A Conversation with Julia Bullock about “Perle Noire”

Editors note: This conversation with soprano Julia Bullock was conducted in the summer of 2016, prior to the September 30, 2016 Houston premiere. Edited for the Fall 2020 virtual presentation.

How did this project come about?

On my debut recital tour in 2014, I performed a program titled “Hommage à Josephine Baker.” Jeremy Siskind, an accomplished jazz pianist and songwriter who I met at the Eastman School of Music, transcribed six songs from the original orchestral arrangements for piano and voice.

Peter Sellars caught wind of it through his producer. While Peter hadn’t seen me do any of the program, he offered to find a platform if I wanted to develop my concept further. That ended up being the Ojai Festival in California.

Peter then invited ICE to join the conversation, since they were playing the entire Ojai Festival, which was where the first performance was scheduled to take place.

How did you put the creative team together?

ICE director Claire Chase suggested composer and avant-garde jazzer Tyshawn Sorey as the ideal candidate to reimagine the music of Baker. I didn’t know Tyshawn or his work, but after giving it a listen, I was curious, but also unsure, about how he would internalize and almost deconstruct high gloss french music hall tunes.

That’s when this became a real collaboration.

Tyshawn and I spent many hours listening and discussing the songs, their potential, and the shape and themes I wanted to uncover and give voice to. And I’m really, really excited about what he has brought to the table. After Tyshawn was onboard, Peter, of course, being so fixated on words, invited the brilliant poet Claudia Rankine, who writes in a super direct way, to find a voice for Baker.

What piqued your curiosity about Josephine Baker?

During my second week in college, my teacher asked me if I knew who Josephine Baker was. I said, “Yeah, the woman who danced in the banana skirt.” My teacher replied, “Well, Julia, you remind me of her; you’re also very thin.” She told me that I would be asked to sing a lot of exotic repertoire because of the way I looked and because of my heritage.

I had a complicated reaction to that statement.

I ended up doing some research on Josephine Baker and found some parallels with my life. For example, she was born and raised in my hometown of St. Louis. She started her career as a vaudevillian dancer. I also danced a lot as a kid. Josephine then moved to New York to pursue performing — as did I —  but our paths diverged there. She emigrated to France — in part to escape the discrimination she faced in the U.S. — where she became an international sensation.

How did your teacher’s words affect your own journey?

I became more interested in addressing questions that have risen out of being a person of color, working in an industry that is predominantly written by and run by white people. As a person of mixed heritage, I had to ask myself if I was representing my full identity by singing classical music.

I was looking for a way to musically address and confront these questions, concerns and preoccupations, and what better person’s life to consider than Joséphine Baker’s? Joséphine was in a similar situation in Europe, dealing blatantly with exoticism obsession, objectification and exploitive elements. Her struggles, both professional and personal, were made quite public.

What’s Josephine’s significance to you personally? 

Beginning in her 20s, Josephine fearlessly confronted her culture with total conviction and commitment. That in itself is inspiring. Baker combated and dealt with the world in vibrant, extroverted expressions, and in ultimate exposure of herself. When she performed, she communicated immense, infectious joy.

She refused to be a victim of her circumstances, even though she was exploited and objectified. She used it to eventually craft a major career. She played a lot of different roles: performer, lover, expatriate, French ambassador, mother and civil rights activist.

Is she someone whom you admire?

There is so much to consider and appreciate about her. But I don’t idolize her, even though she is an awe-inspiring icon.

As meaningful and deeply impactful as she was as a public figure, ultimately she became consumed by her many self-assigned missions. As I go forward in my own work, which I’m very passionate about, I have to ask myself: Is there a balanced way to honor yourself as a human being as well as commit yourself as an artist and as a conscious contributor to our world?

What have you learned about Baker: Anything that surprised you?

Often with many performers, their approach to music, the sound of their voices and even the repertoire they sang was impacted by their life’s circumstances. Their art and aesthetic was a reflection of themselves. It’s difficult to identify that with Baker because she played so many different roles throughout her life.

Given that the music itself was so tightly wound, I don’t believe it gave way to express the depths of her experiences. Her torment didn’t seem to infiltrate her performance style. I’m not sure if this was a conscious choice or if it was her method of survival. Instead, much of what she communicated was an infectious joy and vitality. Granted, in her dancing, there was a wild and liberal pursuit of freedom. That’s certainly a reflection of Baker’s life.

How has the project developed from its first presentation at Ojai? 

Our original working title was Josephine Baker: A Portrait. We weren’t sure how the project would look or sound. Since the first couple of performances, we’ve had some time to process the source material. Tyshawn and I came up with the title Perle Noir: Meditations for Josephine.

I believe this title explicates more clearly what we will be attempting in performance. Perle Noir, meaning the Black Pearl, was a name appointed to Baker. The moniker addresses the “icon” of the past while also musing on universal themes that come along with her story — which are still relevant today. These social issues arose because of where she was living and when and how she combated the culture just by using her body as an instrument.

I have spent a fair amount of time editing the texts as well. The piece is constantly evolving. Tyshawn and I are in communication about how to open the piece in a more playful way so that we invite audiences into a focused head space.

What can Houston audiences expect?

I would like to set up an environment where individuals can sit and absorb the content of the material, which in many ways defined Josephine Baker. The style in which her tunes were originally orchestrated and arranged superficially grazed over the words and their intense and complicated implications. But by opening it up to have space for those words to really be heard and resonate, I hope to open to possibility for audiences to have a deeper experience.

It’s impossible to look at art without considering what’s happening in our world. Current events and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement have increased dialog about race relations and the state of racial consciousness in the U.S. Did you have this in mind when creating this program, or was that purely coincidental?

Purely coincidental? No.

All of the issues that have been brought into consciousness with the Black Lives Matter movement have been ongoing throughout our history. When the death of Michael Brown took place in Ferguson and the events that have followed occurred, that was just 20 minutes from my home in St. Louis. All of these issues are constantly on my mind. As a person of color in America, I live with these realities everyday. So it’s not a coincidence that I would at some point find a way to address these topics through music — it’s part of my story.

It’s a sad reality that Baker fled St. Louis after the riot acts in the 20s. The lyrics of “Si j’etais blanche” from the early 1930s and the lyrics of “Terre sèche” from the 1950s are as poignant and painful for me to sing in 2016 as I imagine they were for Josephine Baker. That’s our world. As a person, I can only speak from my own experience. As a performer, I have a platform on which to share it. So it was bound to find a voice at some time or another.

What’s your hope for people who attend the event? In addition to the music, what would you like audiences to remember about the program?

I think about this on a social level. We seem to have shifted, yet again, from a place where our ideologies are something we debate and discuss to something that is way more irate that leads to violence. And what’s concerning in times like this, which has occurred many times throughout our history, is that we don’t know how to hold and nurture those individuals whose missions are to challenge injustice and the status quo and whose focus is on civility and illuminating the most beautiful aspects of our humanity.

We don’t know how to just listen, absorb and integrate what’s being said and modeled. Instead, we ostracize and sacrifice those people. It’s a disheartening reality. And maybe by sharing Baker’s story — not just the glamor, glitz and gloss — but the troubled realities of her life, we can again re-examine issues concerning exploitation, objectification, marginalization and obsession with the exotic.