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INTERVIEW | "I went straight to Elektra": In Conversation With Soprano Susan Bullock

By Joseph So on January 24, 2019

In a wide-ranging interview, the British soprano Susan Bullock shares her secret on maintaining a sense of artistic wonder in a long operatic journey.

Susan Bullock (Photo: Christina Raphaelle)
(Photo: Christina Raphaelle)

In a recent conversation with British soprano Susan Bullock, it’s immediately clear to me that after an extraordinary, 36-year career, the creative fire in her is burning as brightly as ever.

A quick check on the internet reveals that Bullock is now of an age when most sopranos are thinking of winding down. But calling it a day is decidedly not in the cards for the soprano: “I love it! I can’t imagine not doing it.”  With her voice still in good shape, no doubt there are many more songs to be sung, and many more roles to conquer yet for the Cheshire, UK native. Her list of roles thus far is extremely impressive, from Queen of the Night to Mrs. Lovett [Sweeney Todd] and nearly everything in between. Be it Pamina (her debut), Brunnhilde, Jenufa, Minnie or Emilia Marty, Bullock brings a surfeit of lyrical power and exemplary dramatic acuity to everything she does.

Perhaps the role that best defines Bullock is Richard Strauss’s Elektra. She’s currently in Toronto for a revival of the COC production, her eighteenth Elektra, a staggering number.  This time it’s a little different, as she’s not Elektra but the mother, Klytämnestra. “I last sang Elektra in Prague two years ago and enjoyed it enormously. When this opportunity came up, I thought it would be a cool idea, to go from Elektra to Klytämnestra. I was curious how I’d feel not being Elektra onstage, but actually, it’s fantastic!”

The current Toronto gig is indeed meaningful for Bullock. It reunites her with colleagues she had previously worked with in the Strauss piece: “Christine [Goerke] and I have done Elektra together — she was Chrysothemis — at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino with Seiji Ozawa. We also did it in Washington DC. And here we are, the generation is moving on, and now I am the mum and she’s the daughter!” It also reunites her with conductor Johannes Debus. The soprano sang Debus’s first-ever Elektra, in 2007, at Oper Frankfurt.

And it was in Toronto in 2006 that Bullock met her future husband, British tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele, when she was Brunnhilde to his Loge: “He’ll be here later in the run, and to my concert on Feb. 19.” Bullock is scheduled to sing a very special noon-hour recital. Special not just because she’s a fine recitalist, but it’ll mark the 1,000th concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre: “I’m doing the Wesendonck-Lieder, some Duparc, Quilter, and Britten’s folksongs, composed to French text.”

When I was asked to write a piece on her, I was only too happy to oblige. Having seen all the Ring performances in 2006 and two performances of Elektra the following year, I couldn’t wait to re-acquaint myself with her voice again. Meeting up with the soprano a few days ago, I was struck by how time seemed to have stood still for her, both physically and vocally, as evidenced by the working rehearsal I attended two evenings earlier. In a wide-ranging interview, Bullock shared her thoughts on how to keep her artistic flame burning bright.

Susan Bullock (Klytaemnestra) and Lauren Margison (Trainbearer) (Photo: Taylor Long)
COC Elektra rehearsal: Susan Bullock (Klytaemnestra) and Lauren Margison (Trainbearer) (Photo: Taylor Long)

Welcome back to Toronto and the COC!  It’s hard to believe it’s been twelve years since your Elektra here.  And now you are giving us another side of your artistry, as Klytaemnestra.

Thank you. This is my 18th production of Elektra but my first Klytaemnestra. I last sang Elektra in Prague two years ago and enjoyed it enormously. When this opportunity came up, and I thought it would be a cool idea, to go from Elektra to Klytaemnestra. I was curious how I would feel to be onstage but not as Elektra. Actually, it’s been fantastic!

I went to the working rehearsal a couple of days ago, and I find your timbre is essentially that of a soprano, which you are! How does it feel to take on this low mezzo role?

I studied it hard and took it to my teacher. When I look at the score thoroughly, so much of it is piano, ppp, intimate and very internal.  Her character is very vulnerable — she dares to speak to Elektra and asks for advice, trying to put her paranoia under wraps, unsuccessfully. I want to sing it with my voice, and not manufacture some covered, dark sound. I try to bring out the vulnerability of Klytaemnestra, and I think it helps by having a brighter timbre.

When I was doing preparation for this, I found an interview you gave to Michael Kennedy in the Telegraph. You said you don’t like drips and nice people, like Micaela…

[Laughs] I never fell into the kind of “nice dress brigade” really… I think I was never destined for that.  I ended up singing Jenufa — I was always the downtrodden, beaten up one.

Does that mean you never sang Chrysothemis?

[More laughs] No, never! I went straight to Elektra.

Let’s start from the beginning. When did you make your debut?  

I joined the Glyndebourne Chorus in 1983, and I made my debut in ‘86 as Pamina, in Jonathan Miller’s The Magic Flute. 

I read that you studied with Marjorie Thomas. Was she your first teacher? Did you work with others? 

I worked with Marjorie from when I was 18 to 32. Then her health started to fail a bit and the wonderful human being she was, she said: “I need you to go to another teacher.” So I went to a wonderful lady called Audrey Langford. She passed away in 1994. I now work with Sherman Lowe, an American in Italy. Throughout my career, I have had a fantastic coach called Philip Thomas in Britain. He has been there for me since Day One, from my first day in ENO to now. I saw him in December just before I came here. Wonderful pair of ears; he’s been instrumental in my change from lyric soprano to this repertoire, guiding me through the changes.

When you were a young artist, did you have a role model?

When I was singing Puccini, Mirella Freni was someone I love, her simplicity and honesty. In this rep, it’s Astrid Varnay.  She was honest to the text and to the composer, very consistent with what’s on the page. I just love her.

You even sang Queen of the Night in the beginning, and now Klytaemnestra.  Your thoughts on this huge transformation?  

It’s a big journey.  A lot of that’s just the way my voice has developed. We can’t predict when we were twenty-five where we would be years later.

It’s the natural progression of a voice, from light lyrics to full lyrics and maybe eventually to character roles.  I’ve interviewed retired singers, and occasionally one or two have said they weren’t interested in character roles, something to the effect that “I want to retire as the leading lady….”

Oh, I’m not interested in that!  I’ve been the leading lady a lot. I think roles like Klytämnestra and Kostelnicka [in Jenufa] – these are not character parts but real dramatic roles. These roles are coming my way now… that’s great. The Klytämnestra scene is meaty. I would say this scene and the Orest scene are the two central ones of the opera.  It’s been a wonderful dramatic journey, doing things that give me the dramatic challenge, which has always been my principle.

We in Toronto have only heard your Brunnhilde and Elektra, but you’ve sung a huge number of other dramatic soprano roles. Tell us about your Minnie [in La fanciulla del West]

I sang Minnie only six months ago in Washington DC, for the Maryland Lyric Opera in a concert performance. I did it in production in the ENO, in the Richard Jones production. I’ve also done it at the Edinburgh Festival. I love that part — she’s Puccini’s Valkyrie!

How was Emilia Marty [Vec Makropoulos]?

LOVED her! Absolutely loved it, once you learn the Czech. I sang it in Frankfurt, in the Richard Jones production, an absolutely fantastic piece of work. The hardest thing is to learn the words.

Her music isn’t very lyrical until the end

And it’s quite hard — you’ve got to find a way through it, to find the person. I would love to do it again.

You’ve done quite a lot of contemporary pieces. Do you think contemporary composers write well for the voice?

I think good contemporary composers do. Iain [Bell, the composer in Bullock’s upcoming Jack the Ripper at ENO] is very open to suggestions and to changing things. Same with Turnage — just before Christmas I was in BAM singing Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek; a piece written in the ‘80s about Oedipus Complex but set in ‘80s London with the miner’s strike. I played about six different roles.

How’s the music? 

It’s great. A bit like musical theatre, with lots of quick changes, I did it at the Edinburgh Festival, and in Glasgow. I love something new.

To change the subject for a moment — I found a masterclass you gave on Youtube. The student was singing Musetta’s Waltz. Does that mean you are interested in teaching?

I love doing masterclasses.  At the moment I am not in a position to teach full time. I firmly believe a teacher should be there for the students. They need regular input. If you are on the other side of the globe, it’s not fair. That day hasn’t come yet. I am not sure I would want to be full time in any institution. I do go regularly to all the major colleges when I am at home.

COC Elektra rehearsal: Susan Bullock (Klytaemnestra) and Christine Goerke (Elektra). (Photo: Taylor Long)
COC Elektra rehearsal: Susan Bullock (Klytaemnestra) and Christine Goerke (Elektra). (Photo: Taylor Long)

Do you take private students? 

Occasionally yes. People come and ask if they can have a consultation. But I can’t teach regularly… we shall see! I don’t know what I’ll end up doing… administrative, or maybe in a casting dept.

Maybe run an opera house? 

Oh yeah, that I’d love to do… absolutely!  I don’t have the business acumen, but I would love to be involved in the planning and choosing.

You know, your career reminds me of a British soprano I heard here many years ago, first as Violetta in Ottawa in the late ’70s, and then as the Marschallin at the COC in the early ’90s, Josephine Barstow…

Jo Barstow!  I’m working with her when I go back. We are doing a brand-new piece, Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, by Iain Bell. The last time I worked with her was at ENO; I was Jenufa she was Kostelnicka. When I was at ENO, she was the leading lyric soprano. She’s still going strong. Alan Opie is in it as well. It’s going to be a lot of fun!

Any other new roles?

I am doing the Mother and the Witch in Hansel & Gretel. I did it in English years ago and now in German. In the production I did, the Mother was a complete wreck, and the Witch was a blond bombshell. It was hilarious. I just love doing comedy, although I haven’t had the chance to do a lot of it. I have done Sweeney Todd in Houston, and I’ll do a new production of it in Bergen, Norway. These things all have their own challenges.

Who’s your favourite conductor? And your favourite opera house… I know singers hate these questions!

It’s hard to single one out. Those who are prepared to come to the rehearsals and prepared to get involved. One person that comes to my mind is [Antonio] Pappano. He’s a machine, at every rehearsal; he’s fantastic; on the floor with the director, a real collaboration.

Opera houses? 

I’ve been all over the place. I have a close affection for English National Opera and Covent Garden. I did a lot in Frankfurt, my German home for awhile — the Ring, Elektra, Vec Makropoulos, Schatzgräber, Tristan.

I also like to get your thoughts on stage directors, in the so-called concept productions. What are your thoughts on these?  

If what they ask you to do are text and music-based, then you can have a go at it. If it’s some random idea that has nothing related to the music, or if it’s something deliberately contrary, to be subversive, I find that a bit boring actually.  Otherwise, I am perfectly happy to roll up my sleeves and have a go at rethinking something, or looking at its polar opposite and see if there’s any value in it.

So you’re open to new interpretations….

Yes, I think it’s important as artists that we are prepared to take on new challenges.

What about if they change the story?

I hate it. Composers and librettists spend a lot of time creating these pieces; I don’t think any of us are above that. You can’t change something just because it suits your concept – if you’re going to mess with Hofmannsthal [the librettist of Elektra], you are on dangerous ground. A story is a story, if you don’t like it, write another opera.  I am not old fashioned in any way, and am willing to have a go at it, but there’s a line you don’t cross.

Since you’ve done so much work in Frankfurt – do you find some of the Regie productions crazy?

It’s not crazy — I’ve not been in anything that’s been crazy. I did do Konwitschny’s Elektra in Stuttgart, I had to push a grown man, the dead Agamemnon, around while singing the monologue — it was certainly good for the muscles! I didn’t find that too weird either. Maybe I’m just easy to please!

You must be a directors’ dream; you are so open to it. 

Well, none of us are bigger than the piece, we just all try to do what we can.

Any dream roles for the future — realistic ones and fantasy ones? 

Realistically, I’d love to have a go with Färberin Die Frau ohne Schatten. I never did it.  Fantasy? Susanna.

Susanna? In Nozze? 

Yes. She never came my way; that would have been a fun one.

I guess you were never enough of a soubrette…

No, thank goodness!

She’s not a goody two shoes…

No, she’s a naughty girl [laughs]

Tell us, what defines you as a person and an artist?  I know this is a bit of a lofty question…

[Long pause] Somebody who’s open-minded, prepared to roll her sleeves up and work hard. Always searching, always probing,

One final question — What are your thoughts on your long career, going forward?

I’ve always said, and I’ve said this since I was in my thirties — the day I wake up and I am too nervous or can’t rely on my voice, that’s the end. If I can’t do it to the standard I want, what’s the point? I’ve also got two or three people lined up whose ears I trust, who will tell me… At the moment I feel fit and well and am enjoying the new challenges; I don’t see the end anywhere near. But, of course, the voice, like life is unpredictable, so I keep going day-by-day.

Many thanks!  And toi toi toi for the opening!

+++

Canadian Opera Company’s Elektra opens January 26 at the Four Seasons Centre, for a run of seven performances to February 22.  Details, here.

Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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