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theartsdesk Q&A: Soprano Susan Bullock | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Soprano Susan Bullock

theartsdesk Q&A: Soprano Susan Bullock

Britain's leading dramatic soprano talks Elektra, Eric Clapton, and singing at the Last Night of the Proms

It may have taken her until 2005 to get her Wigmore Hall debut, until 2006 to break onto the stage of the Royal Opera House, but at 53 Susan Bullock has finally arrived, claiming the crown of soloist for this year’s Last Night of the Proms, a firm foothold at Covent Garden and her rightful place as Britain’s finest dramatic soprano. For a singer who “started singing by mistake”, whose musical training began in a council house in Cheshire on a piano rescued from the local rubbish dump, it’s no small achievement.

Chance and luck have played their role in the careers of many performing artists (as Hollywood movies have amply testified) but even by Hollywood standards Susan Bullock’s career has been a dramatic one, shaped by a series of happy accidents, beginning while the singer was still at school when she auditioned for a place on the Saturday junior course at the Royal Northern College of Music.

Applying as a pianist, it was only to fulfil the requirement for a second study instrument that the untrained Bullock ended up singing. It was enough to catch the attention of the College however, and after an undergraduate course at the chorally centric Royal Holloway it was as a soprano that Bullock arrived for her postgraduate training at the Royal Academy.

Famously never out of work since her professional debut in the Glyndebourne chorus, winning the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 1984 announced Bullock’s arrival on the musical map. Roles at English National Opera followed (though it would famously take the singer some 20 years to make the short journey up the road to Covent Garden), and in her first incarnation as a light, lyric soprano she sang Gilda, Pamina, Marguerite – even Yum-Yum.


Bullock’s growing voice eventually brought her to the dramatic roles and German repertoire that have come to dominate her mature career. With her focus on drama (Bullock has described herself as an actress who sings), she has brought Elektra, Brünnhilde and Isolde to damaged life, surrendering herself repeatedly to the trauma and tragedy of these great heroines.

BullockElektraIn 2007 Bullock (pictured right as Brünnhilde) made waves when, at less than 24 hours’ notice, she stepped into the role of Brünnhilde in Keith Warner’s Die Walküre at the Royal Opera, performing opposite Placido Domingo. Now for their 2012 Ring cycle revival it is her name on the cast list, and the following year will see her back on the Royal Opera House stage once again, making her role debut as Elizabeth I in a new Richard Jones production of Britten’s Gloriana. Add to this two appearances at this year’s Proms – both in the Comedy Prom and the Last Night – another new role in Janáček’s Emilia Marty, and a handful of major recitals, and Bullock had plenty to talk about when she spoke to theartsdesk.

ALEXANDRA COGHLAN: When you were asked to sing at the Last Night of the Proms did they mention that the Comedy Prom might be part of the deal?

SUSAN BULLOCK: It was something of a double deal. When Roger invited me to do the Last Night he was still toying with the idea of a Comedy Prom and asked me if it came to fruition whether I’d mind taking part. He thought it would be nice to have the person singing at the Last Night doing something so contrasting.

It must have been quite a change from your usual German psychodrama…

bullock6It was a big change on one level, but for a long time I used to be quite a regular guest on Friday Night is Music Night and that experience – having to sing anything from Isolde’s "Liebestod" to a Wild West medley in the same programme – stood me in good stead for having anything thrown at me. It was a good training ground for the lighter repertoire.

So it doesn’t worry you having Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung and numbers from The Sound of Music and Carousel on the same bill at the Last Night of the Proms?

The Last Night has always got to have a bit of everything in it. This year Peter Maxwell-Davies has written a piece, and you’ve got music by Wagner and Liszt as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein. The programme is devised is to involve the people in the parks outside and to coordinate all these communities across the country. Halfway through I’ve just got to take off my Wagner hat and don my singalong one instead.

Can you still listen to music for pleasure yourself?

Yes, interestingly, but it’s never the stuff that I do myself. It might be Baroque music, a lot of jazz, Motown, and I love cheesy old pop songs from the Seventies and Eighties. I don’t think by choice I’d sit down and listen to, say, Un ballo in maschera for an evening’s entertainment. I’d much rather have Eric Clapton or something a bit different. But I do still get a lot of pleasure from the act of listening to music.

'It’s all about trying to open up as many avenues to people as possible, inviting them to think about music, enjoy it, react to it in whatever way'

Audiences for Wagner tend to be quite self-selecting. Does you think it will feel different to perform it for a Last Night crowd?

Maybe by showing them that it’s possible to sing both Rodgers and Hammerstein and Wagner it might entice the people who thought they only liked musical theatre to maybe dip their toe into the opera world. It might even persuade some diehard opera lovers to give Rogers and Hammerstein a go – why not! It’s all about trying to open up as many avenues to as many people as possible, not to ram this repertoire down people's throats in any way, just to invite people to think about it, enjoy it, react to it in whatever way. Even if they don’t enjoy it at least it gives people a chance to form an opinion, or to begin to form one.

How do you think the audience will respond to the Immolation Scene?

It’s probably one of the most perfect scenes to take out of context because it’s got such a lot of musical back-tracking in it. You hear so much of the Ring in that 20-minute scene. I’ve done a lot of Ring cycles and I know what it feels like to get to the scene at the end of a week, so I’m going to try and bring as much of that feeling and drama to it as I can, to make it accessible for people. Musically, of course, it’s also got such great tunes, and fantastic writing for the orchestra; the big play-out at the end is absolutely wonderful.

Bullock sings Brünnhilde in Graham Vick's Götterdämmerung in Lisbon

You’ll have a chance to put the scene back in context next year at the Royal Opera House, won’t you?

Yes, I only did a fleeting appearance in the production a couple of years ago, so it will be nice to do it with some actual rehearsal.

How did it feel to step into an unfamiliar production at such short notice?

BullockreallyelektraIt was all a crazy mad rush – a wild 24 hours. The whole thing wasn’t signed and sealed until midnight the night before. I remember going back the next morning after the show and thinking, good grief, did I actually just do that? We actually rehearsed Act III in the long interval. We were in a rehearsal room with traffic cones in place of the walls, and the Valkyries were fantastic and kept ushering me forward as I didn’t know when the moving wall was going to come at me because of course I couldn’t see it. Most of those scenes between Brünnhilde and Wotan are very personal, it’s all about feelings and emotions, so John Tomlinson and I just sort of felt it in the moment. It was a terrific night. When they said they’d like me to come and do it in 2012 that was absolutely thrilling – the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake.

You spend the majority of your time now in the big German repertoire. Do you find the dramatic soprano roles like Brünnhilde and Isolde more satisfying than the lyric parts you started off in?

It’s different, I wouldn’t say I prefer it. Butterfly is one heck of a character to delve into. OK, it’s not the psychological trauma of someone like Elektra (Bullock pictured left as Elektra), but on a human level it’s a massive range of emotions; you’re developing from this fresh-faced innocent girl to this destroyed mother. That’s a huge journey to go on. I did La fanciulla del West at last year’s Edinburgh Festival and found that an intensely satisfying piece to do. Nobody dies, I get the guy at the end – it’s a completely different story, but it’s as captivating and satisfying as any role.

'You can’t make it a private performance for yourself. The emotion has to reach out to the audience, it can’t stay locked up inside you'


Do you miss any of the lyric roles you no longer sing?

I’ve been very lucky to have had such a broad scope of repertoire The sad thing is that I could probably sing a better Butterfly now than I did 20 years ago, but once you go into this Wagnerian, Straussian world lots of people forget that you can do the other repertoire, and immediately pigeon-hole you into that specific musical world. That’s why it was such a joy when the Edinburgh Festival offered me Fanciulla last year; it’s a huge piece, Puccini’s Wagner moment, and to be able to go back and sing in Italian with all those huge soaring Puccini melodies was wonderful.

You’ve spoken of losing yourself when playing Elektra, getting taken over by the character. Has this happened with other roles?

Elektra is only 1 hour and 45 minutes long, but is absolutely packed to the hilt with everything you could possibly want to portray in a human being. It’s like taking a very strong potion because of the intensity of it. But then Butterfly did take me over as well, and Jenufa I found very disturbing. I did Peter Grimes with the lovely, late lamented Philip Langridge and I used to feel sort of hopeless at the end of it because I couldn’t help him. I would bother about it all the way home, fretting over why Ellen couldn’t have helped him, why nobody could reach him, why he had to go mad. It occupied me so much. I think you’ve got to put yourself right into the shoes of the people you’re portraying. You’ve got to take yourself right down to the wire, get yourself into a knot and all upset, but then in the actual performance you’ve then got to take a step back because if you’re crying then the audience aren’t going to cry. It’s a danger that we all have to be very aware of; you can’t make it a private performance for yourself. The emotion has to reach out to the audience, it can’t stay locked up inside you.

Bullock as Strauss's Elektra

You’ve famously turned down Turandot many times. Do you think you’ll ever tackle the role?

I’m sure there’s somebody out there who could persuade me that she’s not just a one-dimensional personality and that there is much more to find in her, but at present I just don’t get her as a character. If I don’t get a character I don’t really want to just stand there and sing the notes; if I can’t be honest with myself and the audience I just don’t really see the point.

The drama of opera has always been important to you. Are there directors whose instincts chime particularly naturally with yours?

I’ve been very lucky; a couple of times I’ve not been sure quite where a director is coming from but I’ve never had an “I just can’t do this” situation. I love working with people like Keith Warner, Graham Vick and David Alden. They delve into the piece and know it through the text and the music – it’s not just a concept. They know every note of the orchestral parts, can tell you what the third clarinet is playing at any given moment and why they are playing it. That to me is a total joy. I’ve also been lucky, and to go back and work with these directors more than once, so you form a relationship. They know what I can do and I know the sort of stuff they are going to throw at me, so we don’t have to dance around each other.

Have particular productions or directors fundamentally changed your approach to a part?

graham-vick-birmingham-opera-company-335724515I’d never done Butterfly before the Graham Vick (pictured right) production, but every production I’ve done since then has had a lot to measure up to. It was a life-changing experience for me on many levels. The Tristan I did with Keith Warner for Opera North too; it was billed as semi-staged because we didn’t have a lot of money, so there wasn’t much of a set, but it was done with the same intensity as if it had been staged in a major theatre. It was fantastic to work on such a huge piece in such minute detail.

You’ve got two role debuts coming up. How does it feel to be taking on new characters at this stage of your career?

I’m thrilled to be being asked to do new stuff. It’s lovely that people are suggesting new things. I’m going to do Gloriana next year which is a piece I love, and brings with it the huge challenge of playing Elizabeth I. It’s going to be a Richard Jones production and he’s bound to have a wonderfully individual take on it. I don’t yet know what that will be but it’s going to be a great journey. I’ve also got The Makropoulos Case coming up in the spring in Frankfurt, again with Richard Jones. I’m all for learning new stuff, and definitely don’t just want to go around singing the same roles all the time. You don’t want to become stale in the part; it takes a huge amount of energy to arrive on the first day and find the impetus to pretend you’ve never done it before. It would be very easy and lazy to think, this is how I do it. I’ll just slot it into this set or costume.

'Each song is a mini-opera in itself. I relish the challenge of that'


Are there any roles you are still waiting and hoping for?

I’d love to do the Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten, but it’s one of those pieces sadly that doesn’t pack the houses out, and in these straitened financial times it’s not an obvious box-office choice. It’s probably too much of a risk for people to take on.

Despite being busy on the opera stage you’ve never abandoned the recital hall. Does it provide a balance to so much large-scale intensity?

It’s a real tonic to do recital work. There’s a whole wealth of song repertoire that I want to dip into. It makes you feel so contained and healthy and in charge of your own destiny. Each song is a mini-opera in itself. I relish the challenge of that. Sometimes within just a few pages you’ve got to put so much across. It’s a real distillation of what you do in a huge long opera. Malcolm Martineau and I are doing a couple of concerts in Cardiff and Belfast in the new year and we’ve got another Wigmore recital planned – we’re toying with lots of ideas. I really love English song and would be quite happy to spend a whole evening singing that, but it might not be what people want to hear.

It was at the Wigmore that you won the Kathleen Ferrier Prize back in 1984…

Yes, I was a postgraduate student at the Academy at that stage and there was this eternal roundabout of competitions. The Ferrier was one of the big ones, but because of the round by round process the whole week goes by in a flash. Suddenly I found myself in the Wigmore Hall in the final and it hit me that this was what I’d been aiming for. I sang “Tornami a vagheggiar” of all things, Puccini’s “Senza mamma”, and Agatha’s aria “Leise, leise” from Der Freischütz – repertoire I probably shouldn’t have been singing at that stage! The one I enjoyed singing most out of all of them was “Leise, leise” and here I am now singing German repertoire, so it must have been in the stars. I’ve never had a plan, and I don’t ever intend to have one.

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