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Susan Bullock: on singing Isolde from the wings, the Last Night of the Proms and popping down to Tescos

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday 7 September 2011 | 10:39:00 pm

It’s an odd trade I’m in,” muses Susan Bullock. “You spend the morning in rehearsal trying to get inside a raging and damaged character like Elektra, then in the afternoon you might have to pop round to Waitrose.” We’re meeting at her club, tucked away in a side-alley by the Coliseum, the cavern-like home of English National Opera, where she started as a young principal singer in 1985. She’s in a rare quiet period between roles, but as she tells me, her time off was unexpectedly interrupted the previous week.

“I was due to go to Grange Park Opera to see my husband in Tristan and Isolde. In the morning I had a call from the company. 'We know you’re planning to come down,’ they said. 'Would you mind singing Isolde from the wings? Our soprano’s gone down with something and can’t sing.’ Well I hadn’t sung it for a while, but I had to say yes.

Bullock: ''Orest!''-Elektra MET 2009

“Actually, it was a good experience because being tucked away in the wings I could really think again about the words and the character.” It’s typical of Bullock that she said yes without turning her hair, and then turned an emergency into a learning experience.

She’s an interesting mixture of down-to-earth northerner (born and raised in Cheshire) and restless perfectionist. You get the sense that despite the stellar career, she isn’t quite convinced she’s “arrived”.

Part of the reason for that may be that Bullock came to singing almost by accident. “I started on the piano, because my elder brother decided he wanted piano lessons. I turned out to be quite good, and years later auditioned for the junior section of the Royal Northern College of Music. I needed a second study. My brother said, 'Why don’t you sing something, you’ve not got a bad voice?’ I did, and the examiners told my mother, 'You know, your daughter really ought to be a singer.’ That changed everything.”

After years of hesitating, Bullock decided singing really was for her. She landed a place in the Glyndebourne chorus, and later ENO took her on as a principal.

But progress was slow. “I was told I had to mature, and that suited me.” But such a talent couldn’t be kept to understudying for long, and after a few memorable leading roles, she left ENO for a freelance career.

That was 22 years ago. Since then, she’s become one of that tiny group of sopranos who can take on the big, larger-than-life, passionate female roles — Janác˘ ek’s Jenufa, Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, Wagner’s Isolde.

She’s now mid-way through a complete Ring cycle in Frankfurt in which she’s singing Brunnhilde. What fascinates her about these characters? “I suppose it’s the sense that you never get to the bottom of them. Also you have a different relationship to the character as you get older. This is what those daft programmes about becoming an opera star never mention.

“They make it look as if it’s just about standing there and making a fabulous noise.” Is there time for anything like relaxation? “Well, I love jazz, and I go to the Vortex or 606 clubs when I can.” Who does she admire? “I think Norma Winstone is fantastic, I’d love to be able to sing like that.” It turns out that Bullock once had her own jazz moment, at the famous Lenox Lounge in Harlem. “It was an open-mike night, and my dear husband had fixed me a slot. I sang Summertime, which was the first song that popped into my head.” Without the mike, needless to say.

On Saturday she’s appearing in the Last Night of the Proms, along with Lang Lang and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. “I can’t believe it’s really happening. It’s something that only happens to serious, grown-up people,” she laughs. “I’ve got to sing Rule Britannia, which is a real pig to sing, it’s full of twiddly fast notes which I don’t do so much any more.” Before that comes one of her set pieces, the Immolation Scene which ends Wagner’s Ring cycle.

“I’ll be rereading the text before I go on, because I have to throw myself into that ecstatic state Brunnhilde enters as she rides on to Siegfried’s pyre. She’s taking leaving of all the things that meant so much to her.”