Dutch National Opera Forward Festival 2023 Review: Perle Noire, Meditations For Joséphine

Bullock Stars In A Work Of Raw Emotion

By Alan Neilson
Photo: Ruth Walz

Josephine Baker was born into poverty in the early 1900s in St. Louis, Missouri, at a time when open discrimination against black people was enshrined in the Jim Crow laws. By the age of 12, she had dropped out of school and, within a year, was married. Fast forward to the mid-1920s, and she was the toast of Paris, an icon of the Roaring Twenties, befriended by intellectuals and artists such as Picasso, Hemingway, and Cocteau. She was the star of the Folies Bergère, a singer, dancer, actress, and film star. In fact, in “Siren of the Tropics” she became the first black woman to star in a motion picture. She had well and truly left her days of penury behind and had found fame. During the Second World War, she worked for the French resistance, after which she took up the fight for civil rights in the USA. Surely, hers would be a great story for an opera. Certainly, the director Peter Sellers and soprano Julia Bullock thought so, although perhaps not in the form one might expect!

Bullock first performed songs associated with Josephine Baker at a recital in 2014 in which the songs about exploitation, objectification, and relationship difficulties, as well as the roles she was to adopt during her life, such as that of being an exotic outsider, became its defining motifs. And it is these themes that form the basis for the opera “Perle Noire, Meditations for Joséphine.” It is not a biographical opera, nor even a work about aspects of her life; rather, it is about the deep, private emotions that churned beneath the surface. We cannot know for certain what her emotions were or how strongly they raged; hence, the title of the work is “Meditations for Joséphine” and not “Joséphine’s Meditations.” Although helped by her own words, it is very much a work from a 21st-century perspective; one created in the aftermath of the abolition of Jim Crow, the civil rights demonstrations, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, in which the attitudes and values of both black and white people have altered significantly.

A Structure Based On Song

The work is structured around well-known or at least fairly well-known French music hall songs recorded by Baker, such as the famous “Bye Bye Blackbird,” along with the slave song “My Father How Long,” and a negro spiritual called “Terre Sèche,” which are held together by a spoken text. The composer and performer Tyshawn Sorey, who was charged with recomposing the music, had very definite ideas about what he wished to achieve. In the program notes, he writes about exposing Baker’s complex emotions: “I needed to defy casual listening… I needed the listener to feel them,” so out went the “pleasant little upbeat tunes, corny arrangements, and lush harmonies.” Rhythms, harmonies, and melodies were all rewritten. The original songs were remolded and twisted into tangential, exaggerated, or ironic interpretations; for some of the pieces, there is almost nothing left of the original music. The work is scored for a piano, drums, and small ensemble in which the musicians are required to react spontaneously and freely. Each performance should, therefore, be distinct and possess a creative energy in which Baker’s pain, anger, and defiance can be clearly felt. This is no nostalgic stroll down memory lane. It has been created to make the audience face the realities of a black woman having to earn her place in a white society by playing to their prejudices.

When the director Peter Sellers asked the black poet, playwright, novelist, and essayist Claudia Rankine to write a text to link the songs together, she had serious reservations. Images of Baker dancing at Paris’ Folies Bergère, dressed only in a necklace and a skirt of artificial bananas in front of an entirely white audience with its connotations of eroticism, exoticism, and exploitation, is unlikely to sit easily with a 21st-century audience, let alone a black American woman activist who grew up during the tail end of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. She told him, “I wasn’t interested in Europe’s exoticization of Josephine Baker, nor…. by Baker’s dependence on that exoticization in her creation of a self.”

Fortunately, Sellars was able to change her mind, for what emerged was an inspired text that complemented Sorey’s music and Bullock’s conception brilliantly. It is indeed rare for an audience to leave a theater and recall actual lines, but such was the power of Rankine’s text that this is exactly what happened.

                                                                “I ran and they called it dancing”

                                                     “Do you fully know that what is missing in me,

                                            was taken from me by you before either of us arrived here?”

                                                                  “Is that ugly silly person me?”

                                                              “I understand that I am a package

                                   that’s been ripped, opened and devoured – like a box of chocolates”

Bullock’s Brilliant Interpretation

For this performance at the Dutch National Opera, the stage was divided into two halves separated by a staircase, with Sorey, on piano and drums and members of the International Contemporary Ensemble positioned on either side. The remaining space was given over to Bullock so that the overall impression was that of a jazz club or cabaret nightclub. Sellars was the director, and Michael Schumacher was the choreographer. Together they created a scintillating performance that successfully fulfilled its aims.

The star of the show was, of course, Bullock, who created an intense, powerful, and insightful reading that was not, and never was supposed to have been, Josephine Baker. She was Julia Bullock! However, by identifying with Baker’s situation and immersing herself in the emotional torment she undoubtedly suffered, Bullock was able to produce a believable, nuanced portrait of what it means for an individual to spend their life on the wrong end of other people’s prejudices, of being forced to accommodate these prejudices in order to make a success for themselves, of having to suppress the anger and rage and retain a smiling face.

Her renditions of the nine songs, ranging in length from five or six minutes to 17 minutes, were all expertly delivered. Each was carefully crafted as Bullock threw herself into their emotional depths; her humiliation and sadness, anger and defiance cascaded forth as if released following years of suppression, although there was also room for her to express more tender emotions of love and happiness, such as in “Doudou.” The final piece, “My Father How Long,” taken from the 1867 anthology “The Slave Songs of the United States,” was particularly notable for the urgency and depth of feeling with which she was able to imbue the sentiments of the song in which she also made its resonance with today so very clear.

The songs also allowed her to show off the wonderful alluring qualities of her voice, such as its wide vocal range, versatility, and wonderful coloring. What really came across in this performance, however, was the degree of expressivity and emotional honesty she brought to each song.

Her delivery of Rankine’s text was equally powerful. The force, the sincerity, and the passion were etched in the voice, and her bodily movements were exceptionally well managed to support their meaning.

Unfortunately, Baker is, perhaps, remembered more for her famous “Danse Sauvage” than for any other single event, in which she danced bare-breasted wearing a short skirt of artificial bananas. Any meditation on her life would find it difficult to ignore it, and it was not ignored here. Bullock, wearing a black costume with a see-through top, took the dance face-on and turned it into a depiction of the rage that Baker must have felt inside at feeling compelled to do it. The anger Bullock released was frightening. This was not a titillating experience; this was menace, a defiant challenge to the audience, and it was as mesmerizing as it was uncomfortable to watch.

Bullock’s musical and emotional sensitivity, intelligence, and commitment ensured it was a role-defining performance and confirmed her as one of the best singing actresses around today.

Energetic and Gripping Onstage Performance From Sorey & The Musical Ensemble

Listening to the music, it was, at times, difficult to understand what it had in common with the songs on which it was based. Occasionally, there were pieces of the melody that could be identified, and the rhythmic qualities could often be heard, although usually in a slowed-down form. This was, however, of little importance. The music itself was thoroughly engaging: often it was disturbing, sometimes you could feel the anger and defiance; at other times it pounded out strong rhythms as with the Danse Sauvage, it rarely settled into a comfortable melody, and it was always honest and true to the raw emotions it was endeavoring to present. There were no tearful tunes or sentimental melodies to pull on the heartstrings. It was deliberately unsettling.

Watching Sorey himself perform was a real pleasure, as he moved regularly between the drums and piano, exuding a calm energy and relaxed confidence. His solos, particularly on the drums, did not, however, lack energy; far from it, but the overall impression was one of level-headed composure. He played with a great sense of freedom and imagination, including using mallets on the piano strings.

The International Contemporary Ensemble was no less impressive. The musicians produced a totally committed performance, in which you could see them enjoying each other’s improvised solos. Occasionally, a soloist would accompany Bullock in the center of the stage in an act of support or sympathy, which was a convincing and neatly conceived touch.

Overall, this was an exhausting piece of theater. It certainly was not an easy piece of light entertainment. Yet it was gripping and imaginative. It worked superbly on so many levels. The message Bullock, Sellers, Sorey, and Rankine wanted to convey to the audience was expertly delivered both on an emotional and intellectual level. It also challenged the form of opera itself, not just in the choice of musical style or in the instruments it employed but in the way it combined singing, the spoken word, dance, and the movement of the body and blurred the lines between the performers. Moreover, it proved to be a wonderful showcase for Julia Bullock.


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