Born to German parents (the final ‘n’ of his original surname was dropped around 1939), Kullman attended local public schools and sang in church choirs from the age of eight. While studying medicine at Yale University he sang solo parts with the University Glee Club and won an intercollegiate song contest; and when financial difficulties after graduation precluded a medical career, he turned instead to singing, studying in New Haven with Marcosano, who re-placed his voice from baritone to tenor.
In 1924 Kullman successfully auditioned for the Juilliard School and was awarded a scholarship for three years. Here one of his teachers was a pupil of Viardot, Anna Eugénie Schön-René, who also taught Risë Stevens and Paul Robeson. A further scholarship took him to the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, where he was a pupil of Thomas Salignac; after which he returned to America in 1928 and joined Smith College as a singing teacher. Here Kullman took leading roles in several productions of early operas, including the first American performances of Monteverdi’s Orfeo (the Malipiero edition) in 1929. That year Kullman resigned from Smith to join Vladimir Rosing’s American Opera Company, making his debut as Pinkerton / Madama Butterfly and singing other leading tenor roles.
Kullman decided to return to Europe in 1930 for further study in Berlin, where his teacher quickly arranged an audition at the Kroll Opera with Otto Klemperer, who immediately engaged him; his Kroll debut was as Pinkerton in 1931. Given the Kroll’s links to the Berlin State Opera, Kullman soon found himself singing lyric roles there from 1932 to 1936 under such conductors as Erich Kleiber, Blech and Furtwängler; he also appeared in 1932 as Walther / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Tietjen’s staging.
After a guest appearance at the Vienna State Opera, Kullman signed a two-year contract with this company, to run from September 1934. During the summer of that year he made his debut at the Royal Opera House, London as Babinsky / Schwanda the Bagpiper, returning the following season for Vladimir / Prince Igor (under Beecham) and Walther in 1938. Kullman participated in the Salzburg Festival of 1934, singing the Italian Singer / Der Rosenkavalier, Da-Ud / Die aegyptische Helena and Huon / Oberon; and returned to sing Ferrando / Così fan tutte and Belmonte / Die Entführung aus dem Serail (both 1935) and Walther under Toscanini (1936). While in Europe Kullman recorded in London, Berlin and Vienna – a live Das Lied von der Erde under Walter (1936) – and appeared in two films.
In London Kullman was heard by Edward Johnson, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, New York who offered him a contract. His debut at the Met came in December 1935, as Gounod’s Faust, and he quickly assumed other roles, including Alfredo / La traviata, Don José / Carmen, the Duke / Rigoletto and Rodolfo / La Bohème. Kullman stayed with the Met as a company member throughout the Johnson years, singing a wide range of parts including Erik / Der fliegende Holländer, Fenton / Falstaff, Julien / Louise, Dmitri / Boris Godunov, Avito / L’amore dei tre re, Jeník / The Bartered Bride, Don Ottavio / Don Giovanni, Tamino / Die Zauberflöte, Des Grieux / Manon, Almaviva / Il barbiere di Siviglia, Roméo / Roméo et Juliette and the title role in Parsifal. He was also very active with the Met on tour. With the appointment of Rudolf Bing as general manager with effect from the 1950–1951 season Kullman’s activity gradually reduced, but not before he had successfully taken part in the 1951 production (in English) of Die Fledermaus, singing at different times both Eisenstein and Alfred.
During the 1950s Kullman shifted to character parts, such as Herod / Salome, Goro / Madama Butterfly, Valzacchi / Der Rosenkavalier and the Emperor of Austria / Der Zigeunerbaron, although he continued to sing Parsifal as late as 1960. His final appearance at the Met was as Shuisky / Boris Godunov in December 1960.
Between 1936 and 1954 Kullman sang intermittently with the San Francisco Opera (notably in 1936 as Cavaradossi / Tosca opposite Lotte Lehmann) and with the Chicago Opera in 1939 and 1940. He taught at Indiana University from 1956 to 1971 and at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia from 1970 to 1971.
Although Kullman did not possess a large voice, his singing was always extremely stylish and well-schooled, enabling him to tackle many different roles. Off-stage a reputedly quiet and extremely kind man, he cut a convincing figure during operatic performance.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).