Julia Bullock is an expressive, golden-voiced soprano who honors classical divas Kathleen Ferrier and Dame Janet Baker, for inspiring her to follow her chosen path. Black American culture is central to her artistry, as evidenced by her acclaimed performances in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Hans Werner Henze’s El Cimarron (The Runaway Slave), and Perle Noire: Meditations for Josephine, a collaboration with director Peter Sellars in memory of chanteuse and humanitarian activist Josephine Baker.
On October 24 and 25, Bullock and pianist Cedric Tiberghien will appear at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre for the Midwestern premiere of Zauberland (Magic Land), a bold and thought-provoking bifurcated reconstruction of Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe (The Poet’s Love). The oldest ingredients in the mix are verses from 1823 by outspoken poet Heinrich Heine. Ostracized for his radicalism in Germany, he spent his last twenty-five years as an exile in Paris and was posthumously defamed with extreme virulence–his books banned and burned in the streets–by the Nazi regime.
Heine’s visions are variously erotic, phantasmic, wistful, morose, and nightmarish: a soul bathed in the chalice of a lily, a face painted over golden leather, the unsettling dream of the death of a loved one. In Heine’s magic land, bubbling springs provide music for dancing, flowers talk and whisper among themselves, and trees burst into song like a choir. Schumann’s settings of Heine’s words infuse them with his own imaginative emotional turbulence. In its original form, Dichterliebe is a crazy quilt of reflective sentimentality, romantic irony, and heart-on-sleeve outbursts.
Zauberland takes this heady mixture and pours it into the cauldron of twenty-first-century reality. Bullock assumes the persona of an emigre, forced to leave Syria for Germany while five months pregnant. Asleep in Cologne, she dreams that she is singing to her deceased husband in war-shattered Aleppo. Recital tradition is subverted as singer and pianist share the stage with props and silent actors, while Schumann’s sixteen Lieder are interwoven with nineteen newly composed songs by English dramatist Martin Crimp and Belgian composer Bernard Foccroulle. To my ears, the modern music grafted onto Schumann’s recalls the magical dreamlike clarity of composer Anton Webern. Poetry and melodies from vastly different eras segue with surprising fluidity.
Like Crimp, director Katie Mitchell appears to have been strongly influenced by iconoclastic playwright Jean Genet. Zauberland, she says, investigates how society “tries to insulate itself from the bigger world events, like mass migration, and fails. It takes the model of presenting classical music in a concert format as a metaphor for a society trying to hold global change at bay, only to discover that the barriers we put up to stop that change are porous.”