Artist of the Year:
Julia Bullock: Agent of Change

By Clive Paget

If 2020 can be called the year classical music got vocal, to some extent it was simply a case of an industry traditionally slow to act playing catchup with Bullock, an artist who has been leading the charge for years. 

2021 Muscial America Artist of the Year:<br>Julia Bullock: Agent of Change
© Allison Michael Orenstein

Smart, savvy, and with her velvety soprano shot through with steel, Julia Bullock is one of the most dramatically electrifying and vocally arresting singers on today’s operatic stages. She’s also a self-avowed “activist” whose first public performance was singing a slave song with her sister in front of her home church’s all-white congregation in an historically segregated suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. According to Bullock, that particular corner of St. Louis is still very much segregated, so while the singer has moved on to garner international acclaim, she’s remained a determined and outspoken advocate for change. If 2020 can be called the year classical music got vocal, to some extent the surge of support for diversity in an industry traditionally slow to act was simply catching up with Bullock who has been leading the charge for years.

A singer of mixed heritage, white and black, Bullock grew up with parents who were very much involved in the civil rights movement—her father even shared a jail cell with Dr. King after a sit-in. “What did you do when you got scared during the protests?” she recalls her mother once asking her father. “We sang,” he replied. So, naturally the children sang too, at home, in church, and later at college where a young Julia was initially drawn to dance and the expressive possibilities of musical theater (“I was a serious hoofer,” she jokes over Zoom from Munich, the city she relocated to this summer).

When it came to a musical career, however, she found herself questioning her objectives and motivation. “My parents wanted to instill in me and my sister the idea that your life’s work needs to contribute to the betterment of the world in some way,” she says. “It’s good to be passionate about your work, but your profession should not just be a vanity project. For some time that plagued me, because, of course, there is an element of ego strongly associated with the act of performing.”

Bullock credits director Peter Sellars as being instrumental in many of her major shifts as a creative artist and it was through him that she came to the attention of John Adams. Clearly impressed, the composer cast her in his nativity oratorio El Niño in LA, invited her to record the role of Kitty Oppenheimer in Doctor Atomic, and wrote her the main part in his Californian Gold Rush opera Girls of the Golden West. Intrepid, yet thoughtful, the role of the pioneering Dame Shirley suited her down to the ground.

Meanwhile, an interest in the politics of skin color had encouraged Bullock to pepper her recitals with the songs of Black entertainer and French Resistance activist Josephine Baker. Excited by what he was hearing, Sellars helped conceive Perle Noire: Meditations on Joséphine, a one-woman show that Bullock performed in 2019 on the grand staircase of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Tackling head on the objectification of people of color—specifically of black women—it was acclaimed by the New York Times as “one of the most important works of art yet to emerge from the era of Black Lives Matter” and showed that Bullock was not just a consummate performer, she was an issue-conscious artist to be reckoned with.

So, is she a determined person, driven even? “Determined? Yes,” she admits. “I had a conversation with Renée Fleming once and she said, ‘what kind of star do you want to be, Julia?’ I didn’t know what to say, and then she asked me was I ambitious? When I saw her a few months later I admitted how embarrassed I was when she’d asked me that, and she said it’s really hard to admit if you are ambitious, especially as a woman.”

For years now Bullock has been happy to be labelled an activist, or a socially conscious performer. For her, being an activist means challenging or provoking people to act. “I do do that on purpose, at least with my own programming,” she admits. “I have no written agenda, and I’m not interested in manipulating people’s minds, but I can tell you it’s super exciting when other young artists call for advice, saying they are thinking about such and such subject matter. You’ve done this—do you think it’s possible? And I say yeah, it’s possible.”

In interviews, there’s a refreshing spontaneity about Bullock, the thoughts coming across as freshly minted with a sense that she’s weighing every word. On race, for example, she’s acutely sensitive to the tradition she represents as a performer. “I’ve programmed around this subject matter for some time and one thing I can pride myself on is my ability to keep individuals—some of whom may, consciously or not, perpetuate white supremacist behavior—in the conversation by sitting in the concert hall and listening,” she explains, before addressing the current collective mood in the performing arts. “It has been amazing being on all of these panels this year and listening to people speak. These artists have been thinking very comprehensively about changes that can happen.”

Aware that artists working in the realm of Western classical music are coming from a place of great privilege, she nevertheless senses that 2020 is a crossroads of sorts. “The conversation about Black Lives Matter started with police brutality, but the goals of the movement are way, way deeper and more involved than the brutalization and trauma that has been inflicted on black people over centuries. It’s going after the whole system that has supported it,” she says. “Within the arts industry, I think people are also wanting to look at that. Our field is the glossiest and most perverse representation of that system, which makes it really challenging, but I am very excited.”

“I’d like to see the continuation of the conversations, and those conversations turning into actions with organizations prioritizing more equitable practices, greater inclusion,” she concludes. “I know that in the arts world we can make adjustments faster than in other parts of our society. So, let’s get at it!” •

Clive Paget is features editor for the Musical America Directory. A former editor of Australia’s Limelight Magazine, he now writes and reviews for, among others, Musical America, Opera News, and Steinway Magazine. Prior to his move to Australia he directed and developed new music theater projects for London’s National Theatre.