Fresh from her triumphant performance as Brünnhilde in four consecutive cycles of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Royal Opera House this autumn, leading dramatic soprano Susan Bullock returned to Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance to give a masterclass to six of our final year and postgraduate students. Afterwards she shared a few words about her career, along with some advice for aspiring singers…
How did you first get into singing?
By accident! I initially went to study piano at the Junior Department of the Royal Northern College of Music, and they told me I had to do a second study. I had previously sung in choirs so decided on singing, and was told at the audition that I ought to get lessons. Before then I had never really thought about singing much, and certainly not as a career.
Was there any particular key turning point in your career?
Not really, there were just so many... I suppose getting the chance to sing roles like Madame Butterfly in the '90s was a turning point, and then starting to sing Wagner in the 2000s.
What was your most memorable singing experience?
Again, there are just too many to identify a single one. The first time singing each of the big roles - Elektra, Salome, Isolde, Brunnhilde, etc - is always particularly memorable.
You've just finished singing four complete cycles of Wagner's Ring at Covent Garden - the first time that has ever been done! What was that like?
It was utterly exhausting, but exhilarating too. And of course even within the same production, each time through is different: there are different things going on in your life and in the lives of the other singers, there's a different atmosphere, a different audience… So starting the Cycle afresh each time was like the beginning of a new journey.
How long does it usually take you to learn an opera?
It can take a long time to learn an opera properly - it took me about a year to learn Die Walküre, for instance - because it's not just about the notes, that's only the beginning. You have to know the words, the nuances and inflections, and you need to know what's going on around you as well, and what the other characters are saying and doing. It's about really getting inside a character, understanding their feelings and what makes them tick, and about knowing the opera inside out.
Obviously you spend a lot of time travelling and performing abroad - is it good to be home?
I do enjoy travelling, but of course it's good to be home. It's nice to be close enough to see friends and family, and it's also a treat to just do normal things like going shopping in your local supermarket.
What do you particularly enjoy about giving masterclasses?
I love working with singers, exploring the music together, approaching problems together and working out ways of getting round them, gaining a better understanding of the music in the process. It's especially enjoyable when students are as responsible and prepared as they are here. I learn as much from it as they do - it's great to be made to think about how you do things, and how the music works.
What would be your advice to a young opera singer starting out?
Be fully prepared at all times. There's nothing worse than turning up to a rehearsal without having learned everything properly: notes, words, other people's parts. You just annoy everyone else and waste their time, when they've put in the hours to learn everything properly. If you're not going to bother to do that, then you will ultimately be the one that loses out.
Always remember that as singers we're here to tell stories. The fact that we have wonderful words at our disposal is a huge plus in helping us to create colours and moods. Never lose sight of that - use the music to express those words and tell those stories.
Photo © Anne-Marie Le Blé
For more information about Susan's work and for a full biography, click here.