One of the San Francisco Symphony’s creative partners, the star soprano reaches across continents and centuries to better understand the human experience. Graham Holoch
One of the San Francisco Symphony’s creative partners, the star soprano reaches across continents and centuries to better understand the human experience. (Graham Holoch)

Julia Bullock’s Empathy is Her Superpower in the Classical Music World

Julia Bullock’s Empathy is Her Superpower in the Classical Music World

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n February, Julia Bullock stood on stage at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, excavating the depths of her soul. To truly convey to the audience the euphoria and heartache of Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, based on Rimbaud’s poems about spiritual transcendence, drug addiction and homelessness, she had to tap into painful parts of her coming-of-age story.

“The act of going through all the imagery emotionally and then seeing where [it] takes me psychologically, that’s how I can hook into it and deliver it,” the star soprano explained to me backstage during rehearsal, just weeks before the COVID-19 shutdown hit. “Otherwise, it turns into some weird exercise of trying not to be a human being—and that I can’t tolerate.”

At 33 years old, Bullock has become a luminary in the classical music world for her unique ability to capture a piece’s gripping emotional qualities in a way that transcends time, space and cultural barriers. She is a master of connection, digging deep into material to convey universal human experiences and emotions that lay within, refracting them through her prismatic voice to illuminate their beauty.

This ability to connect pieces of music through their emotional cores is also her strength as a curator. While praised for her innovative juxtapositions of Western classical music and traditionally Black American genres such as jazz, Bullock resists the idea that she does so simply to be different. (“I don’t ever want anything I’m presenting to the public to come off as me trying to be clever, because I feel the relationships in an explicit way,” she says.)

Rather, Bullock's genre-mixing, cross-cultural programming is the output of a passionate listener and student of history with omnivorous tastes. Discussing a program called Lineage that she curated for San Francisco Symphony’s Soundbox—its series of intimate, experimental performances—she points easily to the links between Nina Simone and Johann Sebastian Bach.

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“You can hear very explicitly in all of her improvisations that she’s referencing Bach, and she studied classical piano. The reason she started singing and playing jazz is because she needed a job,” she says of Simone, laughing in disbelief at this factoid. “Very practical!”

It’s this adventurous ear that’s earned Bullock prestigious opportunities. She’s worked extensively with contemporary composers such as John Adams, snagging prominent roles in his operas Girls of the Golden West and Doctor Atomic. More recently, she was an artist-in-residence at the San Francisco Symphony and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she spent the 2018–19 season exploring the legacies of Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes and resurrecting the songs of enslaved people. Calling her residency at the Met historic, Vanity Fair’s Keziah Weir applauded Bullock’s unique ability to “inject each note she sings with a sense of grace and urgency.”

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he coronavirus pandemic has, for all practical purposes, thwarted what was due to be an exciting year for Bullock at the San Francisco Symphony. Bullock’s Soundbox program originally slated for April was canceled, along with all Symphony live events until at least July of 2021. (Audiences may see some of the Lineage material in a future online program.)

This year, the Symphony’s new musical director Esa-Pekka Salonen stepped into his role, and he enlisted Bullock and seven other interdisciplinary creatives as his “brain trust” of creative partners poised to help take the organization in new directions of embracing technology and a diversity of genres and cultural perspectives. A major showcase with them was supposed to kick off the season.

Instead, the Symphony has forayed into podcasts and digital video. (“No matter how we spin it, we are not an orchestra,” Salonen recently told The New York Times. “We are a media house.”) Yet despite these limitations, Salonen continues to experiment. On Saturday, Nov. 14, he, Bullock and the other creative partners will star in a digital premiere of composer Nico Muhly’s new piece, Throughline, which functions more like a set of miniature concertos that bridge the digital divide. The performance will stream online and broadcast on KQED Channel 9.

Julia Bullock backstage at Davies Symphony Hall. (Graham Holoch)

Nearly nine months since our first interview, I catch up with Bullock via Zoom. Born in St. Louis and previously based in New York City, she now lives in Munich, Germany, where she’s been sheltering in place with her husband, conductor Christian Reif. Typically, the couple is apart for much of the year because of work travel. “Some days have been great and feeling relatively normal—or not normal, but just living my life,” she says. “And other days have felt incredibly disruptive. Feelings of frustration and irritation and discontent are equally as present as feeling grateful for being able to be with my husband.”

Bullock’s measured response is one of someone who’s visited her darkest places and spent years climbing back into the light, thanks to music and therapy. When we first met, in February, I asked Bullock why she’s so candid about her past struggles with addiction and mental health. In interviews, she’s discussed going to rehab at age 20, and how several years ago, her singing career was nearly derailed because of a psychosomatic ailment that caused her to gag uncontrollably, sometimes mid-song or mid-speech.

It turns out she went public with this information by accident. She opened up about it to New York Times journalist Zachary Woolfe during a cab ride in between interviews, she recalls, not realizing her confession would get published. But once it did, she found herself feeling not embarrassed, but freed from her secret.

“It was really moving, hearing from other young performers who are struggling with similar things and afraid to talk about it—even amongst the friends, the teachers,” she says. “The reason you become a musician is because you’re allowing yourself to open up and be vulnerable and relate to people. But you can’t actually relate to people truly unless you’re bringing yourself into the room. You don’t have to present some perfect vision of yourself.”

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hat grounded perspective has helped Bullock stay relatively calm during the pandemic. While scientists say COVID's spread is slowing in Germany, most of her friends and family and many of her collaborators live in the United States, which has some of the globe’s worst COVID-19 infection and death rates. Bullock has made the tough decision to not return across the Atlantic for the foreseeable future.

“Part of this period I feel is about survival in the most literal sense, in a severe sense. I can’t be casual—and I don’t want anyone I love and care about to be casual about their lives right now,” she says. “There are certain decisions I’ve made about not traveling to the States because I didn’t want to put my life at risk and, honestly, I didn’t feel it was right putting any Black lives at risk to make some art. It seemed wildly irresponsible, and I’m glad I stood by that decision.”

Julia Bullock. (Graham Holoch)

Bullock has given only a small handful of live performances this year, mostly in front of camera crews without an audience, but she's been booked and busy with virtual concerts at places like the Dutch National Opera and UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances. She’s also found a new creative outlet in singing at home, with her husband on piano. The duo has sent videos of their songs to friends and family as a way to connect across distance, and it's made Bullock think of ways she can continue to express herself until she eventually returns to the stage before a live audience.

“The idea of an album now, as a work of art as an independent piece, is something that’s certainly been on my mind in recent months,” she says. “Creating something that speaks to this moment, but also feels timeless in some way.”

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It anyone’s up to the task, it’s her. Bullock’s superpower lies in reaching across centuries and continents, and feeling into the love, yearning and loss at the core of the human experience. During a time of global tragedy, her empathetic, delicate and soulful approach is more necessary than ever to help us make sense of the chaotic year that is 2020.