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With a bold debut album, Julia Bullock curates an unconventional career

The classical singer Julia Bullock has released <em>Walking in the Dark</em>, her debut solo album.
Grant Legan
Nonesuch Records
The classical singer Julia Bullock has released Walking in the Dark, her debut solo album.

Julia Bullock likes to call herself a "classical singer," instead of an opera singer, or simply a soprano. It's another way the 35-year-old St. Louis native is carefully building her unconventional career. Because her voice is among today's most expressive — a deluxe combination of velvety smoothness and brushed steel — you would think she might load up her debut solo album with showstopping opera arias.

Instead, Walking in the Dark, offers mainly songs — some a little out in left field, like "One by One," by the obscure singer-songwriter Connie Converse. With her signature elegant phrasing, Bullock transforms this introspective little song into something profound — like Schubert in a pensive mood. Converse, who enjoyed a flicker of recognition in the 1950s, never cut an album and disappeared mysteriously in 1974, never to be heard from again. Her song maps the precariousness of our connections with each other.

There is no opera on the album, but that doesn't mean there isn't any dramatic music. The fiery side of Bullock is on display in a selection from El Niño, a riveting reconsideration of the Nativity story by John Adams. This music not only represents Bullock as a go-to singer for Adams — she's had key roles in three of his productions — but points to the curatorial rigor in the themes Bullock threads through Walking in the Dark.

For Bullock, the word "dark" is neither positive nor negative. "Darkness is a place where we may find protection and safety," she writes in the album's booklet. "It's a place we may hold intimate secrets and desires — or it's somewhere we hide and shield wounds or violent acts." Another theme winding through the album is the spirit of Nina Simone. Bullock sings three songs Simone covered, including Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free" and "Brown Baby," where she stretches her range, introducing a rich low register.

Perhaps the anchor of Bullock's album — another piece set at night — is Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, an affecting orchestral tableau told from the viewpoint of a young boy, lying on a quilt with his family in the backyard on a warm summer evening. While Bullock's interpretation falls somewhere between the girlish Dawn Upshaw and the more formal Barbara Hendricks, you can hear her searching for larger truths and a more luminous tone. The German conductor Christian Reif coaxes fine detail from the Philharmonia Orchestra and makes a sensitive pianist for Bullock (to whom he is married) in five songs on the album.

From Barber's summer night, Bullock shifts to a winter morning sky — the set lighting for Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," which closes Walking in the Dark on a bittersweet note of nostalgia. Bullock completely reharmonizes the song and paints it in minor key colors and broad, meditative strokes. If you know the majestic Judy Collins version, or the haunted one by Nina Simone, you might be in for a shock. Bullock isn't afraid to put her own stamp on a song that is fearless in the face of time.

With its smart, wildly diverse repertoire, Julia Bullock's Walking in the Dark is an album that shines, introducing us to an artist curating a career on her own distinctive terms.

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Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.