Opera soprano Marnie Breckenridge is one of the most versatile singers in today's classical arenas. And among the mot beautiful. As an alumna of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Marnie was honored this past January and gave a command performance for the school's Alumni Recital Series. In addition to two exquisitely rendered selections from the Brentano Lieder of Richard Strauss, “An die Nacht” and “Amor”, her program included Samuel Barber's tender reminiscence, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and more challenging numbers by contemporary American composers Kurt Erickson, Jake Heggie, David Conte, David Garner, and Gordon Getty. Accompanied by fellow alumna pianist Kristin Pankonin, the recital was a revelation—even for her fans. Marnie is what some in the music industry describe as "a quadruple threat". Her musicianship is impeccable, her bright lyric soprano maintains its sparkle to the back wall, her sensitivity to the texts and skills in developing a character is formidable, and she is absolutely camera friendly.
My first experience of seeing Marnie in performance was as "La Princesse" in the opera Orphée composed by Philip Glass, produced by Opera Parallèle (then Ensemble Parallèle) in February 2011. Presented at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre, the opera was led by the company's Artistic Director, Nicole Paiement and incredibly realized by director Brian Staufenbiel. Based on the 1950 film, Orphée written and directed by Jean Cocteau and starring his lover, Jean Marais (La belle et la bête, Les Misérables), I was very anxious to see how Philip Glass had transformed the avant garde screenplay into an opera and equally excited about seeing a favorite baritone, Eugene Brancoveanu in the title role. The production was dazzling and startling, the score an ideal compliment to Cocteau's cinematic dream. And with Marnie Breckenridge as "La Princesse"—the alluring intermediary of Hades or mistress of Death—Orphée the opera has proven to be hauntingly unforgettable.
Shortly after her recital at the Conservatory, Marnie returned to San Francisco and Opera Parallèle to take on the role of "Margarita" in Osvaldo Golijav's Ainadamar. An Arabic term for "Fountain of Tears", the opera flows along in three sections (or what the composer refers to as images) revealing essential points in the artistic and spiritual relationship of playwright and poet Federico García Lorca and his stellar leading lady, Margarita Xirgu.
Composer Golijav places the luminous revolutionary martyr, Mariana Pineda at the core of Lorca's creative passion. Convicted in 1831 of conspiracy against the King of Spain, young Mariana was taken to a public square, strapped to a garrote and strangled. As time went by, her story and honor became ingrained in the Andalusian culture. Garcia Lorca (born 1898) became obsessed with her. As a child, he would frequently contemplate the monumental statue of Mariana set in a plaza very near his home. In 1923, Lorca began constructing his dramatic homage to her. Four years later the play was given a full production at the Teatre Goya and was directed by the author. With production designs by Salvador Dali (then 23), the Barcelona opening of Mariana Pineda featured popular dramatic actress Margarita Xirgu in the title role. The play was a hit. For Lorca, it was the beginning of a mystical union between himself, Mariana Pineda, and the actress who would become both his muse and the earthly embodiment of his beloved heroine. Ainadamar explores this fascinating relationship up through the moment in the late '60s when Margarita is in her final performance of the play and dies in her dressing room. Lorca's voice is heard, "You have kept me alive. I give you my thanks and I love you. Now come, come. It is time."
"The director, Brian Staufenbiel told me he could see me in the role," said Marnie during our recent interview. "He just wanted me to look at the score and get my reaction. I knew that Dawn Upshaw had recorded it and that Jessica Rivera who had played Nuria in the original production was now playing Margarita. Jessica is a wonderful colleague and we have similar careers going in that we both do a lot of new music and we're about the same age. So, I became very interested in the role and—since it worked for her—perhaps it would be good for me as well. It's a fun and interesting role."
The libretto of Ainadamar is by David Henry Hwang, author of the Tony Award winning M Butterfly. In both stories, the lead characters move delicately through inter-weaving planes of time while stepping in-and-around the occasionally uncanny environment of theatrical communities. For both sets of protagonists, Hwang cleverly juggles ambiguous and overt sexual tensions in the midst of political oppression and the omnipresence of a brutal military. The playwright is a master at subtlety and dramatic overlay. "Song Liling", the perceived female of M Butterfly, is a man acting as a woman. He sustains the illusion with a male lover for twenty years, even to the point of convincing him that they are to have a child. For Ainadamar, it helps to know at the outset that Lorca and Margarita are gay—a "social disease" according to the Fascisti of the Spanish Civil War. Hwang heightens the companions' increasing sense of danger as the arresting officer, "Ruiz Alonso" (sung by Flamenco tenor Jesús Montoya) cries out, "Bring him to me! By God! The one with the swollen head! An enemy of Spain! That faggot is a lover of Russia!" Lorca is gunned down by the Nationalist forces.
Osvaldo Golijov voices the role of "Lorca" for a woman—a strong mezzo or contralto. It is a classically constructed trouser role, a musical device that is not about dramatic fakery, but harmony and zesty panache. Together with librettist David Henry Hwang, the sounds of Ainadamar are of innocence, profound sorrow, unhinged eroticism and, ultimately, eternal communion. Pairing Lisa Chavez as the determined poet and Marnie Breckenridge as his steadfast messenger was a gift for the composer and an artistic coup for Opera Parallèle.
"Ainadamar was a labor of love in many ways," said Marnie. "We really had a lot to do to put it together. At first, I wasn't thrilled about the role being so low in the voice during the second movement. There are a couple of Low Gs in the scene after Margarita is re-enacting the play, Mariana Pineda. She comes out of it and has this freak-out feeling as she's talking about Lorca to Nuria, her apprentice. "Y sin embargo...." ["And yet I would give anything if I could have changed his fate."] Later on, the range goes up to High B and C. But Golijov's score indicates that the singers need to be miked in order to carry over the loud percussive instruments as well as the sound sampling of horse hooves, falling water, etc. These samples come with the production and were mixed by a very special DJ. They purposely tried to make the miking in the theater totally unnoticeable. I still sang with my full operatic strength. I never "cheated", never let-up, knowing I was on a mic. Also, I'd been anxious to sing something in Spanish again. Besides the Spanish art songs I do, the last thing I sang in Spanish was a zarzuela, Luisa Fernanda. My mother speaks Spanish and I had a Peruvian nanny because both my parents worked. So, the language has always been in my ear and in my home world."
Rehearsals in San Francisco began on January 22, but Marnie actually began working on the production in August when the director had her do the casting for the statue of Mariana Pineda used onstage. It is Marnie's arms, legs and face which comprise the statue. Following that was another wet and wild meeting when they painted her body to look like the statue and then stood her in front of a Green Screen where she remained motionless for hours.
"It took forever!" said Marnie. "I was on a turntable which was turned about a quarter of an inch, over and over, as they filmed. After that, I did the new opera by David T. Little, Dog Days for Peak Performances at Montclair State which kept me busy until November. Then I started working on the Spanish. I wanted my Castilian pronunciation to be spot-on. I coached it with Pablo Zinger, an Argentinian gentleman here in New York City. He is an amazing pianist and conductor and coaches all the major Spanish dialects. The other challenge was being onstage the whole time and never having a dressing room break, never being able to just chill. I was "on" the whole entire time. I had one time to change my wig and costume and get a sip of water. It was the concentration, finding the arc of that character for that non-stop hour and twenty minutes. It was about holding the intensity, the lacrimosa—the sadness of Margarita's guilt for not saving Lorca. And the memories she has, showing her age progression, and then popping into the time-warps of Margarita's youth. I found myself in rehearsal not wanting to go to such deep levels of pathos. I didn't want to exhaust myself over her losses—the sadness Margarita experiences over not being able to save him."
I asked Marnie if she sensed that Lorca had provided Margarita with a means for sustaining her life as an actress, that appearances in his plays might generate financial security—as time goes by.
"I know Margarita was successful before she worked with Lorca on Mariana Pineda. They were kindred spirits and artistic spirits, always anxious to work together. She appears in his film, Blood Wedding. In their personal lives, they were both gay. So, they had a good understanding of each other. In that time period they could also be each other's "arm candy" for the society that might not have been ready for their individuality. They were artistic muses to each other. I think Lorca did provide for Margarita. She did have a lucrative future because of their relationship."
It is easy for me to sing praises of Marnie Breckenridge, especially when listening to her rendition of "Weaving My Dreams" (from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1922) on the recent CD, Victor Herbert, Collected Songs. But the last word goes to my friend, composer David Conte who told me of his own inspiration with the gifted soprano.
"I've worked with so many singers over the years. With Marnie, you don't have to tell her very much. Marnie is as gifted an actress as she is a singer, which is rare. She played "Della" in my opera, The Gift of the Magi. She was perfect. With my Sexton Songs, much more complex—she just got it. Vocally, for me as a composer–and this is true with a lot of Poulenc songs—I need a soprano with a low extension. Marnie is not a mezzo by any means, but she's got great low tones. My observation is that since the recent birth of her second child, her low tones have gotten even better. I've written an opera, Famous, about Andy Warhol. Edie Sedgwick, a beautiful socialite, is one of the characters—a superstar of the Warhol Factory. She died of a drug overdose leading the kind-of dissipated life that everyone at the Factory was doing in the Sixties. Marnie will be perfect in this role. Marnie is a composer's favorite singer. She is a great musician, never flat, never wrong. I'm certainly one of her fans."
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