Interview: Soprano Deanna Breiwick On Dealing With the Currency of the Human Heart
Soprano On ‘Marnie’ At the Met, ‘Poppea’ in ‘Zurich’ & Being AuthenticBy Chris Ruel
Soprano Deanna Breiwick has been around music and performance her entire life.
She comes from a family of musicians and vocalists. She sang her first studio recital at age five, began as a classical harpist at age seven, and was let loose on Italian arias by age 14. Her first opera production was “Dialogues des Carmélites” at age 21 and she hasn’t looked back since.
She’s a serious student of yoga, a nature lover, and someone who exudes pure joy when speaking about her work because she doesn’t view her occupation as work at all, to Ms. Breiwick, being an opera singer is fulfilling her life’s calling.
“I deal in the currency of the human heart,” she told OperaWire. Breiwick is currently playing one of the shadows in “Marnie” at the Metropolitan Opera. “I am honored and lucky to share my gift with so many people. When I was a child, I brought my singing to nursing homes, shopping malls, you name it because I loved to sing.
“I see what I do as a calling to share beauty and light. Opera shows human experience and authenticity and needs to be experienced because the characters and stories reveal pieces that are part of all of us. Audiences should connect with the universal experience–that’s what people feel. Music is something to surrender to, to find yourself in the moments of beauty and authenticity.”
The Life Authentic
If Breiwick frequently speaks of authenticity, it’s because she strives to attain it in all aspects of her life. Sometimes the characters Breiwick plays aren’t examples of the best humans have to offer, and when taking such roles earlier in her career, she found it challenging to reconcile who she was as a person and the roles she played on stage.
“I used to judge my characters and be afraid what others might think of me in a certain role, or I’d judge based on what I would or wouldn’t do personally, but once I began finding pieces within me that connected with some aspect the character, I stopped judging. That forced me to discover authenticity within myself.”
Breiwick, like her colleagues, lives the opera life out of a suitcase, going from gig to gig, meaning there’s a lot of alone time during which negativity can take hold.
It’s not easy to keep the snakes of self-doubt and self-criticism in their baskets, and when they slither out into her head, Breiwick confronts them in ways that foster authenticity.
“At the end of last spring, I was ungrounded, running on fumes. I needed to get away, get out into nature. I have rituals. I journal and write down any negativity that creeps in, and I don’t censor my thoughts. As hard as it might be to believe, I’m an introvert, and I enjoy my alone time, but sometimes I get too far into my head, and lose touch. Putting my thoughts on paper takes power out of the negativity. I practice yoga every day, and recently took up Ashtanga yoga which consists of a progressive series of postures. You do the same sequence each time. Learning a new posture gives me a sense of accomplishment.”
A “Marnette” at the Met
Breiwick is currently at the Metropolitan Opera playing one of the four Shadows, or “Marnettes,” as they are affectionately called, representing Marnie’s fractured psyche.
New operas are hard to pull off, hiccups are to be expected, and a few things got wonky during the third performance of “Marnie,” though nothing fell apart. There was a special something, a secret sauce that held the cast together, allowing them to handle the bumps that come along with live theater.
“Marnie was a truly collaborative effort. The beauty of having the composer, the librettist, the maestro, and the director all in the same room during rehearsals was how we all worked together. The process was peaceful, there were no diva moments, no egos. Anyone could raise their hand at any time and say, ‘What if we tried this a different way?’ And, as a result of one of our ideas, Nico might go to the piano and tweak things. It was a special kind of process.”
Breiwick’s yoga practice undoubtedly helped her singing as a Marnette, a role in which her vocal lines are akin to early music and unembellished—quite a change for a gifted lyric coloratura the New York Times dubbed, “…a vocal trapeze artist.”
“It was a hard switch, the singing calls for a deeper steadier connection, one rooted in the pelvis. There’s difficulty in finding the coordination between the steadiness and concentration of the singing and portraying the cognitive dissonance within Marnie’s head. When we’re on stage, all eyes are on Marnie. We Marnettes can’t look at each other, our focus is entirely on Isabel [Leonard], but we’re all in touch, feeding off each other’s energy.”
Such a dynamic is particularly important as the four Marnettes aren’t discrete characters unto themselves.
“The Marnettes are the collective expression of where Marnie’s head is at, but each of us becomes the collective expression on own our terms.”
One of Breiwick’s favorite scenes in the opera is where Marnie sits with a psychoanalyst, plumbing the depths of the character’s pathologies. Throughout the scene, the Marnettes cycle through and are present during the session.
“Each part of Marnie comes out revealing her many layers—she’s discovering her true self. Marnie’s story is about finding out what is and isn’t real and shedding what isn’t. At the end of the opera, Marnie is taken away in handcuffs, but she’s free–she’s found inner freedom and claimed it as her own because of her journey.
“As I prepared for the role as a Marnette, I reflected on Marnie’s journey of self-discovery. I spent my early twenties finding myself. I didn’t become a serial thief, like Marnie, but I was trying to see my way, and my path is reflective of hers. That was a point of connection. Throughout our lives, seeds are planted by various people, and as we grow the seeds become a garden, except not everything that was planted is good. Authenticity and freedom require somethings to be uprooted and new seeds planted; that’s the cycle, uprooting, and replanting.”
Sex and Violence in Zurich
This past summer, Breiwick performed the role of Drusilla, in Calixto Bieto’s new, very modern, erotically-charged, and brutal interpretation of Monteverdi’s “L’incornazione di Poppea.”
In a show where her role required taking to the catwalk in lingerie in one scene and undergoing a brutally staged beating to her face in another–all while close-ups of the action projected on giant screens around the stage– Breiwick spoke of “Poppea” as a magical.
How does a director get a cast to go to daring extremes of sex and violence on the live stage? Breiwick explained the directorial chances taken by Bieto.
“Calixto created a strong bond of vulnerability among the cast, and this happened right from the start–during the very first rehearsal, there was a moment of openness that immediately drew the cast together that was like nothing I’ve ever experienced; it was magical.”
When it came to character development, Bieto set the singers free, letting them loose to find the characters within themselves. Drusilla may be the most virtuous character in the opera, but she’s far from perfect as Breiwick explained.
“Calixto drew the characters and then let us run with the scene. Drusilla, at first, is manipulative, she’s power-hungry, she’s like Poppea, she knows what she wants, but there’s also fear. As the opera progresses, Drusilla changes to a point where she is driven by her love for Ottone to make the ultimate sacrifice for a crime she didn’t commit.”
And what of the most brutal scene in the show?
“The scene in which Drusilla gets beaten was eased into very slowly. In the beginning, we’d rehearse it once, and Calixto would say, ‘That’s enough,’ until the next time. For me, I had to come to a place where I felt Drusilla’s pain, not physically, but within, and I did. The real sense of vulnerability shared by the cast allowed me to perform a scene that many found deeply disturbing. The magic of Poppea came out of vulnerability and openness.”
Grapes of Wrath & More
What’s next for Breiwick? She’ll be taking on some of her dream roles in the 2018/19 season, heading from the Met to Opera Omaha for Donizetti’s “L’Elisir D’Amore” as Adina, then the Michigan Opera Theatre to play Gretel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” and Rosasharn in Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Grapes of Wrath.” A run as Cunegonde in “Candide” at the Des Moines Metro Opera and Norina in “Don Pasquale” at the Berkshire Opera Festival round out her schedule. Each of the roles holds something special for Breiwick.
“I’ve always wanted to be Adina; she’s fiercely independent with a lot of heart. I love the character of Gretel and Humperdinck’s music is kind of like baby Wagner, there’s a lushness to it. Cunegonde, like Adina, is another role I’ve always wanted to play.”
And, then, there’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” a show Breiwick has done before to critical acclaim.
“’The Grapes of Wrath’ is a favorite of mine. The closing scene in which Rosasharn demonstrates such amazing sacrificial love by breastfeeding a starving man is so charged with emotion that it’s hard to sing. Here is a woman who has one thing left, her breast milk, and she uses it to help a fellow human being. It took a few rehearsals to find my line where the emotion could come through, without my getting choked up and unable to sing without losing it. I eventually found the line, but it was a challenge.”
Going with Her Gut
Asked what she has learned as she has pursued her opera career, Breiwick had this to say: “I’ve learned to bring more play into my life; to follow the fun. What I do is fun; there was playfulness to be found even in something as dark as ‘Poppea.’”
As for the advice this sharer of beauty and light, this dealer in the currency of the human heart would give to others: “Go on your intuition, be your most courageous, and stay true to your authentic self. Everything is going to be okay. Show up and see what happens.”