Meet the Parents

The Met premiere of John Adams’s El Niño features the company debuts of two trailblazing stars of contemporary opera, soprano Julia Bullock and bass-baritone Davóne Tines, who take the stage as Mary and Joseph. They recently spoke with the Met’s Jonathan Minnick about the opera and their collaboration with Adams and their castmates.

Julia, you recently became a mother yourself. What is your personal connection with El Niño? 

Julia: John’s music always has an incredible force, but when I first heard El Niño more than ten years ago, I was also taken aback by something delicate and personally intimate in the work. I fell in love with it, and my love and appreciation continue to grow. Being a birth parent balances the weight and joy that accompanies taking responsibility for another precious life for a period of time. And that unpredictable, extraordinary aspect of deciding to help usher a life into the world is captured in El Niño in the most poignant way.

Julia Bullock

You even developed your own scaled-down version of the piece, called “Nativity Reconsidered.”

Julia: The idea came in 2013 but didn’t materialize until 2018, when I proposed an initial arrangement of selections from the original work with John’s blessing. In its original form, El Niño requires tremendous resources. I wanted to create a streamlined version that could be experienced by more audiences in a variety of contexts, so the arrangement is very nimble and flexible, but also maintains the sonorous, sonic depth of the full work. I presented it with my colleagues at the American Modern Opera Company at the Met Cloisters as a part of my first-ever artist residency, and it also featured Davóne and J’Nai Bridges!

How would you describe your roles in El Niño?

Davóne: My role essentially consists of three characters: Joseph, Herod, and some version of God. It’s an enticing challenge as they are figures of widely varying scales and perspectives. I think there is something fascinating and symbolic about my single role representing multiple facets of the masculine, while the role of Mary, or “woman,” isn’t confined to one singer—as if the complexity of what she is, represents, and is tasked with is so immense that its expression can’t be contained within one body.

Julia: I love the vehement and equally tender qualities of Mary’s voice in this piece. A lot of what she says sounds revolutionary, challenging power structures and calling out injustices. She is clear-headed, bold, and embraces her role completely, even if she has yet to understand its gravity. I am one of many voices that share this story and all of the themes that it encompasses: life, memory, miracles, generosity; the risks we take to care for each other and protect each other; threats that can accompany a new life; reckoning with genocide, forced displacement, and organized violence; and ultimately honoring the relationships and commitments we make to each other as we move through the world and look toward a shared future.

Bullock and Tines

What are some of your favorite moments in the piece?

Julia: There’s the amazing, intimate duet I have with J’Nai, “Se habla de Gabriel,” featuring the poetry of Rosario Castellanos. It’s about being pregnant, giving birth, and making space for another presence. I also love any moment from the three countertenors and any moment from the choir. Also, the children’s choir at the end is so moving.

Davóne: My favorite moment is the aria “Shake the heavens.” It’s my favorite thing John’s ever written. It’s arresting, exhilarating, and an incredible example of how you can riff on an older piece of classical music—in this case, Handel’s Messiah—and turn it into something contemporary audiences will immediately be excited by and connect with. Whenever I rehearse it with an orchestra, I can’t help but head-bang when I hear the opening phrases. In short: It’s a bop!

Julia, what do you enjoy most about working with John Adams? 

Julia: John and I have similar values and interests when it comes to music: clarity, directness of delivery, and a desire to have audiences understand the messages in the material on their first listen. John’s music, and the subject matter with which he often contends, encourages me to be at my most conscious and engaged. As a composer, he interprets words and immortalizes them through music, and as an interpreter of words and musical material, it’s my job to communicate with fierce commitment and full embodiment.

Davóne Tines

Davóne, you’re also a composer and recitalist, and your works and recitals often feel very personal.

Davóne: I make work that is honest about my identity and interrogates the contexts in which my identity exists. I happen to be a queer, Black male, and my work addresses how those identities interact with the world through interpersonal, communal, and socio-political relationships. I’m not inherently making Black work—I’m making work that is an honest articulation of who I am.

Julia, you have performed extensively with J’Nai and Davóne. How excited are you to reunite with them in your Met debut?

Julia: It’s another great opportunity to be with people I enjoy and sing music and poetry I love. Those are always significant moments to cherish. And working with J’Nai and Davóne—they are my friends! It feels like an ongoing collaboration, and it’s exciting to be with fellow artists who seek to express themselves with all parts of their beings and who are committed to developing their craft, to shared moments, and to the community we build while working together. There are few things in the world more satisfying.