Susan Bullock, soprano

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My brother, who is 6 years older than me, came home at the age of 14 and announced he wanted to learn to play the piano. He went on to read Music at Manchester, and of course, as the little sister wanting to keep up, I insisted that I was allowed to have piano lessons too and that is where my musical interest started. I had a wonderful music teacher called David Hoult at Cheadle Hulme School where I went for the 6th form and he gave me lots of opportunities to perform. By that time I was also having singing lessons so I sang my first Messiah as a soloist there for example.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

When I was asked to take on the “big girl’s” roles such as Brünnhilde, Elektra and Isolde, I knew that the demands of this repertoire were huge and that there is simply no option but to live a very disciplined life whilst working on these roles where you often carry the entire performance. Making sure you are in top form is paramount because there is nowhere to hide in this rep!

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

I have to single a couple of occasions out…the first was when I took over as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre at Covent Garden in 2007 having been called very late the night before in Lyon where I was performing Brünnhilde in Siegfried at the time. I flew into London very early on the morning of the show not having slept a wink as I hadn’t sung Walküre for 10 months and was awake all night trying to remember it! I was put through my paces in the production which I had never seen before, and had a musical rehearsal with Tony Pappano and before I knew it, I was on stage in front of 2000 people. Happily it went very well and I then went on to do all 4 Ring Cycles there in 2012, but it was a surreal experience…a whirlwind! The other occasion that comes to mind was singing the Last Night of the Proms…again, slightly surreal to walk on to the stage at a packed Royal Albert Hall and know that millions of people around the world were watching. Thrilling and terrifying at the same time!

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I love Wagner and Strauss, Janacek and Britten…probably because they have been my “meat “for the past 20 years, but equally I am very happy doing works by contemporary composers such as Breaking the Waves by Missy Mazzoli and Greek by Mark-Anthony Turnage, both of which I have done at the Edinburgh Festival in recent years

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I try to be as normal as possible! I listen to jazz, I love to cook, I adore watching cricket and being around friends and family. It is important to be “normal” because so many of the characters I play are so extreme in one way or another that there has to be a balance!

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I don’t….they come to me! Obviously I have certain roles that I love to perform and so my agent is always on the lookout to see if they are being scheduled in coming seasons, but more often than not, the repertoire chooses me and not the other way around.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I love the St David’s Hall in Cardiff, the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and the Birmingham Symphony Hall for large scale concerts with orchestra. All have great acoustics and I have very fond memories of performing a huge variety of repertoire in each of them. For recitals, you cannot beat the Wigmore Hall. I have performed in many concert halls abroad but one that really stands out is the Musikverein in Vienna…a stunning building

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

Honestly? I think we need to stop apologising for classical music, stop trying to dumb it down. We need to celebrate it in the same way that we celebrate a wonderful sporting achievement for example. If people keep being fed the “it is elitist and it needs to be deflated” hype, we will never get anywhere. People need to know that they are surrounded by classical music in their everyday life…on TV, on radio, in films etc…it is there, it isn’t wrapped up in cotton wool in a museum somewhere, it is accessible, you can get in to theatres and concert halls for the same price ,or even less, than a football match. We need to stop deleting music from schools and instead make it a part of every child’s education.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In the 1990’s I was asked to sing the very small role of Mater Gloriosa in a televised and recorded Mahler 8 with KlausTennstedt at the Festival Hall. It is only a few bars long, but it is high and floaty and difficult to just stand up and sing it cold. I was completely in awe of Tennstedt who at that time was already very poorly. He was so kind to me and as long as I live I shall never forget the sound he got from the orchestra and chorus in the final section of the piece. I had tears rolling down my face…it was other-worldly

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success to me is going on to a stage knowing that I am totally prepared: I have put the work in and come off at the end of the performance knowing that I did my absolute best on that day. We are not machines and things can go wrong for no apparent reason however well prepared one is. My first singing teacher Marjorie Thomas who was a great singer herself, told me early on that if you can turn the light off at night after a performance and know you did your very best, then that is success.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Never ever turn up anywhere if you are not thoroughly prepared. Firstly, it is insulting to your colleagues, and more importantly, as the performer you cannot possibly get the most out of the experience if you are scrambling around trying to remember what comes next. Being a professional musician in any discipline requires just that…discipline. You have to be prepared to spend a LOT of time alone studying and then when you are performing , you have to take care of yourself. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not all champagne and limos, but VERY hard work!!

What is your present state of mind?

I would say that as I write this, I am quietly optimistic that we might find ourselves finally coming out of this horrific year where our industry has fallen to its knees, and that there may now be some real hope on the horizon that we can get back to doing what makes us tick.

Susan Bullock appears at this year’s Petworth Festival

Susan Bullock’s unique position as one of the world’s most sought-after dramatic sopranos was recognised by the award of a CBE in June 2014.

Of her most distinctive roles, Wagner’s Brünnhilde has garnered outstanding praise leading Susan Bullock to become the first ever soprano to sing four consecutive cycles of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Royal Opera House under Sir Antonio Pappano. Appearances as Richard Strauss’ Elektra have brought her equal international acclaim and collaborations with some of the world’s leading conductors including Fabio Luisi, Semyon Bychkov, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Mark Elder and Edo de Waart.

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(Image credit: Christina Raphaelle)

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