By Robert Duffley


John Adams and Peter Sellars’ El Niño: Nativity Reconsidered reimagines the Christmas oratorio, combining classical texts with original music and contemporary Latin American poetry. Specially arranged for AMOC* by soprano Julia Bullock and conductor Christian Reif, El Niño will tour in December 2023 before a return engagement at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Amid preparations for the tour, Bullock and Reif—partners in life and music who recently welcomed a baby son—reflected on the work’s present and enduring resonance.

 

Let’s start by talking a little bit about your arrangement of El Niño. What can you tell us about your shared approach to this material?

Julia: John’s music has always had an incredible force. But when I first heard this piece on a recording over ten years ago, I was also taken by something delicate and personal in the work. El Niño offers a concentrated look at massive human experiences: giving birth, gift-giving, miracles, the risks we take to protect each other. I fell in love with the piece, and for this arrangement, we wanted to create a distilled or streamlined version that could then be experienced by more audiences in a variety of contexts. 

Christian: In the original form premiered in 2000, El Niño requires six soloists, a full orchestra with extended instrumentation, an adult choir, and a children’s choir. Our collaboration on the piece began in 2018, when Julia made an intimate initial arrangement of selections from the work, which we presented at the Cloisters with AMOC*. Since then, with John and Peter’s blessing, we’ve worked together on a version that can expand or contract a bit, depending on where it’s performed. For the tour this year, we’ll have four soloists and nineteen instrumentalists. In New York, we’ll have the soloists, twenty-six instrumentalists, and a chamber choir of sixteen. The arrangement is very nimble and flexible…

Julia: …but it also has a sonorous, sonic depth.

 

El Niño is obviously rooted in the nativity story: a birth in winter, a spark of hope amid wider struggles. As artistic collaborators and life partners who have recently started a family of your own, what elements of the work are resonating as you return to the piece this year?

Julia: Knowing that I have a loving partner by my side, who is not only helping to make the music happen in real time but also helping to craft the score, is so important. That connection is really palpable in the work, and I think that’s powerful. It’s coming from a real place. 

Christian: And the opportunity to return to this work every year with a group of people whom we love and cherish is unique because we grow with the piece, and it grows with us. It gets deeper.

Julia: Everything in the lyrics lands in a very profound way. And how beautiful, to know that it’s not theoretical! The music that I’m singing and that the instrumentalists are playing concerns things that we deal with on a continuous basis—whether that’s the most magical, beautiful, joyful parts of life, or difficult cycles of violence and genocide.

 

Building on that idea, it seems that juxtapositions are at the heart of the piece: the score blends elements of beauty and violence, ancient and contemporary, secular and sacred. Especially in the difficult context of the present, what do you feel is offered by those combinations?

Christian: I think they make the work even more real. It’s not just a story from the New Testament. It’s not just about Jesus Christ being born and three kings giving gifts. We are brought into the present. It’s about our experience as parents giving birth in the context of real violence that’s happening in the here and now. The libretto links King Herod’s slaying of all the children in Bethlehem with a memorial for more recent events, including Mexico's Tlatelolco Massacre. John and Peter establish that the violence of these ancient stories is not something from a bygone era: it still happens, and it’s happening now. 

Julia: And that dynamic ultimately has something to do with the reasons we consider some works of art to be classics: because every time we return to them, they ground us immediately, as we are. They grapple with the fact that even though we are maybe evolving in some ways, there are other patterns in human existence that recur. These works acknowledge that truth, and that acknowledgement can be extraordinarily beautiful, or very challenging and sad.

 

On tour this December, El Niño will visit several locations across the country before returning to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, where over 1,000 audience members gathered for the piece last year. What is it like to perform at the cathedral? In what ways are you collaborating with the space itself?

Julia: I went to the cathedral on my first ever visit to New York, when I was 11 or 12, for a Judy Collins concert. And I actually grew up in the Episcopal Church, so I have always appreciated an overlap between the sacred and the secular in Episcopal spaces of worship. In addition to theological endeavors, I think that the church really celebrates any opportunity for gathering in communion with each other, including the arts. So I’m grateful that they felt called to share the piece.

Christian: And the space is immense, which can actually present an opportunity to create a special kind of intimacy. It’s not just vast—it has the potential to bring us closer to each other. Our desire for that feeling of closeness was a major impetus behind our work on the arrangement.

 

Christian, how do you facilitate that connection as the conductor?

Christian: I always want to make music with people in real time. For me, that requires being fully present together and bringing the best out of everyone on both the individual and the collective level. It’s a privilege to have such an amazing ensemble of players and singers and artists making music together on this work—it’s a very beautiful thing. 

Julia: As a conductor, Christian works as a mediator between all of the wonderful artists that he’s in the midst of. On top of having a vision for the piece, he helps us to communicate with one another. I think he’s very attuned to the fact that he’s working with a group of individuals who are choosing to be together in a joint effort, and he’s only one artist among many. So that’s a humbling experience rooted in generosity.

 

What has it been like for you to undertake the journey of this work together?

Christian: We love each other, and we also respect and admire each other as artists. We’ve collaborated on many different programs and concerts, and we’ve found that there are advantages to working together. When we prepare pieces, we don’t just have a soloist-conductor session for an hour before the first rehearsal. We live together with the material for months, and that feels like it makes the work deeper in many respects. 

Julia: We want to bring our life experiences into everything we work on, right? It feels like a genuine collaboration that’s ongoing—and there’s nothing more satisfying in the world.