Interview: Susan Bullock on singing Elektra at Covent Garden and keeping her career varied

'Iíve always done it the wrong way round. The first Puccini I ever sang was Butterfly, the first Wagner I ever did was Isolde.'

3 November 2008

Susan Bullock (Photo: Sussie Ahlberg)British singer Susan Bullock is one of the finest dramatic sopranos on the circuit today, a leading Brünnhilde and Elektra who is equally at home on the recital platform or in the concert hall. She returns to Covent Garden this weekend, though, as Strauss's great, obsessive heroine. It's a role which she's performed the world over to great acclaim, notably at La Scala and Dresden, where the work received its premiere just under a century ago.

When she sings Elektra on Saturday in the first revival of Charles Edwards' powerful 2003 production, she tells me, with justified pride and what seems like a hint of surprise, that it will be her fifty-third performance of the role, one of the most taxing in the repertory.

We meet after a day of intensive rehearsal and I start the conversation by asking how she keeps her interpretation of the role fresh and how she puts herself into the shoes of such a character.

'A crazy person?' She volunteers. 'Maybe some would say you have to be crazy to sing it in the first place, but it's very important not just to see her as a crazy. She's a much more complex character than just this slightly insane, driven person. The clue for me – particularly way back when I first started preparing the role – was to look and see what the music says, and not just the text. You have to find the moments of vulnerability where you see this young girl, who's lost her father in horrible circumstances and lives in this most appalling situation, is cast out and rejected. Because of this she's developed this need, this obsession to avenge her father's death. But she's also fully aware that in so doing she's given up any chance of being a normal person. When Chrysothemis comes in and sings of wanting to have children and a normal life ("I'm a woman and I want a woman's destiny") I think it's very poignant for Elektra because she knows that's not going to happen to her, ever.'

Does Elektra's formidable modernist reputation, I ask, hide the fact that a lot of the music is highly lyrical? 'Ever since I've been doing this part, I keep on going back to the score and looking and seeing how meticulous Strauss was with the dynamic markings and Mark Elder [who conducts the revival] is being fantastic and is really sticking to them. It has a reputation for being bombastic – "Elektra's a big screamer" – but it's not. A lot of the orchestral colours are very clever and cunning, when she's reeling in Clytemnestra and teasing her, for example, it's all very spare in the orchestration and hovers around pianissimo and piano. Of course there are some very loud and exciting bits, but for me they only become exciting if they're contrasted with the quiet moments. It's a piece that should ebb and flow, rather than just hit you between the eyes.'

I mention her recording of Salome, only recently released on Chandos as part of their 'Opera in English' series. She hasn't heard it yet, she tells me, but the question of the conductor comes up again, in this case Sir Charles Mackerras. 'When we worked on it, we had lots of rehearsals with piano before we went in to the studio and we decided that at the beginning of the opera, it's almost as if Salome is a different person. She's a young girl and it's written in that way, and it's very frothy. So that when all this big, heavy, dramatic stuff comes at the end, you've gone on the journey from this rather slippery, moody teenager into this crazed, destroyed person. Again, I think it's important that you really look at the score. Whether it's Mozart, Rameau, Wagner, Stockhausen, whatever it is, these people sat for hours and wrote this stuff down, so we shouldn't be making it up.'

The two operas are often bracketed together and although Bullock's not sung Salome on stage, she is interested in the similarities and differences. 'Elektra has the big guns all the way through, Salome builds up in one massive big burst at the end and there are some big moments en route, but the final scene is the apex of the piece. With Elektra you're straight in with the opening monologue. Both Salome and Elektra are products of a totally dysfunctional family: they're damaged emotionally and psychologically. They have no boundaries: Salome doesn't understand about religion, she doesn't understand about sexual desire, it's all muddied and strange with her; Elektra doesn't know how to be with people, she's rejected and socially inadequate. They're both searching and fighting for something.' She concludes, though, that 'musically Elektra is a lot more demanding,' before adding, with a smile, 'psychologically Elektra can drive you round the bend.'

Elektra is a famously difficult role, so having sung it so many times in so many of the world's great opera houses, does it get any easier?

'Every time I come back to it there's something new, a different challenge. It might be something the director or the conductor asks for, or working with a different cast, there's always a challenge, apart from the piece itself. I wouldn't say any of it's easy, but the more it's sung into you, the more it becomes part of your psyche… it's still an Everest, but at least you've got you're way through it. Whereas when you first do it you think, "oh my God, we're still only at the Klytemnestra scene!"; you're only half way through and you feel like you've done a whole night's work.'

Bullock is currently preparing several other of the great Strauss roles: Ariadne, the Dyer's Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten, the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier. I point out that some might find it odd that with all those Elektra's under her belt, she's now looking at the more lyrical Strauss.  

'I've always done it the wrong way round,' she laughs. 'The first Puccini I ever sang was Butterfly, the first Wagner I ever did was Isolde. I didn't do Eva, I didn't do Musetta or Liù: I went straight in at the deep-end. The Marschallin is something that I think would be really interesting to do and part of me is trying to defy this whole pigeon-holing thing as well. There are very few people who sing Elektra and very few who sing Isolde, relatively speaking. As a result it's very tempting for people just to think that's all you do and not to hear in the voice that you can actually do other stuff. It's rather more convenient to be ticked off and placed in that box. You only have to listen to the Aegisth scene in Elektra, though, and it's Rosenkavalier, absolutely: you've got to produce this Viennese Sachertorte voice all of a sudden.' She admits there are no concrete plans for these roles yet, 'we haven't been able to work anything out yet with my present commitments, but we'll get there. At this stage I suppose you've got to advertise your wares a bit!'

ENO tristan 2003, copyright Bill Cooper with David rendallApart from anything else, Bullock explains, she likes to keep variety in her work. 'It's very important to vary one's menu – not to be ridiculous – but to make sure that you keep a balance in the repertoire you do. That means not just doing opera all the time, to do recital work, to do oratorio work or things in concert, like Erwartung or Poèmes pour mi. As much as I love singing these roles, I don't want to go round the world doing the same thing constantly.

'I've done Elektra all these times, but when I arrived here I said to Charles that I'm an open book. It's not healthy artistically to keep on doing the same stuff, though, because what happens to your imagination? You're not challenged enough. Of course it would be easy just to pack your bags and say "here we go, another Elektra", but I'm not in it for that. It's not about making money and traipsing round with the same role. I would die of boredom.'

Bullock has also featured in opera in concert several times, as well as presenting Salome that way, she will singing Elektra with the forces of Opera North early in 2009, marking the centenary of the work's premiere. She's delighted, as she puts it, to be 'taking the piece on tour' but explains that 'it's great because for a company like Opera North, the idea of staging Elektra might be financially restrictive. It's great for the orchestra and the Salome we did there was fabulous because we just worked on it as a piece of music. We didn't have a set or costumes but somehow it had a life and people came to it and felt it was like a production. And as far as I'm concerned, if that's the only way that's available, then let's do it.

I point out that having just recorded Salome, Chandos could maybe do with an Elektra in English. 'I'd be lying if I said it wasn't something that was talked about at the time and that it wasn't one of the many things that we chatted about during the recording sessions, but who's to know? It's not down to me but obviously, although I'd love to do it and it would fill a place in the catalogue.'

When I ask Bullock about her attitude to performances in English, the conversation includes inevitably the English National Opera. Although her relationship with the company goes back to the very start of her career, Bullock's last performance at the Coliseum was a rapturously received Isolde there as far back as 2003. 'I'm all for reaching audiences in any way that's appropriate. And if singing in English gets people in then let's do it. But,' she pauses, 'I don't agree with having surtitles in English since it makes for very lazy performances. I have to say, when I was at the Coliseum as a young singer, the diction was absolutely paramount, they were on us like a tonne of bricks and we had people like Denis Dowling, who'd retired from performing then, but he would sit there in the auditorium and say: "I can't tell what you're singing". I think to have these wretched things going across the stage just means that people don't have to try. It's wrong, I'm so totally against it. Of course, if you're singing Kát'a Kabanova in Czech then it's very useful, so long as they're not a distraction. Your responsibility as a performer is to make the text clear in any language you're singing, but if it's your own language there's no damn excuse. I find it quite disturbing.'

When I say it's surprising that her last ENO performance was some five years ago she points out 'I've hardly worked in England', adding that her 2006 Covent Garden debut was the last time she worked in the country. She doesn't feel, however, in any way as though she's been overlooked. 'You can't have it always, obviously it's a joy to be at home, to be able to come to work and then go home at the end of the day. To know you can see your friends and family and that you're not stuck in some flat in some city miles away. Having said that,' she counters 'I've seen the world. I've been to some incredible places and had some incredible experiences. So I'm not complaining remotely. It is nice to be at home, though.'

Bullock's evidently less bothered by the wait for a Covent Garden debut than the press, who chorused amazement that the Royal Opera had waited so long to engage her. 'I think it was the right time,' she says simply. 'I'd grown into my voice and all the stuff I did prior to that in Britain had been like one big apprenticeship. Having had a lot of international experience before coming here to do Wozzeck was all power to me, really. I'd been in some smart places and although of course there's something very special about coming to Covent Garden – it's your home, the company in Britain, and where we all aspire to sing – I've been in some pretty cool places around the world as well. For that reason I felt ready, I felt prepared. It was exciting and the perfect thing to come in on: relatively unusual repertoire, I loved the production, I love Keith Warner and I had a great time. I love what I do so much that actually, when the phone goes, I'm delighted. If it's here that's brilliant, if it's Timbuktu it's equally brilliant.' With rumours that Bullock is to tackle Brünnhilde in 2012 the tables, I say, seem now fully to have turned: 'Yes, I suppose my foot's in the door!'

Talking of plans for the future, Bullock talks excitedly of Fanciulla del West next year in Oslo. 'It's something I've always wanted to do,' she tells me and leans forward with a smile, 'because you don't die. Nobody kills you, you get to play cards and you get the guy: it's great. It'll be a change but it's still a hell of a sing.' Does she see herself reprising any of her Verdi roles, or expanding that part of her repertoire? 'I don't think that will happen now. Puccini is more my bag now, some Fanciullas and Toscas will be great, although I think my Butterfly days are over.

'I've had, in a way, two careers. I've done all this lyric repertoire and that grew and grew and the roles got bigger and more interesting. Then that grew into people asking me to do this more dramatic repertoire. So I didn't stop one day and say "right, that's the end of that I'm going to start doing this." It all blended in and just progressed. I'm always interested to look at new roles but I don't think, mentally, after doing all this heavy psycho-drama stuff that I'd get the same satisfaction dramatically and psychologically in Verdi. I know there are dramatic roles in Verdi but for me it's more vocal, whereas I tend to think of myself much more as an actress that sings, rather than a singer that acts a bit. I'm not into hearing myself sing. People have asked me to look at Abigaïle and these sorts of things and I just think, no, I don't want to. And Turandot I don't get, either. I don't get her as a human being, I don't understand her head and I can't get into it, so there's no point in me doing it. People say I could sing it, but you can sing lots of things but you need to have a connection with them as a dramatic person.'

Susan Bullock (Photo: Sussie Ahlberg)Bullock's also no stranger to more unusual repertoire. She sang Genièvre in a 2005 recording of Chausson's Le roi Arthus and was a hit several years ago in Frankfurt in Schreker's Der Schatzgräber. 'It's a wonderful work,' she says of the latter, 'and David Alden did the most amazing production of it. I don't think it was particularly well-known in Frankfurt as a piece but it brought the people in because it was well done and it's got some great music.' Other ambitions include staging Erwartung – 'a great piece to act' – which she's only performed in concert up until now.

'What I'm saying is that I'm far more attracted to the complex psychological characters rather than the ones which have the beautiful music and the nice dresses. I admire people who can sing that repertoire greatly but it's just not my bag – it doesn't do anything for me in my mind.'

Another surprisingly late debut for Bullock was Wigmore Hall, in 2005. She's also fresh from her Edinburgh debut this summer and cannot contain her enthusiasm for singing recitals: 'I love them, absolutely love them. I find it incredibly challenging. I love the variation you can have in a programme, with different styles and different languages. And I love the fact that you have two or three minutes to make a mini-drama out of the song and it's all encapsulated in just a moment in time.

'I think it's good and healthy for the voice, the brain and for your discipline as a singer to be stripped bare of costumes, make-up, wigs, disguises, scenery, lights, orchestras, things that that you can sometimes hide behind. Or they hide you.' It's an experience that she describes as cathartic, but it seems it's the opportunity to explore comedy – somewhat subordinated in the current staples of her operatic repertoire – that she also relishes. 'It's like way back when I used to do Yum-Yum at the Coliseum, I always loved that.'

This need for variety is easy to understand since Bullock is in such high demand for the big, dramatic roles that only a handful of singers can manage. She talks jokingly of 'the Elektra treadmill' but describes Brünnhilde as 'the new regular friend.' She has sung the role in Tokyo, for Canadian Opera and at La Fenice and tells me she's in the middle of a Ring in Lisbon, will be starting one in Frankfurt and speaks of 'various other options flying around', including the 2012 Ring at Covent Garden.

How does she manage to keep herself going through this tiring schedule?
'I sat down a couple of years ago with my agent and we agreed to be clever in the way we managed the time and work it out. And apart from anything else, you want to have a private life and a life outside of theatre. It's something that Tony Pappano said to me a few years ago, that it would be very tempting because of the relatively few people who sing this repertoire. When they go sick they have a handful of people to phone so you get phone calls – "Oh, can you come and sing Isolde here tomorrow" – well, I came here and sang that Brünnhilde last minute in the Ring but that was slightly different because I'd done a Ring with Keith [Warner] in Tokyo – nothing like this one – but I knew what he thought about the roles, and that's what he told me on the phone around ten o'clock the night before, that his thinking about the characters hadn't changed particularly.'

Bullock's ability regularly to scale the peaks of the dramatic soprano's repertoire is helped by careful management but it is clear, when we talk about how she started singing, that it has its foundation in an unmistakable, raw talent. And she tells this story with all the unaffected honesty one would expect from someone who 'started singing by mistake.'

'It was not something I ever intended to do. I grew up in Cheshire. My parents were both in the police force initially, my mother's family was Welsh and her mother had a beautiful voice, but I don't quite know how it came to us and my parents were somewhat surprised. However, I'd always been a pianist and in my lower sixth there was an opportunity to go to the junior course at the Royal Northern College of Music on Saturday mornings. My brother was six years older than me and he'd read music at Manchester and he was away teaching when the letter came saying you had to have two studies. This was a problem since I only had the piano. I sang in a school choir and in the shows at school because it was fun. I knew I could be heard, that my voice was in tune and I'd always be asked to sing alto because I could carry the line. My brother just said this second study thing was a requirement and that he'd get someone to come and teach me a couple of songs.

'So I learnt those and went in and sang and played the piano at the audition. Then they asked if I could come back after lunch and sing again. They wanted me to sing to Alexander Young, the tenor, who was head of Vocal Studies there at the time. This was all very weird but I went back and sang and he said he really thought I should have singing lessons. And my poor mother who'd slaved away working in a sweet shop so I could have piano lessons was like "hang on a minute!" But that's how it all started. I then went to university to read music and chose a course at Royal Holloway College which involved a lot of practical work and I was also a member of their chapel choir, which is like being in the choir of an Oxbridge college, with evensong, matins and singing every day. The penny sort of dropped first of all that I really liked it but also that I could actually do it. Then I went to the Academy and did the postgraduate course.'

After the Royal Academy came the chorus at Glyndeborne for two seasons and two tours. 'By the time the second tour came around' she explains, 'I got a place on the Opera Studio. I did that for a year and then ENO picked me up. The first role I sang was Pamina. I was supposed to be covering bits and pieces and singing two-line wonders and then the Pamina withdrew and I was covering her. It was the big moment of the year because suddenly I was taken out and put in a room with Jonathan Miller and Ben Luxon and the next thing I knew I was on. And that's the way it's always gone. When I first started doing the Butterfly, that was by mistake, because the singer who was originally booked withdrew and I was the cover. I'd asked be the cover because I just wanted to dip into it and suddenly I had ten days to get on and do it.'

And is that the kind of situation she thrives in? 'Yes, I love it. I must be nuts. Because when the phone call came to do the last minute Brünnhilde here, I didn't think twice and just thought: "yes, I'm going". It was only when I was on the plane, having had about three minutes sleep I thought "you're a complete lunatic, what are you doing?" It was Covent Garden, it was Brünnhilde, I didn't know the production – I'd seen the Rheingold, the Siegfried and the Götterdämmerung but had been away for Walküre so had never seen it – I had no mental picture of it whatsoever and, lo and behold, there I was on stage, having learnt the production in the afternoon.

'I got to London at ten in the morning, came into town and had costume-fitting and wig-fitting, because obviously Lisa Gasteen [who'd been forced to withdraw] is a much taller girl than me so the frock was about two feet longer than it needed to be. Then we started working at about twelve and we learnt the production of Act Two. Tony [Pappano] then came in and we went through it all musically from beginning to end and by about the middle of the afternoon we'd decided that we'd learn Act Three in the long interval after Act Two. I thought there was no point in stuffing my brain with too much information. Act Two was quite complicated and I thought if I can get that fine then Act Three, which was less complicated in terms of staging, would be OK: I just had to make sure I didn't get knocked into the stalls by that revolving wall. The next day I went back to France – I was singing in Siegfried that evening – and I had to wonder to myself if I'd dreamt it all.'

She agrees that it's these sorts of story that opera's made of. It's all part of a job that she evidently loves more than ever. 'I didn't wake up when I was six and think I wanted to sing Brünnhilde, I didn't have a clue that it was what I was going to do. I thought Pamina was the top of the tree and it's all been a rather pleasant surprise!'

By Hugo Shirley

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