Classical: If you want perfect, buy a CD

Susan Bullock doesn't hide behind a beautiful voice. She's not image conscious. Telling the truth is all that matters. By Edward Seckerson
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The Independent Culture
You're going to be naked, you're going to be naked...", taunted one well-known opera director on hearing that Susan Bullock was to give her first Desdemona in David Freeman's new English National Opera staging of Verdi's Otello. Freeman, founding father of the now defunct Opera Factory, was once the wild-man of opera, the scourge, the Antichrist of opera as the great and good had come to know and love it. While opera slowly but surely atrophied into a "museum" culture, Freeman was among those systematically rearranging the exhibits. Then last year he worked for Raymond Gubbay - "the people's impresario" - on the water-borne Madame Butterfly at the Albert Hall. So maybe Susan Bullock wouldn't be naked after all.

It's two weeks before opening night when we meet, and stage rehearsals are well underway. So far she hasn't lost a stitch. But a quick peep through the closed doors of the Coliseum auditorium reveals set-building in progress and clearly we're a long way from 15th century Cyprus. Perimeter fencing and a lot of barbed wire suggests this century, if not the here and now. So Freeman is back, and this time it's personal. Well it is for Desdemona, the white woman who leaves behind everything she's ever known - home, family, friends - for the love of a black man. That makes her a tough cookie in Bullock's eyes. "She's got guts. She follows her man to this strange far-off place, somewhere she doesn't belong, somewhere she doesn't understand... and all against the wishes of her family. No wonder she can't quite believe what's happening to her. She's not a victim, though, and I wouldn't want to play her that way. She's got character - that's what makes her interesting..."

Bullock's got character, and that makes her interesting. The very idea that she could ever be the kind of Desdemona who floats serenely, compliantly, to her fate doesn't even bear thinking about. She'll not go softly softly into any dark night. She's a feisty, plain-speaking, risk-taking northerner who's more than a match for opera's outsize emotions. As ever, there'll be a lot of Bullock in this Desdemona - a lot of resistance, a lot of fight. The evening will not, she insists, go out on a prayer and a whimper: "a 25-minute death scene".

"Even as Desdemona sings the `Willow Song' there has to be this strange sense that, rather like the song, this is someone else's story, this is happening to someone else. That's the real challenge. For me, that final scene is only dramatically interesting if, despite all her fears, you can still believe that she believes that Otello will come to their bedchamber and make amends. Even as he says to her `confess your sins - I don't want to murder your soul', she still cannot really accept that this is the night, the moment, that she will die."

The resistance makes it harder to sing, of course, but that's the least of Bullock's concerns. She's never been one "to hide behind singing", as she puts it, she's never been one for whom "the beautiful voice" comes before the sense and sensibility, the deeper emotional truths of a role. Bullock's voice - even as it has grown, fleshed-out over the years - has always sounded honest, robust, lived-in. Not without beauty - far from it - but possessed of a vibrancy, an edge, an unvarnished quality. If you want unblemished, buy a CD, she says. The cosmetic approach to opera, singing, singers, doesn't interest her. It concerns her that in the age of the big sell, live opera - unadulterated, unamplified - should to some ears pall by comparison with the instant "fix" of a high-decibel, super- digital, 24-bit CD. It concerns her that image sells. It's not her style. Nor is it her priority. Singers are becoming increasingly image-conscious, she believes. A slim figure has begun to matter more than a well-rounded portrayal. It's enough to drive a girl to ice cream and chips.

This girl came to opera, to singing, unexpectedly. Neither of her parents was "musical"; both their children were (Susan's brother is head of music at a college in Luxembourg). Susan was an aspiring pianist. She only sang solo at school because her voice was louder than the other kids (you'd better believe her). But the aspiring pianist became an in spiring singer, sailing through two-and-a-half years at the Royal Academy, two seasons in the Glyndebourne Chorus, and a year at the Opera Studio to a contract with English National Opera. En route she picked up the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Award (1984).

English National Opera nurtured her, groomed her for bigger and better things. But slowly. Make haste slowly was their motto: beneficial in the long-term, frustrating in the short. Bullock was the "first cover" or she was the "second cast" - which meant no six-week rehearsal period, no first-night glory, and a lot of waiting in the wings for the next throat infection or back injury to strike. The phone, she says, rang at most inopportune moments. But the roles were shaping up nicely - Pamina in The Magic Flute, Gilda in Rigoletto, Marguerite in Faust, Ellen in Peter Grimes, Tayana in Onegin - a progressive lengthening of her lyric soprano reach. Then came one of those happy misfortunes. Happy for Bullock but not for Janice Cairns who failed to bounce back from one of Tosca's notorious battlements leaps. Bullock was suddenly "on" for the revival of Puccini's Madame Butterfly in the starkly uncompromising Graham Vick production. And she was so good, so poignant, so complete in the role that this critic (who wasn't on duty at the time) wrote his one-line review on a postcard and left it at the stage door.

Butterfly demands everything, and more, that the lyric voice can deliver. She floats in a child bride, the high-lying vocal line full of wonder, she exits a deserted woman in a blaze of belting robustness. For Bullock, it's become the role against which everything in her development as a singer and performer can be measured. Some critics may have homed in on her less than geisha-like figure, but the truth is she transcended the physical - and she knows it. She's an all-or-nothing, total-immersion performer. At this summer's Spoleto Festival she blew everyone away with a performance as Magda Sorrell in Menotti's The Consul that my colleague at the Independent on Sunday described as one of "historic stature" (happily Chandos Records were there to tape it). Magda is a kind of everywoman- against-the-system, and it's her climactic aria which stops the show, your heart, your disbelief. "Essentially," says Bullock, talking me through the aria as if psyching herself up for an impromptu performance, "she loses it." You don't have to have been there to know what Bullock "losing it" might entail.

She's just sung her first Tosca ("I came off thinking I never want to sing anything else!") and such was the abandon of her Act Two encounter with the evil police chief Scarpia that on opening night she could barely compose herself to sing "Vissi d'arte": "I remember those clarinet chords getting ever closer and thinking to myself - Oh, God! I'm not ready, I need another half-hour, a rub-down, and a valium! - but you draw in all your technical reserves, and..." Before you ask, she had listened to the Callas Tosca, of course she had. But not during preparation of the role: "I find it too easy to mimic, and that's dangerous. But, you know, Callas is a wonderful example of sound connecting with feeling in a really meaningful way. It isn't a beautiful sound, but that couldn't matter less because it's real."

Meaning truthful. Without that we're back to "the beautiful voice" once again. It isn't enough. How do you make flesh and blood of a character called Minnie in an opera called The Girl of the Golden West? If you're Susan Bullock, you start by trying to understand how she feels. If the feelings are real, the character is credible. And to hell with whether you can shoot straight. Puccini's spaghetti western will be a first for Bullock, a first for ENO. There'll be other firsts (Verdi's Ballo and Forza, perhaps, Strauss's Marschallin, and, who knows, maybe even Wagner's Sieglinde) but Bullock's options are wide open.

"You have to remember that the voice is constantly changing. A very wise man - the bass Michael Langdon - once told me never to sing to anyone's expectations but my own, and never in any voice but my own. And that means the voice I have today, not the voice I had yesterday, or the voice I hope to have in 10 years. Because I don't know what that is going to be."

I think we have a pretty good idea.

`Otello' opens tonight at the Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (0171-632 8300)

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