Peter Sellars and Julia Bullock
Text: Naomi Teekens | Photo: (c) Stephanie Berger

‘Joséphine Baker is an icon of liberty’

21 March 2022

Opera singer Julia Bullock and director Peter Sellars on Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine.

Julia: “I have always wanted to highlight the Black experience as an artist, which is why I included several of Joséphine Baker’s songs in my first-ever recital. It was important to me to explore issues such as exoticism, exploitation and objectification, and to expose the collective wound sustained by the Black community. I didn’t feel talking about these issues would be playing to my strengths, as I felt I would accomplish more by singing about them. This is how Perle Noire began to take shape and how Joséphine Baker became increasingly significant to the story I wanted to tell.”

Peter: “Most biographical works focus exclusively on the bright and sunny aspects of Baker’s life; obliterating the more chilling elements that she hid behind her smile. In doing so, they follow the pattern of Joséphine’s existence, in which her inner world – her emotions and experiences – are completely ignored. This does not come as a huge surprise, considering that none of the songs she sang were ever written or composed by Black people. We aim to change this narrative with Perle Noire. Composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Claudia Rankine created the score and words for this production, giving audiences an opportunity to hear a more authentic version of the Black experience.”

Julia Bullock and Peter Sellars in the studio
Photo: (c) Stephanie Berger

Julia: “We wanted to peel back the layers of Baker’s cheerful façade, uncovering the rich inner emotional life embedded within her songs. Baker was never able to express herself genuinely – she wasn’t given the means to do so, as she was constrained by the stereotypes white men placed on her. Many African American artists, including Tyshawn, Claudia and myself, want to crack open, but also move beyond, the systemic oppressive practices that robbed our ancestors of much of their authentic artistry. African tradition encourages artists to reconnect with their ancestors during a performance, giving them an opportunity to say what they could not when they were alive. We wanted to incorporate this ritual in Perle Noire, making it palpable and tangible for everyone. In light of this, Tyshawn and I reworked Baker’s vocal lines so that her authentic voice would be heard, and she could finally express what resided in her inner mind.”

Peter: “I think it is fitting that we are bringing Joséphine Baker’s story to Amsterdam. Much of the city’s opulence and sumptuousness serves as a painful reminder of its racial oppression in the past. Unveiling Joséphine’s unspoken truths in the city of Amsterdam will therefore be both powerful and historically significant. Centuries of oppression have left a mark that is still very tangible in the present day.”

Julia: Perle Noire has given me the opportunity to use poetry and music as a means to discuss and explore emotionally-charged and challenging issues that have shaped the world we all live in. In this way, I hope to contribute to the process of healing that needs to occur in this world, so that freedom is a concept that applies to everyone and not just a select few.”


Julia Bullock

Opera singer Julia Bullock has been hailed as one of the most unique and progressive voices of her generation. Her razor-sharp intellect and undeniable stage presence allow her to seamlessly combine social conscience and activism with versatile artistry.

At DNO, Julia Bullock appeared in The Rake's Progress, shone in the role of Dame Shirley in Girls of the Golden West and in the role of Daughter in Upload. She also appeared as Destiny, Loneliness and Greta in Fire Shut Up In My Bones at Theatre Saint Louis and in Perle Noire at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, among others.

Peter Sellars

Celebrated opera and theatre director Peter Sellars has gained international renown for his groundbreaking interpretations of classics. He also invests in collaborative projects with an extraordinary range of creative and forward-thinking young artists.

With John Adams, Peter Sellars worked (both as director and librettist) for DNO on such works as Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic and Girls of the Golden West. He also conducted several scenic world premieres for composer Kaija Sraahio, including Only the Sound Remains. Furthermore, he also directed Pelléas et Melisande, Oedipus Rex l Psalm Symphony and Biblical Pieces at DNO.

Come to Celebrating Diversity - An Evening Around Perle Noire on 9 October, during Black Achievement Month.

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