the renowned poet to music performed by Bullock, fellow soprano Nicole Cabell,bass-baritone Davóne Tines, and a variety of other musicians. ('What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / . . . Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load / Or does it explode?')
Here, we discuss her ongoing vision for the residency, and how two upcoming performances fit into that vision: the Christmastime Nativity Reconsidered(December 21 and 22), performed at the Met Cloisters, and Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine (January 16 and 17), which is inspired by Joséphine Baker and will be performed on the Met’s grand staircase.
Vanity Fair: Tell me about the upcoming Nativity Reconsidered: El Niñoperformance. What was the thought process behind it?
Julia Bullock: I had considered [the Cloisters] pretty early on, but nothing seemed to fit well into the rest of the residency. But then I was like, “I wonder if there’s a way we can make this legitimate Christmas oratory happen.” Handel’s Messiah is the most attended and presented musical work during the winter holiday season. But Handel’s very beloved work is a meditation on the death and the resurrection of Christ, and not just on the birth of Christ—this piece focuses on the relationship of mother and child, and on the nativity story. So I wrote to John Adams and Peter Sellars and said I have this idea of doing a chamber version of El Niño, and turning this [two]-hour piece into a 45, 50-minute work. It will offer an intimate rendering of this otherwise mammoth orchestral and choral piece.
There are several texts from the religious scripture, but there’s also a lot of poetry that Peter and John wanted to include by Rosario Castellanos and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. This poetry of laudable Latin American voices is a celebration of—and emphasis on—the essential contributions of women in an otherwise male-centric biblical canon. In that way, when you look at El Niño in those terms, it does fit into the other things that we touched on in the other performances throughout the residency.
So what were, and continue to be, your aims in this residency?
Honestly, it just started with me doing research about the history of the Met Museum. Then I put together this 13-page document, asking several friends that are in my creative community for projects they felt they could present at the Met that could benefit from the curatorial staff—things that were already in the works, or seemed like they could come to fruition during this time period. They all ended up having some sort of leaning toward the black American experience—and in that American experience, I’m talking about Latin America as well.
One of the books that I first read about the Met was [former director] Thomas Hoving’s memoir, Making the Mummies Dance. He wrote very incendiary things—I later found out that, actually, he is not so highly regarded in the artist community. [Ed. note: The late Hoving had what The New York Times once described as an “ask-questions-later approach to acquisitions.”] But when he ran the Met, in the 60s and 70s, one of the first big exhibitions that he put on was Harlem on My Mind. There was a quote that he gave about the trustee—I can’t get this quote corroborated, and I’m paraphrasing—but he says this trustee asked, “So why do we need to care about minorities? I mean, of course we care about them. But, like, why as an art museum?”
Oh . . .
The history, from the founding of the Met, to who has run the Met, to the social construct and culture that are in that community—the privileged white community in America—the fact that it was pretty much almost exclusively men in leadership positions. There was a celebration of the diversity of artwork, but not necessarily a celebration of the diversity of the human beings who made that artwork, or just of the diversity of New York City. And this place was always intended to be an open encyclopedic collection of culture for a public space. But then, of course, you have to ask: which public were they catering to?
The Met has been making great strides to further clarify what their original mission was—and actually move into it. I guess I just wanted to be a part of that discussion. Whatever I was programming, I also just wanted to be fully hooked into the Met Museum—not just performing cool music in these gallery spaces, but having a conversation with the Met’s history, and then also with the artwork.
To your mind, how do the performing arts complement the visual art on view at the museum?
I think the performing arts start conversations—for whatever reason, when we’re held in concert space together, there’s a higher probability of us actually really communicating things, and really engaging with each other, and really cheering [for] each other. I’m inspired by the visual arts, but unless somebody actively gets in conversation about those pieces, you can be in silence and isolation with them. That’s just the nature of the medium.
It’s an amazing opportunity as a performer to jump-start some of this. I have whole other seasons’ worth of performances that have to do with women and colonization. There’s just so much to look at at the Met Museum, because in many ways it’s so reflective of our American culture and what we’re struggling with—what we have always struggled with.
You’re going to be doing a performance called Meditations for Joséphine. What’s the connection that you feel with her?
My first introduction to Joséphine Baker, what sparked my interest in her, was because of a conversation I had with one of my first vocal teachers in college. It was, I think, my second or third week of lessons, and she said, “You know, you kinda remind of me Joséphine Baker. Do you know who that is?” And I said, “Yeah, that woman in a banana skirt?” And she’s like, “Well, Julia, you’re from St. Louis, you have a high voice, and in this business, because of the way that you look, people are gonna expect you to sing exotic repertoire”—whatever the fuck that means. I have my own issues with identity, because of my history growing up in this highly segregated, racist environment in St. Louis, and because I always was having to think about how to navigate those spaces. It’s something that has haunted me, really.
You look at the history of many of the black performers that have preceded me: in one genre—jazz and popular music—there’s a certain kind of persona that continues to be projected. And then in the classical world, often the persona that is projected is one of absolute dignity, absolute power. I was like—I can’t. I’m neither of those things. Which is true for any human being. Leaning in to those projections feels very crazy. I didn’t feel like it was sustainable for me. So I decided to just take hold of the situation myself. In my first recital program in 2014, I opened the second half with a group of songs that Joséphine Baker sang, and then the entire rest of the program ranged from songs by Oscar Brown to Nina Simone; they all talked about the demoralization of people of color, and particularly of black women. Peter Sellars, a director, came to that performance in New York City, and he called me up and he said, “Listen, if you want to keep looking at this subject matter but narrow in on the lens of Joséphine, I want to help you create a platform for it.” And then that’s when we got [composer and musician] Tyshawn Sorey involved, and Claudia Rankine[who wrote the text for Perle Noire]. There’s, rich, rich source material here.
This is the first time that the grand staircase has ever been used for [such an] extended period for a performance. Having this really dramatic cascade of what it means to be black in a white space, within the center of the Met Museum—I think it’s just very powerful."