Julia Bullock

Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

— I want you to recall your childhood in St. Louis, and what was the first epiphanic moment or motivational moment that got you started on your path in music?

— In classical music I think it was through these recordings and DVDs that my step-father gave me, but I would say for the performing arts more generally I would go to my mother’s tap classes and I think most of my exposure to music really came through dance and physical movement. It was really interesting as I was getting exposed to more classical music some of the earliest DVDs that I watched were Peter Sellars productions which do have this choreographic element to them, and although it is highly stylised, it also felt, or at least most of Peter’s work that I saw at that time, it felt that the gestures were there as part of a ritual and also to help people to see what they were hearing, and I guess as someone coming to classical music late in life it was really transformative and helpful because there was so much information that I was able to get at one time that wasn’t just about what sonically I was hearing, it was activating all parts of my being. In some ways I do think it was Theodora, the production that Peter did at the Glyndebourne Festival with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Dawn Upshaw, that really made me think this is a medium that could keep my attention for a long time. Also because it wasn’t just about the voice, although I was already starting to fall in love with the singers like [5:18 UNCLEAR] and who else?…Cecilia Bartoli, Frederika von Stade, Kiri te Kanawa… there was a lot of fantastic voices swirling around in my head starting around the age 17, 18 and then watching these DVDs really…

— And when you say late does that mean before this age you didn’t have any inclination to listen to music or to be involved with it?

— Well, not classical music, no I just didn’t grow up with it. I was interested with musical theatre for sure, and some of that’s because that’s what my mother knew and that’s what she took us to go see, and with dance classes and this and that. I started to take voice lessons, and started taking them seriously, later on in high school. Peter and the Wolf — I listened to that a lot because we had that on record and I listened to that on repeat! Other than that piece, there just wasn’t… even if we were just taken to the symphony in school I was impressed by the material but I wasn’t… it wasn’t impacting me yet. When my step-father brought these works into my life I think that’s where things started to click. Also, because I was starting to get more interested in poetry and how that was brought to life there was a lot that was kind of coming together as I was maturing as a young woman and self-actualising as a person. Classical music wasn’t so much about the performing, it was also about studying something and studying… there was way more that I was considering than just how beautiful does my voice sound, how gracious am I coming across. Classical music was starting to offer, I felt was going to be able to offer something that was deeper.

— In your future career you usually involve many arts, blend them into music, but in your beginning how did music stand out in comparison with other arts, or was it always coming to you in a hybrid form?

— I think yes it was always in a hybrid form, absolutely. Maybe that’s why now when I think about programming I’m not thinking so much about genre or even medium, I’m interested in how all of these different ways that people communicate unique and subjective points of view, how are they call interconnected, because many times we’re looking at the same kind of subject matter but addressed in different ways, and I find that really fascinating.

Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

— Could you remember the moment when you actually began to sing and be a vocalist, and how does it differ from starting to learn as an instrumentalist? What does being yourself, and your voice being your instrument, what kind of sensation does it give to you from the start?

— That’s a hard one… it’s a simple question in some ways. From the first moment you’re exiting the womb you’re expressing yourself with your voice in some ways, your crying or making small sounds and it’s out of a need to communicate something, and as one’s skills for communication get more refined of course the expression itself can get more refined. I think in my own development what singing has provided is a space for me to find more freedom, and by that I mean it’s a place for me to seek out a body and mind that exists without fear but also exists in a way that does not cause any harm or destruction. I think that just as a human being it’s a wonderful practice. The fact that singing kind of brings me back to those two very basic things always, it’s amazing that seeking that ultimate freedom, that liberation, is never-ending. The difference between instrumentalists, I guess I can’t really fully speak to that, I play very rudimentary piano just to learn my music and I do play percussion. I don’t know… I think we have all sorts of… I’m not going to… I know so many instrumentalists talk about wanting to sound like the human voice but there’s a reason why we have all these different tools, that we’ve created all these different tools at our disposal to share ideas and feelings and so… I don’t know if there is so much of a difference here because the… one thing, I went through a period definitely when I was in college where I would talk about «the voice», like my voice is some separate entity from myself, and I had a teacher once say to me like «This is your voice by the way», she really wanted to make sure that I wasn’t dissociating, and I don’t know why I was doing that, it was like some weird… trying to pretend like it wasn’t actually as personal… the expression of what I was doing wasn’t actually as personal as it quite physically was.

— Well maybe that’s the difference because you can’t actually have this problem when you have a trumpet, you definitely are not the trumpet you are playing.

— [LAUGHS] Yes, yes, yes, sure, sure, no but you want to be… I’m still giving, as a trumpeter does or as any instrumentalist does, your mind is giving your body certain directions and you want your body to follow through and the success of a performance is kind of on how clear those directions are, and how open that flow of communication is, and your gears are running together, and how fluidly all that is happening. [LAUGHS]

— Let’s finish the subject but it’s one of the anthropological delves that I’m trying to make. Well, I wanted to talk about your studies, as I understand the Eastman School of Music is also in New York, right? Like the Juilliard…

— Upstate, it’s in upstate New York.

— You moved after St. Louis to New York, and studied with Dawn Upshaw? Could you describe her as your mentor, and secondly the influence of New York and its arts scene on you as a personality and a musician?

— I went to Eastman because a friend of mine was going to apply and she was one of the young artist programme that I was a part of in St Louis, she was one of the most talented singers, and her mother played with the orchestra and I thought, I’m sure this is the best school so I went. Then at the end of my time at Eastman I decided to only apply for Eastman School of Music for my Masters and for Bard College, and the reason I looked that up also was because a friend of mine said «you know, this curriculum looks super-interesting, I think I’m going to apply this year, maybe you should too.». It was run by Dawn Upshaw and honestly I didn’t remember Dawn’s name at that time even though the performance she gave in that Theodora was so important to me, so when I saw her face it was like «Oh my gosh, it’s that woman!» The curriculum just seemed really special because it was about developing the whole artist, the whole singer, not just one aspect whether that be the voice or the side that’s, you know, looking at music theory or history, you know, musicology, there was not like one thing that was being prioritised. Every single aspect of the development of a performer was being taken into consideration. I was so happy that I was accepted to be there and those were still some of the happiest years of my life looking back on them, and also some of the most informative, because I was kind of burnt out by the time I left Eastman because it’s a very strict, intense music education institution, and Bard was almost like an artist’s refuge the way that we studied poetry… our core classes were, I should say, the way we studied repertoire in general, was organised by poet so we would look at… we’d have a group of songs on Goethe and we would read a novel of his, then we would read various poems, settings of these poems of different composers, and we would have to memorise two….well, we learned two or three songs a week, we’d have to memorise one of them, we’d have to also memorise and present a recitation of one of the poems in translation. It was very intensive and I’d never taken on that much repertoire at one time but it was such an incredible way to just organise myself with the repertoire and so it got me thinking about the… again not the performance, but the content and… I guess the patterns in all the material. We had a section on Verlaine, on Emily Dickenson, and Dawn she was only there… she visited three times a semester during that period and it’s still very hard for me even now to think about how she has influenced and impacted my life because in some ways she was being very directly involved, my introduction to Peter Sellars was through her, she took a group of us who had recently graduated to the Ojai Festival the year she was the music director — or artistic director — and he was there working on another piece with her and I went up and introduced myself after I performed and told him how much his work meant to me and we had a wonderful exchange and four months later I started working with him. That’s just one example. Some of the most important conversations around — I mean I admitted some of my greatest fears about performing with her and the way that she dealt with that is… Dawn never wants to… I feel like she was always just trying to be as real and ground as possible and never wanted to hold herself on any sort of precipice [STRANGE CHOICE OF WORD — I WONDER IF SHE MEANT PEDESTAL?], and she didn’t want to hold the art, like the work that we had to do, on any kind of precipice, she never held any performer, any writer… I mean it just all felt really grounded like we should be able to wrestle and work without pretence. That was through example but also the distance that she kept from us in another way was also really interesting and helpful because I felt I had to continue to take on the responsibility to answer some questions for myself that no-one was really going to be able to give me.

Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

— Would you say be grounded that she gave you like a vaccine against the star culture and this kind of «ego explosion» that a singer can get into?

— [LAUGHS] Yes, no, I know you’re asking seriously, yes I guess. She would never put it that way but nothing we were doing was about career development, even though there was one class where they brought in many guests who told us about their careers. A lot of them started out as singers but the some of them went into artist management, some of them went into being dramaturges or running entire arts organisations, and being in that programme and working in the way that we did, it helped me understand that I wasn’t… I was just really in love with the field of music itself. I didn’t need necessarily to be a performer in order to have a career in music. It affirmed for me the fact how much I actually loved this field, how important I felt that it was for culture at large, that there was nothing really that I needed to….I went through a period… I don’t know, I guess feeling like… or apologising for the fact that I was going into the entertainment business for a job and I was worried that it wasn’t going to be providing enough of a service for the people. We were challenging each other, like my classmates, we were challenging each other in the most beautiful way and the most real way, but I agree with you there was just no… she is just the least glam… she’s not interested in the glamorous aspects of classical music at all, and she also never asked us to model ourselves after her, I mean that’s another thing she was just trying to help us understand what made us tick and really turned us on about making music, and that the study of music is what was so important and going back to that was really the thing that was sustainable, it was not about pursuing a hot flashy career.

— And the New York arts scene, and perhaps may be combined with the question, how does a performer build this context and knowledge of music existing, both modern and the previous ages or eras of music?

— I was really glad that I waited to move to New York city and that also felt like a pretty natural organic move because my voice teacher at the time was teaching at Bard’s programme and every Friday we went into the city to take our voice lessons and he knew that when I was done with Bard I wanted to move to New York to continue with my voice teacher and I felt that Juilliard in that way did make… it was a kind of career choice. I felt that Juilliard was really the place where you could get a network of people around you, it was like a pre-professional programme is really what I felt that it was. There is so much happening in New York [LAUGHS] it is very hard for a young musician to go there and not get overwhelmed and distracted by all that is possible. By the time that I went there I already… I was fairly clear in my mind about like the repertoire I was attracted to and why, and it was not specific to genre, it was not… yeah I don’t know, I think I was just… I had already kind of identified how I wanted to… in some ways how I wanted to use my voice as a creative person, and I wasn’t getting thrown or lured in by the fact that Juilliard was right across from the Metropolitan Opera, because I felt that even then there wasn’t really a place I fully understood… I mean I’ve had some amazing experiences being at the Met watching performances, but it was not… it was never a place where I was like, oh I really see myself here, and that was okay because there’s so much possible, I mean you see in New York that there are so many ways to make music and there are so many people with whom to make music.

— Do you mean to say that you were discovering the avant-garde or niche places that were hidden from…?

— No because that was already introduced in Bard’s program. There are so many parts of the New York scene that I still… I don’t consider myself an avant-garde vocalist in any way because I still use a bel canto technique even when I’m singing music that was written this year, and there are other singers who are way more adventurous in terms of their vocalism. I’m not sure if I’m answering your question! [LAUGHS]

Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

— I guess, as I understand, you just explored what was there and tried to self-identify with the things that most interested you in all the things that were available? I’ve never been to New York but I can compare it to London I guess. There are some similarities to London probably.

—  Sure, oh sure, sure.

— Can I ask how easy or difficult it is for a young vocalist who has graduated to go on a roster, to star an international career? Your bio says that you started a US tour, so my question is how did you get started professionally, how did you build up your gigs, your shows, and how did it all start on a big level?

— My first big job was working with Peter Brook in the South American tour of his Magic Flute, and I only had a small rehearsal period in Paris and then I was on the road for two months, like right before… so I was late coming into Juilliard by two months because of this tour. But my audition even for this piece was… like….I took that audition the day before I found out I was accepted into Juilliard and it happened at Juilliard, and it was through a colleague of mine who was already working on the piece who was at Bard, so that was kind of one big thing but maybe was a little bit separate. The recital tour, I auditioned for Young Concert Artists — it’s a non-profit organisation and they manage young artists at the start of their careers, they actually managed Dawn early on, Emmanuel Ax was with them, they have a wonderful wonderful track record of international artists that they’ve managed for a few years right as they were starting and one of the first things that they do is they have relationships with regional orchestras and also presenters of recitals across the United States, and so I went on a maybe ten or twelve city recital tour in 2014 and that ended in New York. When I’m talking about Dawn as a mentor she doesn’t write recommendation letters for anybody but I was told about Young Concert Artists from a coach that I’d met at Juilliard, he worked at the Met but he came to Juilliard to coach a few of us, he said «do you know about Young Concert Artists, you should apply, Dawn did it», and I said «yeah, I don’t know», there was another organisation in New York that did a similar thing, and he said «no, no this is the right one I feel for you», and Dawn was so gracious to write me a letter to do that and after three rounds in the competition Dawn was also in the final rounds, she was on the panel and she told me afterwards that she kept herself completely out of the discussion but even if she had voted against me I would have still gotten it! That was kind of the launching I guess and they also then helped to… they took a very low commission so as I was starting out it was wonderful just to be able to keep most of the money that I earned and they managed me for four or five years and helped me transition to the now commercial manager that I have. It was very hard to leave them because they were also not interested in trying to push a big career onto me in any way, they really were just… we would talk through every single decision together and see if it was something that I wanted to put my energy and time towards, that was really it. It was a lot happening over a couple of years at Juilliard with recitals, there were a couple of song competitions that I won, and also meeting Peter Sellars.

— Actually, speaking like you mentioned this balance that the agency was trying to build, my question is, from that time and till now how you actually work on this work-life balance and how many projects you take on and who helps you to decide how much work to take during the year?

Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

— My work-life balance was not always great [LAUGHS] but now I’m making more decisions with and because of my husband. Most of the projects that I want to be involved in are because of either the piece itself, the music itself, or certain individuals that I want to get to know. I love having on-going creative relationships with people, so instead of just turning up to work on one project working with one director and group of people it’s like building a community of collaborators just feels grounding and really satisfying.

— Yes, just because I have met for example with Nikolai Lugansky and he said that he has 260 concerts per year, but when I thought about you I thought of you as an individual who has a lot going on but still I imagine you have found this right balance, you are not the constant performer you have your life and many things so I was very impressed by this.

— Jakob also, his career is quite different I think if I was performing maybe a repertoire that was not so disparate and also if I wasn’t constantly learning new things, I mean I think Jakob is able to perform as much as he is because he’s doing a lot of repetition of repertoire, right now I’m still… and honestly this past season and a half I’ve now been able to repeat a lot of rep which feels so good but up until very recently almost everything I’ve done has been a premiere or at least new for me, and also the styles have been vastly different so I like giving myself a little more time to close out with a project, take a rest and then regroup and gather my energies for the next thing. We’ll see, I think also I’m like my technique is getting stronger, also just mentally I feel I’m getting… it’s not that I’m taking myself less seriously [LAUGHS] that’s not the case, but I think I’m able to just trust, I’m able to trust myself a little more now. There was definitely a time when I thought I had to… even going into rehearsals I felt that I had to have everything almost performance ready instead of saying, you know what, this rehearsal time is also for me to figure things out. My ideas about how I need to present myself publicly, I mean outside of the privacy of my own home, have changed a fair amount and allowing just the process of working through something in a group… that’s actually been really really wonderful [LAUGHS]. There’s a perfectionist side of me that really has no… you want to have a genuinely deep understanding of what you’re doing and what you’re after and be conscious of it, but the perfectionism side… there’s really not a lot of space for that, if you are wanting to be a musician there has to be room for a genuine creative spirit and something that is improvised and created in the moment.

— Let’s talk about your collaborators, and Peter Sellars is a good figure to start with, I mean I’ve heard so many things about him he seems an extraordinary figure, so you have worked with him actually on Indian Queen in Russia, yes, on Girls of the Golden West, on… what else… La Passion de Simone, could you describe him, your impressions of him and maybe each project separately?

— Peter Sellars generally…[LAUGHS], well first off he’s an intense human being, he has an intense love for everything, he has an intense focus on everything and he is as demanding of those around him as he is of himself. When I first met him I held him in such esteem or reverence I just wanted to give him everything he was asking for, but in actuality he was wanting to make sure that I was like really connecting and… just really connecting with and like delivering the truth within myself. I know when some people have worked with him, and actually this really did happen for me too I think, I ended up pushing myself too far because of the extreme places he was allowing me to go. He’s not somebody who teaches technique, he didn’t study to be a director, originally he trained as a puppeteer early on in his life, he’s no more manipulative than any other person on the planet or any other director, but he’s a very persuasive person and if you do not know yourself well yet, he will ask you to unlock and unlock and unlock things that if you’re not prepared to carry I think can become incredibly overwhelming. Working with him and also Teodor at the same time was just.. I was so overwhelmed during that time in Perm and in Moscow. It ended up becoming… almost everyone in the cast ended up losing several pounds during that time, even Peter… looking back on the time it was like one of the most insane periods of work, also it was one of the most extraordinary, I mean I learned and I continue to learn so much every time I work with Peter. Even in Perle Noir where we’re about to… right now we’re supposed to be rehearsing this in Paris, he got the original team together to work on this but he pretty much had no involvement up until recently with the project, even though we had continued to perform it and I had continued to shape it with Tyshawn and with a few other people, so I was a little worried going into rehearsals with him because so much of what I know of him in rehearsal is like, he has an idea of what he wants and you work it out in yourself to give it, and of course the more that you bring, like the more awareness that any performer brings to a performance [43:53 UNCLEAR] is waiting for him to give full direction, he really does want to have complete engagement with the material. He doesn’t come in with… he has a lot of ideas about the pieces but he is also building the work on [44:12 UNCLEAR] and the personalities that are there and how they’re digesting the material. If you’re up for that intensity level there’s no… you can mark in a rehearsal vocally but there’s no emotional marking [LAUGHS]…I don’t know, you can but it’s pretty much like he’s just waiting for you to work, that’s all.

Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

— How does he share with say John Adams or Teodor Currentzis, with the musical director, how do they share the leadership?

— Peter and Teo had, I think still have, a lot of mutual respect for one another, but for Indian Queen this was also the first time they had worked together with Teo’s choir and his orchestra, so they were getting to know each other as well, there was some of… without disclosing too much, they both have very clear visions and they want people to understand and get it, whatever it is that they’re seeing. The times that they were at odds were… actually it was not super-often, most of the time they were building on each other’s ideas. Most of the time. There were few times when I had to ignore both of them because they were [LAUGHS]…you can’t satisfy everybody and again the goal was always just to have a fully alive human being on stage. That was it. A fully engaged, fully alive human being on stage and they would go to any length to get there.

— With John I guess they worked so much together they could be called friends by this time?

— Yes, yes, John and Peter they were very close collaborators, they’ve had years though where they also did not speak, and those periods have ebbed and flowed over the decades. Neither of them is shy about talking about that but they don’t say harsh words against each other, even though during those times it was like we just needed space. I think that Peter just takes John’s work so seriously and I respond to his work also just so… I feel that I get what John’s after in his writing and those are some of the happiest days working with both of them. But we didn’t talk that much, at least John and I we don’t really talk that much about how to deliver his material, a lot of endless [48:17 UNCLEAR] a lot of it was just… he’d maybe share a thought or two or just say “Oh, I love that!«…I don’t know, because also John and Peter, the things that they made together wasn’t just about the stuff they put on stage, they also, you know, Peter worked on getting these librettos together and I think he was a source of great inspiration for John, and John’s written some of the greatest music of his life because of how either Peter gave the material to John or suggested a topic to explore, I mean it was a deep and true collaboration and relationship with all of the complexities.

— Let’s turn to your preparation, for example could you describe firstly how do you work on your character in The Indian Queen, it’s not a modern composer although I know that Peter has also used the sources of the Brazilian writer, but still the opera is by Purcell, and how do you work on the character in John Adams, Kitty Oppenheimer, or Dame Shirley in Girls, do you have to read a lot about the history of your character or do you trust the music and libretto to guide you, and when does your own interpretation come into life and so on?

— I guess my primary focus is on the source material that is in front of me, so the score for sure. In terms of finding a character, like when I think about my own character, it’s like that has to do with the repetition in my behaviour, that has to do with how I verbalise, things that I say and the thoughts that accompany the things that I say, and all those feelings, and the patterning of that, that’s my character, Julia Bullock’s character. So when I’m looking at any new… when I’m trying to acquaint myself with a new person and considering their character, I’m looking for patterning, repetition and a lot of it though is their use of language and then how it is that they express the vocal line, how that’s expressed that language, and how they cadence certain things, where there’s emphasis on things. It’s through a lot of repetition of saying the words, singing the words, just singing the melodies. Then of course I do research on the characters themselves if there is any historical referencing, which most of the time there is, even for fictional characters there is usually some work or you want to understand the political… you want to understand the context, I do at least, I hate the idea of being in a state of ignorance going into a project is really frightening to me, and also just feels irresponsible because it is time that I’m taking and asking people to set aside and that’s also time that I myself am setting aside in order to reflect upon something. I want to make sure that what I’m… wanting to make sure that any question that I have about what I’m doing, want to be on a path of finding it and being able to answer it. So, yes, there are times of course that I don’t have everything sorted out for myself by the time we get to opening, but that’s also like part of finding, it’s like the repetition of performing something the more things you discover there as well. I think a lot is happening at one time, the way that I prepare the music is very organised and that definitely has a… even just doing the translations of the text, even if it’s in English I always write out or always have the text printed separate away from the music, because it’s a way for me to memorise but it helps me understand what is the source material.

— Do you use the acting, like the Stanislavski’s theory of acting interpretation of your character as an actor?

— No, I don’t really have a way that I follow, I never studied acting in that way. I take myself, though, through almost every iteration that I can possibly conceive of in my own mind about how something could be delivered while still maintaining the structure of the music. I try to put myself through the paces of that because, one, it ensures I don’t get locked into one way of being on stage, and also it sheds any fears that I have about needing to get the ideal performance because I know that actually I have a path myself that I’m wanting to go on and if I stray from it in a way that’s fine because as long as I’m continuing to veer back towards the point.

— But when people like Katie Mitchell work with you, where I saw you, she was definitely looking at it as a theatre performance more I think than a musical show, so how do you adapt when you are, say, the only singing person among the acting company?

— Well, as long as there’s enough time to rehearse it’s all fine, I mean Katie loves music but the way she prepares things is not through the musical material, it’s through story-telling, and the story-telling for her is, I feel, through language primarily because that’s her discipline, that’s her study. I definitely felt a level of stress working on Zauberland because there wasn’t as much time to just work musically on certain things, but again it’s like… Katie was so aware, so hyper-aware of every single person in the room and their needs, she is not dismissive of anything or anyone, at least as I have sensed, and even if she is feeling a level of impatience she never lets herself become more impatient than the performers. She’s a tremendous… control is not the right word because it’s not self-control… there’s a generosity in the way that she holds space in a rehearsal room that is unique, it’s unique to her and I don’t know if that’s because she’s a woman, I don’t know if it was just because of the circumstances because it was a small piece and the most wild-minded person she had to deal with was me essentially. The times I was feeling I was not going to be able to… no, actually I never felt like I was not going to be able to perform the piece, it was just thinking I wish we had a little more time because she is such a… there is such vision in what she wants to accomplish and I have, and this is one thing that she said to me very early, «Does it make you feel good to control this aspect of rehearsal?», and I was like yeah because I’m super-controlling and she said, «Well, no no, that’s just bullshit terminology that you’ve put on to yourself, I don’t think it is about you being controlling I think it’s because you want to perform with precision and when you cannot do that it feels like then you have to pick up from nothing and reshape everything again as quickly as possible so when something is not happening in a moment it’s just a disappointment because you’re thinking oh my God I have to create the magic again, or create the moment now again.» I felt very seen by her in that moment and also very respected because it’s okay to have that kind of insistence I think in your work, especially if it’s because you’re not wanting to waste time and you’re wanting to deliver the experience and like honour the material in the best way possible. It’s okay for that not to be a casual engagement.

Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

— From what you’re saying it seems that everybody who you have worked with gives you this freedom although asking for precision and having their own ideas and this still gave you this challenge to develop yourself in the ways that you didn’t expect you would?

— Absolutely.

— I wanted to ask about your artist-in-residence with the Metropolitan Museum of Art because just on the surface it seems an unusual position for a musician to be an artist in residence in an art museum. How did you structure the things that you came to do there? Did they give you carte blanche? How did music, and your commissions from composers to be performed in the museum, how did to blend into a museum which is mainly not about music?

— Right. There is a performing arts programming wing, not an official wing [LAUGHS] but there’s programming of music that has happened in the museum for several years, and a woman who took it over, I think maybe seven or eight years ago now, maybe longer do not quote me at all on that, Limor Tomer runs the MetLiveArts, the performing arts programming at the Met museum, and she’s had other artists-in-residence before, musicians, but some performing artists, but this is the first time that they’d ever had a singer and she came to know me because of that first recital tour, she came to the final performance in New York in 2014. She liked my programming for that recital and she asked my manager if I’d like to come to the Met and just take a walk through, and at that time I had no idea they even had live performances in the museum. I walked through with her, I proposed a couple of ideas and then we were running with one of them and then my schedule picked up in a certain way and we had to cancel it. Then I gave another recital at the Met museum itself with the Naumburg Foundation, because I’d won the song competition, and she of course was there for that and then called my managers immediately afterwards and said instead of having me do one programme, would I like to curate an entire season. I was like, I have no idea really what that means but okay! I went again to the Met, walked through all the galleries, took a bunch of notes and then spent about six months researching about the museum itself, its history, also canvassing my colleagues, friends — most of them within my age group — about repertoire they wanted to do or projects that they felt that didn’t have another place to perform and where the Met might be… well, they would have resources available to help them explore whatever subject matter they were interested in. I put together a huge number of proposals, that was one piece of it, and then I also put together a list of the themes that came to mind when I thought of a visual arts institution and also what that meant about me as a performer in a visual arts institution. Ideas around objectification, appropriation, exoticism, thinking about providing a voice for objects honestly, for things that did not have a voice, things that were silent. The list went on and on but any project that was dealing with that specific subject matter… the programmes that ended up getting selected were dealing with that subject matter, and also just depending on who was available to perform. What ended up being possible were these four initial programmes that dealt with the black American experience, because one thing also about being an artist-in-residence that I can now look upon is that you want to be aware of the place that you’re in residence, like where you’re housing yourself, but you also want to be aware of like where you are as an artist at the time and if there are any questions that you have that you want to like pursue, to go ahead and do them there, to like see if there are any parallels, anything that lays — could lay, could co-exist, so issues around identity were huge for me at that time and I feel so lucky, like the timing was incredible and the way that all of these programmes together honestly does feel [LAUGHS] like a miracle when I think about it. The exhibitions that were happening at that time at the museum, and also the people who were there working at the museum at that time were made available to me, I could not have had a more beautiful, fruitful, informative experience as a first-time in this place, and I never felt like okay this is one of the largest and most important arts institutions in the world, it never really crossed my mind until things like started getting into motion [LAUGHS] because it just wasn’t presented to me in that way, it was more it’s a space with some stuff in it, like how do you respond to it. One thing that she said to me, because I asked her what did she want to accomplish having a performing artist in a visual arts space, and she said I want to breakdown the threshold of entry into this museum. For whatever reason that statement really stuck with me. The things in the history of the Met that were also about like what art is collected, what art is preserved, and how is it presented to the public. For a major institution that’s a reflection of like how a culture is functioning, so when I… that left like a burning sensation in my chest reading about a certain exhibition that might have happened in the 1960s… it was like, there’s programming I can totally do around that that also I wanted to do independently. When I say it was kind of like a miracle moment of matching things, I could not have anticipated it.

Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

— In a way this project seems to feed into your position generally as a politically engaged musician. You are not seeing yourself as just an entertainer, you are part of several charities and have done concerts to support causes so it seems the project was also part of the black American singer’s legacy.

— The performers who I love the most, and really any artist who I love, they were very much conscious of the times they were living and wanted to engage fully, completely and fully with those times in one way or another. So I don’t feel that anything that I’m… I don’t mind being called political I think I would just say that I am… I want to use this medium for all that I can, and to ask as many questions as I can. I do feel that in the arts we’re able to get… we’re able to touch people and ask people very difficult things, there’s more space open to get that close whether you’re doing it through music, or with poetry or visual art, there’s more allowance to tap people [LAUGHS] there’s an allowance that’s made. Every artist I love does that and knows that. I do not have answers for things, like again I’m looking for patterns in things, I am frustrated by stuff that has to continue to be repeated like the stories of the sacrificial character, like why do we have to keep telling that story again and again in so many different formats. It’s really frustrating. It’s like we’re still creating work to talk about that. Okay, the only reason why I’m doing it is because I don’t know how better to engage with the world around me at this point. Also, performing brings me a lot of joy, the practice of making music I find to be such a serious one of learning how to listen and be present with people and not make assumptions about anything. That’s also part of why I continue to make music and, sure, if that makes me an activist-performer okay.

— Can we turn to present and future, for this year you are the artist-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony and we all look with excitement to your… to the whole opening season with Salonen and your collaborative partnership, so I guess, and without disclosing the things that are still secret to us, what is your experience of being with the San Francisco Symphony and what are your plans for your position as a collaborative partner?

— A lot is still being figured out, they’ve never had a group of collaborators before like this. There are a couple of us who have been a part of artists collectives, Claire Chase is a wonderful flautist, she started the ICE ensemble, and I’m currently a part of AMOC, and truthfully we really don’t yet know how this group of collaborative artists is going to influence the Symphony, or what our ultimate role is going to be there. I think there are some of us who want us to have a way more active and involved role with them, because we desire it, but my main excitement about this even if over the course of the next three years it ends up not being all super-satisfying or even possible, I don’t know, I just love that people there are understanding that they don’t have, like there’s no one person that they can hear from to make decisions about what classics need to be performed or even what art classics are. I love that they are just want to base their work on what San Francisco are asking themselves as an arts institution, what role they can provide in the community of San Francisco, not just about like how do we get them into the hall, they’re now asking more questions about what they can give to people. I love that and we’ll see if through programming, through education, through community engagement, whatever that may be, we’ll see how that all plays out, but the fact that the questions are being asked in itself I think is a huge deal. That they aren’t just trying to go about it on their own is also amazing.

— What is your impression of Esa-Pekka as an artistic leader, I mean how does he convey his ideas and what do you think he’s up to and how do you feel San Francisco will shape under him?

— First and foremost he’s just a very serious musician, he’s an unassuming person and honestly I think he’s… I’m just getting to know him myself so it’s hard for me to make any statements really about him, but he hired me for [LAUGHS] it took the two of us five years to actually be able to get on stage together, he hired me to sing Anne Trulove at Aix-en-Provence but then he had to pull out of those performances and it took us until just recently in San Francisco to perform together.

Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

— So, it was your first performance with him?

— Yes, it was, yes. [LAUGHS] We knew a lot about each other and had high hopes of the work we’d be able to make together, but we had no idea how it would turn out [LAUGHS]. He is a very ambitious person but he also doesn’t want to… he doesn’t push people, he’s not like a… he is not a taskmaster, he is not… he doesn’t drive… I think like if an amazing moment happens he’s so happy about it but he also really… maybe it’s just because I know a lot of people make jokes about Finnish people and how reserved they are, but when I say he’s unassuming like he doesn’t… I have never felt that he has an agenda, and he wants some great things but he has no agenda whatsoever. [LAUGHS] It’s such an interesting quality to be around because most of the people I’ve collaborated with thus far, they’re so driven and so vocal about what the goal is. Esa-Pekka lets things be.

— So in a way the goal might be found through the years to come, right?

— I think absolutely and I have no… yes, absolutely! [LAUGHS] Honestly, the programming that is getting planned I’m excited about and it will be diverse and pretty exciting… yeah, we’re really figuring out how to make this work and there’s not a set… nothing is set yet.

— Do you think that all these people who are considered the tech community are going to come to get involved, because the media is saying that probably they hope there would be this new blend between the musicians community and the tech community in San Francisco, do you think it’s…?

— Honestly, I hope so because many of the people developing… like the people I know in the tech world they are so excited about the arts, yes a lot of it is about innovation, but it’s also about like engagement. It seems to me that most of them are super-psyched about music and of course understand the importance of music. Now, are they going to want to play at finances [LAUGHS] I don’t know. I hope so. I hope that there’s a legitimate investment in both sides.

— I’m also excited about it because I wanted to ask him if the orchestra can invite me as an anthropologist for the year, because I wanted to see how this new type of orchestra organisation takes place, and I thought of asking him if I could come in one of the seasons in the future…

— Yes…

— …I’m also excited about it. Well kind of to wrap it up I wanted to ask about the audiences and your experience of working in different countries, like say Russia would be interesting to me, how did you find working in Russia compared to Europe, are the countries… basically three areas of your work, Europe, let’s put Russia as a different category, and USA. What is the difference in terms of working atmosphere and the audiences’ responses?

— I’ll start with my first home I guess, in the United States I know there’s a love of entertainment, and New York city I feel is a particular place, they’re so knowledgeable and I feel very much at home there. I feel like I actually, you know, most of the times that I think of New York city I think of it as a place to present existing work, not necessarily a place to create it, but I’ve been given opportunity after opportunity to really create things there, and not just have a platform to perform it but also have it received so that feels unique. Live performance, I shouldn’t say all live performance but at least within the classical music sphere, is not a part of day to day life for people and it’s a very specialised thing, some people feel that they can really just leave it and pretend like it doesn’t exist, so that is very different than Europe, well as you said we’re putting Russia in a different category. With Europe I feel that the arts are given, well the performing arts and the classical arts are very much supported and incorporated into people’s day to day lives, and I feel that there is more support there, and quite literally physically and financially there is [LAUGHS] but it is not something that is specialised or kept to one side, it is something that is there for everyone and it’s intended to be there for everyone. In Russia it has… I definitely have after my first time there, and some of it was just the project and the stress around the project itself, but I also think just the environment culturally, I felt this… well I guess I wasn’t expecting to experience racism and feeling a sort of dismissive prejudice that happened there. It definitely put me on edge every… you know any time thinking of going back there to perform, but the truth is everyone who comes to the theatre in Russia, everyone who takes part also, there some of the most alive, real, serious and… just critical and rich people, I can’t… I don’t want to make sweeping statements about any country right now at all but there is a devotion to the arts, the classical arts, that exists in Russia like I have seen or experienced, like in that exchange between the audience and performer, like nowhere else. It’s an amazing palpable feeling, and any hesitations that I have about performing there, honestly the last time I was there have been totally eradicated because it was one of the most satisfying trips of my life, but also one of the most satisfying performance times of my life. Honestly, I’m always really surprised by… so much about how audiences respond is about the content that they’re given, not just like the brilliance of a performance but just the content itself. I think there are… I’m always working and I want to create work that has a universal relevance and can speak on many different levels to many different people, but depending on when the piece Is performed and for whom, some people are really clued in and not just want it but really need it, and others simply do not and I don’t take offence or have ultimate feelings about it either way, any of either way [LAUGHS].

Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

— To finish, what makes you tick and how do you think you are… in what way you are special from others, like why it is good to be you, why you are sometimes happy that you are Julia? What makes you special and you, how does music, I guess, play a part in it?

— I don’t know how to answer that! [LAUGHS] Or maybe I don’t want to answer that!

— Is this a no?

— Is this a no? I… yes, maybe it is just a no. One thing I’ll say about music is that it has reminded me why engaging with other human beings is so important. It’s funny during this time — not funny — it’s really poignant to me that during this time of….when we’re all having to self-quarantine and this idea of isolation, I know this word keeps coming up, isolation, isolation, but I don’t really feel that word anymore as something I deeply associate with anymore. I used to. Solitude is a very different thing, but I don’t feel alone, and whether I’m working on… whether it’s because of the actual human beings I’m dealing with in rehearsal space or building a project, or if it’s just engaging with these composer and poets, I genuinely feel a legitimate exchange, I don’t feel alone there. I don’t know of that makes me special but that certainly makes me grateful for my life, and music has helped me become grateful for my life.

— Actually, you reminded me of just one more question. Do you think that the world of classical music would change after this strange period in our humanity?

— I hope that it reveals to some that there are some really dysfunctional business models, and… it’s a little off-topic… but honestly I’m very disappointed every time that I find out that an organisation has decided to stop paying their artists, or stop paying those who have been on the staff there who were contracted. I hope that it shows for those institutions that have a completely dysfunctional business model that they need to change. I hope that it shows artists that they have, in order for these places to exist, they have… it’s not just the audience they need in there they need the support of the performers themselves, that in order to claim that you love the arts, you have to also love, genuinely love, and be devoted to the people who are making it. I hope that becomes like violently clear, and….major overhaul, certainly in the United States I think there just needs to be some major overhaul on how some arts organisations are run. But I’m not sure when people are going to feel comfortable sitting next to a person in a hall again, especially in the thousands. I genuinely don’t…

— When I was in London this kind of fear when you see a person, it becomes like poison…

— That’s right. I just hope, you know, one thing is that with this Covid-19 it affects everybody, so I’m hoping that nobody feels that there’s a stigma around having had it. I hope that people are actually really wanting to come together, because people are still really engaged like when I look on social media people are like so eager to get in touch and want to get in touch, but I do wonder… just the physical closeness… when are people going to be trusting of one another again.

— Who will say like is there an expert figure in epidemiology who would say, «Let’s get back to the Met again.» or something.

— Right, right. I do think maybe it might change to, and I think like it already was, these smaller performances happening around, not necessarily — I hope not — a high price in tickets, I hope that’s not true, but I think like more Internet performances could very much come into play and those would… even in terms of Grand Opera like could there be new chamber arrangements of Grand Opera? I don’t know. How do we keep people close to the material, because honestly one thing that always got me at the Met, even when I’ve been really impressed by a performance, I as like this just feels so distant, like physically so distant because it’s so massive that hall. It’s very counter to my feeling about what art does which is like bring people so closely together. So, yes, we’ll see.

— You know, I think if I do write this book that I’m planning I think getting responses of how everybody lived through it, and how music changed, would be a separate chapter of it…

— Absolutely..

— Which I didn’t think, it just came so quickly but now I think it would have, it would need an anthropological study also.

— I agree, no I agree. It’s kind of like in World War 2 when they couldn’t afford these larger… there was only a certain number of performances that were even allowed to happen, and so these chamber concerts started happening more and more and that started to become the norm. I just find that super-interesting. This is another one of those times where… I’ll be curious but I did have a kind of… I don’t know, a crisis moment where I was like, oh my God every single thing that I have been working on and working towards in my craft is about human beings being physically together and we cannot be. When will that really be able to happen again, we just don’t know. I found myself almost envious of other artists who found different avenues to create work that hasn’t been dependent on physical proximity. That’s not my aesthetic, at least not yet but it would be so… I’ll be curious how it starts to impact…

Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

— I was imagining you know this heroism acts when somebody says «I want to go to concerts and I don’t mind if I die.»

— [LAUGHS]

— It would be a new heroic disposition!

— They were rehearsing this piece at the Bayerische Staatsoper, and a close friend who’s in the production, it’s Abramovic’s piece and it’s about Maria Callas, and the singer said Abramovic said in one of the rehearsals: «You know I always dreamed of dying on stage. This is the moment.», and she said “What if I don’t want to be a part of that moment?’ [LAUGHS] That is so classic.

— Thank you so much. I hope I didn’t bore you.

— Not at all, not at all, please…

— You know, maybe if it lasts longer, if you want we could do an open kind of double Instagram stream for your fans, so that people could tune in and look at you answering, like maybe it would be less kind of deep but more entertaining for people, what do you think?

— Oh, yeah yeah, let’s think about it, definitely. That would be really cool.

— That’s what people are doing now, like I’ve been seeing people doing the livestreams like the tennis players and actors and so on…

— Yes, no let’s definitely think about that, let’s definitely. Cool.

— Thank you so much and keep safe and be as productive as possible in this situation.

— Same to you. Thank you for calling.

— I think I’ve travelled in my mind from the suburb of St. Petersburg during this time to all places.

— Me too. I haven’t like spoken… talking about work or anything for several weeks now so I’ve been getting my ears working again…

— That might be my hour because people do have time to speak to me now. Thank you and auf wiedersehn and see you hopefully somewhere soon.

— I hope so too.