Performance information

Performance information

1 hour and 50 minutes, no interval

This performance will be sung in French and English.
The spoken texts will be in English.
There are English and Dutch surtitles.



Spoken texts
Claudia Rankine
Edited by
Julia Bullock
Zack Winokur

Peter Sellars
Movement coach
Michael Schumacher
Costume design
Carlos J. Soto
Lighting design
James F. Ingalls
Sound design
Marc Urselli



Joséphine Baker
Julia Bullock

Piano and percussion
Tyshawn Sorey
International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)

Jennifer Curtis
Alice Teyssier
Travis Laplante
Rebekah Heller
Electric guitar
Daniel Lippel

Original production of
Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris


Production team

Frans Willem de Haas
Stage management
Roland Lammers van Toorenburg
Emma Eberlijn
Master carpenter
Peter Brem
Lightning manager
Michel van Reijn
Sound engineer
Vince van Seggelen
Florian Jankowski
Arnout Verdonk
Costume production
Lars Willhausen
First make-up artist
Trea van Drunen
Artistic planner
Margot Vervliet
Naomi Teekens
Surtitle director
Eveline Karssen
Surtitle operator
Maxim Paulissen
Production manager
Nicky Cammaert
External production manager
Betsy Ayer
Set supervisor
Puck Rudolph

Exposing la Perle Noire

Singer Julia Bullock about Joséphine Baker.

Exposing la Perle Noire

“Miss Baker… has, alas, almost become a little lady. Her caramel-colored body, which overnight became a legend in Europe, is still magnificent, but it has become thinned, trained, and almost civilized. Her voice, especially in the vo-deo-do’s, is still a magic flute that hasn’t yet heard of Mozart… There is a rumor that she wants to sing refined ballads; one is surprised that she doesn’t want to play Othello. On that lovely animal visage lies now a sad look, not of captivity, but of dawning intelligence.”

– Janet Flanner, The New Yorker, 1930

I was first compared to Joséphine Baker when I began my studies of classical Western European music in college; and was told that because of the way that I looked, I would likely be asked to sing a lot of exotic repertoire. Sparked by complex feelings and questions around identity, I began to research the life, and music of the entertainer, who, at that time, I identified as ‘the woman who danced in a banana skirt’.

My research revealed that Joséphine and I had a few things in common – we were both born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, danced a lot as children, and moved to New York to pursue performing. But this is where our paths diverged. Because of the discrimination she faced in the United States, she emigrated to Paris in 1925. There she became not only the highest-paid female performer and the highest-paid Black performer, but also the highest-paid entertainer the world had ever seen. This all occurred while across the Atlantic, Jim Crow laws prevailed, and women’s suffrage was less than a decade old.

Julia Bullock tijdens een repetitie van Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine
Julia Bullock | Photo: Melle Meivogel

‘Exoticism’ dictated her early career – she was sometimes dressed as a bird, locked in a cage, singing of her ‘home’ in Africa (‘Afrique’), even though she wouldn’t set foot there until later in life. Some may view this as exploitation, and there’s no escaping that fact. But I believe that for Joséphine Baker, it was the first time she could reveal herself in front of an audience on her own terms. Even that initial image I had of her in a banana skirt is a powerful one of agency – a female force at the center of a crude representation of male dominance.

While many speak of Joséphine’s larger-than-life presence through the lens of performance, I think her impact was most beautifully realized through her involvement in France’s resistance movement during World War II. Recognition from her home country wasn’t confirmed until the Civil Rights Movement, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invited her to speak at the March on Washington in 1963, and when Coretta Scott King asked her to be the face of the movement after King’s assassination.

So, to say she was turned into an icon would not be an overstatement. But for me Joséphine Baker is not merely an icon for women. She is not just an icon for Black people. She is an icon of liberty. She challenged and combated her environment through various modes of expression. In music, however, she was limited in terms of experimentation. She left the United States just as the Harlem Renaissance was coming into full bloom, and mostly worked as a vaudevillian dancer early on. She never learned to sing the blues and missed the beginning of the jazz age; although she flourished in the stylings of the French music hall — a neatly, confined frame, where she could push boundaries without being too explicitly confrontational.

I first programmed songs Joséphine was known for on a 2014 debut recital program. These songs touched on themes which seemed to pervade her life – exploitation and objectification, issues surrounding identity, the difficulties in maintaining intimate relationships, and the roles that she played — from an exotic entity in a foreign place to a charmer, nurturer, and activist.

The director Peter Sellars then encouraged me to broaden my exploration of Baker and her influence on me as a performer. So, Peter invited the poet Claudia Rankine to contribute text; I felt it pertinent to consider Baker’s body through dance, so Peter asked the choreographer Michael Schumacher to develop a deconstructed charleston with me; and the International Contemporary Ensemble introduced me to the composer Tyshawn Sorey. Together we compiled words, movement, and music that examined and highlighted various undercurrents of Joséphine Baker’s life, in an effort to share an in-depth portrait of a dynamic being.

In 2016, after performing the source material in a relatively raw form called Josephine Baker: A Portrait. Tyshawn and I retitled the work into Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine. This project was in fact not so much about her; it was actually a work especially for her. We’ve since shared Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine in a wide range of venues across the United States – from outdoor theaters and cabaret settings to museums of visual art. Each time we return to this piece, it presents us with new opportunities to collectively reexamine the material and to investigate how to more pointedly share why the themes permeating Baker’s story still resonate today.

To share our Perle Noire for the first time in Europe and in an operatic space carries significance for me, not only because I am now a permanent resident in Germany, but also because Baker had fled the United States with the hope to escape racism, various other forms of oppression and live with more freedom. However, despite her status and privileges as an extraordinary performer, she still had to reckon with the reality that dehumanizing, colonialist practices and attitudes were still unresolved across Europe… a place where she so wanted to feel safe and that she wanted to call home.

Julia Bullock tijdens een repetitie van Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine
Julia Bullock | Photo: Melle Meivogel

Baker once said herself, “Since I personified the savage on the stage, I tried to be as civilized as possible in daily life.” How exhausting it must have been for her to be preoccupied with how she was perceived onstage and off. Admittedly, I have also been fearful, as a performer and a person, about how I would be projected and exposed as a woman of color in the public eye. But when I took on the charge of researching Baker’s history and decided to embody that history onstage for others to witness, since it paralleled many of my own experiences, that fear dissolved.

I have never intended to impersonate Joséphine Baker. I am not interested in the projection of a Black popular singer who is exoticized, eroticized, and proclaimed as an extraordinary exception to ‘the norm’. I also do not know how to play into the trappings of a brilliant Black operatic soprano who represents absolute dignity and power, impenetrable in her strength, and ever grateful for opportunities. While I do not know how to play into those characterizations, because they do not reflect the complexities of a complete human existence, I do know that because of the sacrifices and successes of Black American performers who came before me, I will not be coerced to perpetuate tropes or stereotypes of my predecessors.

As I embody the shades, hues and dimensions of this material each night – as I stand, walk, dance, and sing on platforms and places that hold so much complicated, ruthless, and astonishing history – I am walking as myself; a more fully incorporated person, who continues to increase her capacity to embrace where she has come from and who envisions where she wants to go, as someone who aims to share a reality that is direct, clear, immediate, and speaks to you, right now.

Text: Julia Bullock

Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine - A Discourse of Musical Liberation

Composer Tyshawn Sorey on Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine.

Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine - A Discourse of Musical Liberation

Ever since I began to develop my compositional voice, my music has always been in conversation with both formal composition and improvisation – which I prefer to phrase as spontaneous music. I find it the most enriching component of music-making – for the self and for others. And it has therefore become the true key to my compositional methodology and musical signature.

Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine consists of a flexible musical score that brings formal composition and spontaneous music together. I therefore tend to describe Perle Noire as a musical work with a certain three-dimensionality. First, there’s the written score, which forms the basis for everyone. Secondly, there are directives for spontaneity to be found within that score. And then there is the third part, wherein we all just freely move through the musical landscape. Not everyone can therefore play this music. As even though I generally use traditional Western notation, I expect from my musicians that they can move off the page. Musicians I work with do therefore always need to be on their toes – even if they have the score right front of them. As I strive to create an Odyssey that is both serene as well as intense and terrifyingly dangerous. To me, this embraces the feeling of aliveness as well as that it explicitly asks for artistic authenticity. It makes that the piece keeps on evolving through the uniquely beautified perspectives of the musicians performing the piece; which moves the artistic agency from just one person to a full ensemble of individuals

For Perle Noire Peter, Julia and I initially thought of a personal portrait of Joséphine – one that would delve into the inner turmoil of her heart. The piece was thus never meant to perform a masquerade it rather eschewed from a simple nostalgic excursion. We wanted to acknowledge her as a vulnerable human being who dealt with struggles such as marginalization, as well as the suffering and the brutality inflicted on black people. It thus became less about painting a portrait, but more about deconstructing a myth.

Tyshawn Sorey tijdens een repetitie
Tyshawn Sorey | Photo: Melle Meivogel

My mission became to offer songs that strayed very far from the original musical recordings. I dedicated and endeavored myself to make the listener pay attention to the words she sang. As I wanted to reveal a side of her that was actually all already there in some of the lyrical content of the songs she used to sing, but hidden underneath pleasant little upbeat tunes, corny arrangements, and lush harmonies. I thus needed to defy casual listening. As the emotional complexity present in Baker’s life and lyrics should not solely be something that is just noticed by the listeners. I needed the listeners to also feel them – so that she, and the messages she sings of, are also actually being heard. To intensify the inherent tragedy, I decided to slow down the tempo, to spread out the rhythm and to incorporate barely audible raw sonorities as well as pure silence.

To some, the music of Perle Noire therefore fails in being cultural ‘authentic.’ Some critics even mentioned that my musical arrangements of Baker’s signature songs were “painfully monochromatic — everything she herself wasn’t.” But Perle Noire does in the end fully reject the idea of a canonical Joséphine Baker. In every single way we wanted to liberate her from the violence of white gaze; allowing her story to be finally told in all its complexity. Yet, to a lot of these critics, the music of Perle Noire simply wasn’t ‘black enough’. But my work has nothing to do with only being solely ‘authentically black’. I have never been interested in making Baker fit into the mold of the stereotypical black entertainer, nor am I interested in living up to this trope myself. The fact that these folks’ wanted me as a black composer to “stay in my lane” – only underlines how the racial simplistic views that were forced onto Baker still resonate today.

Text: Tyshawn Sorey

The music of Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine

Composer Tyshawn Sorey took inspirations from Baker’s French Music Hall-songs and altered their rhythms, harmonies, and melodies. The following of Baker’s signature songs have been incorporated into his composition.

The music of Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine

Composed by Ray Henderson
Written by Mort Dixon

Composed by Jacques Dillan Belasco
Written by Andre De Badet
Featured in the film Princesse Tam Tam

Originally “Esto es felicidad”
Composed and written by Henri Lemarchand, Bobby Collazo, and J. Carbo Menendez
French arrangement by Jo Bouillon

Composed and written by Maïotte Almaby

Composed and written by Lennart Falk and Henri Varna

DOUDOU (1936)
Composed by Maurice Hermite and Lucien Pipon
Written by Charles-Louis Pothier

C’EST LUI (1934)
Composed by Georges van Parys
Written by Roger Bernstein
Featured in the film Zou-Zou

Originally “Terra seca”
Composed by Ary Barroso
French arrangement by Jo Bouillon

From Slave Songs of the United States: The Classic 1867 Anthology
Edited by William Francis Allen, Lucy McKim Garrison and Charles Pinkard Ware

Kostuumontwerpen voor Julia Bullock voor Perle Noire
Costume designs by Carlos J. Soto

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