The 33-year-old soprano had woken up the morning of her performance here with a scratchy throat. OK, she thought, it happens. But over the course of that recent Tuesday, her fever rose; the chills began.
While Advil calmed them as evening approached, by the end of the London premiere of “Zauberland” — the intense, more-or-less-one-woman show that she will bring to Lincoln Center on Tuesday and Wednesday — congestion was dogging her. At her curtain call, after 80 minutes without leaving the stage, it was obvious to the audience at the Royal Opera House’s intimate Linbury Theater that she could barely hold back tears.
“My teacher in college said to me that when there’s a problem at a performance, you should imagine someone offstage saying, ‘No, you can’t go on,’ and you push them out of the way,” Bullock recalled a few days later. “There are very few things that are going to prevent me from going onstage.”
For someone who has admired Bullock as 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 — the effect of her illness was revealing.
Revealing both in terms of what it took away and what it left. You missed the velvet in her voice, the richness, the autumnal halo around her sound. But what remained — what was even heightened — was her clarity with text, her taut strength, her burning commitment. She seemed poised, in the paradoxical senses of the word: serene, yet ready to leap.
Bullock has arrived at the precipice of an important but unconventional career. She has barely sung with major opera companies, and when she has, it’s been in contemporary works by John Adams or Kaija Saariaho and offbeat repertoire like Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” and Purcell’s “The Indian Queen.”
Instead of singing Mozart or Verdi, she has made a precocious effect on the concert stage and as a curator, serving as artist-in-residence last season at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — where she delved deeply into the African American experience, past and present — and this season in the same role with the San Francisco Symphony, where she will have a continuing partnership. Her still-evolving, evening-length work devoted to Josephine Baker, a collaboration with composer Tyshawn Sorey, is both a paean to a pioneering black performer and a haunting meditation on exoticism, objectification and mourning.
“This is who we’ve been waiting for,” said director Peter Sellars, a frequent colleague. “You see someone who’s not just a vehicle, but an agent of change. She’s actually moving the whole art form into a new relevance, both by completely rehabilitating existing repertoire and by commissioning a set of things that need to exist. We’re hearing the voice of a new generation.”
Born, like Baker, in St. Louis, Bullock grew up dancing as much as singing. “People always told me,” she said, “that I had a great voice — and a wonderful presence.”
When it came time for her to choose a conservatory, another talented young woman from the area was going to the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, New York, so Bullock decided that was where you went when you sang well. The faculty there reacted warmly to her audition, and she felt supported.
She also struggled in college, going to rehab at 20 to address several addictions. And in the years after that, when she was completely sober, she became, she recalled, perhaps unhealthily dependent on singing, treating it as if it were the only thing that could save her. Her master’s program at Bard College — overseen by Dawn Upshaw, herself a soprano who charted a maverick course in contemporary music — was more grounded, guiding Bullock toward the in-depth study of poetic song texts.
But then came the career-obsessed hothouse of the Juilliard School, where she quickly became a much-hyped star in the preprofessional artist diploma program. Appearing in the title role of Massenet’s Cinderella opera, “Cendrillon,” in 2014, she found herself overwhelmed by the character, who loses a parent — Bullock’s father died when she was 9 — and is subjected to ridicule and abuse.
She began to struggle with a psychosomatic ailment that caused her to gag while singing — even sometimes while speaking. She suffered from depression and anxiety; she would weep uncontrollably before performances. These issues have trailed her for years, only beginning to resolve after intensive therapy, including the much-debated post-traumatic stress disorder treatment technique called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR.
“As wretched as this gagging has been, not knowing if anything will come out,” she said, “it’s a liberation that seems to continually be happening. The stuff I’m performing, and the stuff in my life, it needs to be very much linked.”
Artistic expression and personal pain have also been connected in her Josephine Baker project. Its choreographic elements — stylized versions of the sensual banana dances and Charlestons that were sensations for Baker — exposed the sensitivity Bullock had long felt about presenting herself in what she considered stereotypically black attitudes. “It has always been, or was, a fear of mine to be considered animalistic in any way onstage,” she said.
The dancing, which took Baker’s sly, sexy originals and turned them ominous and apelike, offered Bullock a catharsis that has affected her approach to her work overall. “I don’t need to be presenting myself as some kind of upright presence at all times,” she said. “I don’t have to have this facade of glamour and grace.”
In January she performed the Baker evening, now called “Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine,” on the grand staircase leading up from the Great Hall of the Met Museum, stalking the steps under harsh floodlights. Her approach to her Met residency reflected her mother’s instruction when she was just starting out: “Make sure your work is making a difference for the betterment of the world.”
The teeming series at the Met also included settings of the words of black artists from the South and fresh versions of traditional slave songs; “El Niño,” John Adams’ multicultural exploration of the Nativity story; a program connecting Langston Hughes’ New York to the city’s present; and Hans Werner Henze’s oratorio about a runaway slave.
“It was the fullest realization of what a Met residency could look like,” said Limor Tomer, general manager of the Met’s live performance program. “In terms of the number of projects we did, the diversity of projects, topics, audiences, levels of engagement.”
“Zauberland,” like the Met programs, finds in older art a lens with which to view contemporary events, however ambiguously. Directed by Katie Mitchell, the piece opens up Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe” and inserts additional songs, with music by Bernard Foccroulle and texts by Martin Crimp; Cédric Tiberghien is the sensitive pianist throughout.
The fractured narrative may suggest the plight of a Middle Eastern refugee fleeing to Europe; it may express the wandering thoughts of a concert singer who’s been following the news a bit too closely; it may all be a dream. Despite bursts of activity, “Zauberland” has its blurry longueurs. But Bullock is magnetic as a figure of confused passivity, a woman manhandled by the forces of history.
“Knowing that it would be for her, I knew it could be minimal,” Foccroulle said of his music in an interview. “I didn’t have to overwrite, being able to trust her dramatic presence.”
Now, the main question before Bullock is how she will deploy that memorable presence. As she told a group of students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama here, “I’m in a phase in my life when I can pick my projects.”
Tiberghien said he was hoping to explore with her modern corners of the art song repertory, such as Olivier Greif’s “Chants de l’Âme” and Messiaen’s “Harawi.” Those who love opera might fantasy-cast her in repertory standards, and Mitchell is working with her on a production of Handel’s “Theodora” for a coming season at the Royal Opera. But, as Foccroulle said, “it would be a pity if she was just an operatic soprano.”
Tomer, at the Met, said, “I hope she will be one of these artists who has the freedom to choose.” Sellars commented, “Her path is going to be our path.”
For her part, Bullock said she was both drawn to and recoiled from the kind of projects that have made her reputation: those that have brought her mind and body to uncomfortable places, that have carried the burden of often dark histories and asked us, her audience, to encounter and acknowledge them together.
“I so don’t want to use the performing arts as a therapy for myself,” she said, “because that’s not how I feel it. But at the same time, I cannot deny that when I look at the great work that has been written, these individuals were pouring themselves, all of themselves, into their work. And I want to embrace that.”
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