With long blond hair, sparkly blue-eyes and a chirpy Californian lilt, Marnie Breckenridge is, by her own admission, pure Americana. Having flaunted her stylish soprano (and movie-star looks) in opera houses throughout the States she is now one of their hottest new exports. It seems only fitting, therefore, that her UK debut should be as Cunegonde in ENO’s new production of Bernstein’s Candide.
The moment came early for Breckenridge when Anna Christy, with whom she’s sharing the role, called off sick at the weekend but when I meet her at the Coliseum, a couple of hours before her official first night, she’s still breathlessly enthusiastic about the prospect. It is clearly a great milestone for the young singer but she’s on familiar ground as far as the music goes: not only has she played Cunegonde a few times in the past, including a notable performance with Prague State Opera last season, but she has always felt a natural propensity towards musical theatre, especially Bernstein, having grown up surrounded by the stuff. “His music is lovely, the Candide laments are beautiful and Make Our Garden Grow is just one of the best pieces for goose bumps. I mean it’s light, it’s not Shostakovich, but it’s darn good!”
Despite, or perhaps because of this, she has relished the opportunity to explore the piece anew with acclaimed director Robert Carsen. “He has such a great concept for this opera and I think of all the productions I’ve done this has been the most satisfying for me as an actor and as a singer, of course.” I ask if she’s found it difficult sharing the role with Christy (given the traditions of soprano rivalry) but she insists they are good friends with contrasting approaches, and is quick to sing the praises of all her fellow cast members. “We had a great rapport so when we weren’t rehearsing we’d go out to dinner and to other theatre or opera things and really developed a sense of camaraderie.” The five-week rehearsal period was somewhat disrupted by the discovery of an unexploded World War II bomb next to the ENO studios an event almost worthy of Voltaire’s bizarre narrative but she describes it as a hugely rewarding experience.
Taking 1950s America as its starting point, Carsen’s production sees the character of Cunegonde progress, in a Hogarthian sense, from delicate ingnue to ‘white-trash’ housewife, via Marilyn Monroe impersonations and a stint as a Vegas showgirl. “Glitter and Be Gay”, the showcase aria, is staged as “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, complete with slinky pink frock and elbow-high gloves. “It’s been quite a ride,” she laughs, “on the first day of the rehearsals [Carsen] told me to get hold of as many Marilyn Monroe videos as I could and just watch ’em!” Inevitably the critical response has been rather mixed, but Breckenridge argues that the production throws new light on her character. “Now I actually like Cunegonde faults and all I didn’t like her much before but all these little details give her more dimension.”
“Internet coverage… a vital resource for the world of opera”
In addition to her stage role Breckenridge has presented a three-part ‘Candide Camera’ sketch, available on YouTube and the ENO website, which provides a behind-the-scenes insight into the production. Brilliantly arch and funny, she hosts cast interviews as a sort of camped-up Stepford housewife and provides witty intros to vox-pops and rehearsal clips. When asked her opinions about the value of Internet coverage she describes it as a vital resource for the world of opera that does a great deal more than offering advertising potential: “It gives people a background too. You have to invest time and education in opera, and you have to have some knowledge of this opera, particularly, before you watch it because Voltaire’s Candide just goes all over the place and you have to know why Bernstein wrote the opera he did.”
Although her family was musically inclined, Breckenridge started a degree in pre-medicine before swapping to music and continuing with postgraduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She had always been a “little entertainer kid” and even dreamt of becoming the next Barbara Streisand, who she still admires, but her schooling was strictly Christian and a career in arts and entertainment was frowned upon by some of her teachers. “I remember when I told one professor that I wanted to be a singer or a choir director, secretly thinking I’ll take it further and start opera training, he said ‘ohhh don’t do that, it would be very disrespectful to the church and to God,’ and I thought ‘well if God, supposedly, gave me this voice then aren’t I supposed to use it?'”
“I started listening to operas and fell in love”
What gave her the confidence to chase this dream was a horrific car-crash a week before her graduation where she broke her femur in two and lost a lot of blood. “That accident really woke me up and made me realise life was short and I started training voice and started listening to operas and fell in love,” she explains, “I heard the Rosenkavalier trio and I couldn’t understand what they were doing with their voices, I couldn’t even fathom how people could even do that with their voices, so that has been my quest ever since: to learn how to sing.” This quest led to further studies at the Israel Vocal Arts Institute, won her a clutch of prestigious awards, and has now brought her to the opera houses of Europe.
Already her repertoire covers an astonishing range of music from Bach through the bel canto tradition (Gilda and Lucia are favourites) to twentieth-century works (she sings Humperdinck’s Gretel, Lucia in Britten’s Lucretia, and of course Cunegonde) but it is contemporary music that excites her most. Over the last few years she has worked with a number of American composers, including Kurt Erickson, Henry Mollicone and Jake Heggie, whose work she frequently workshops. “I have a particular love of new music, being the first one to sing a piece and getting to figure out what the composer meant through the road map of dynamic markings and stresses, like a scientific puzzle.” Often these pieces have been written specifically for her, as in the case of Clark Suprynowicz’s Chrysalis, which she sang with Berkeley Opera back in 2006.
As for new roles, Breckenridge is eager for a shot at Anne Trulove, “one of my favourite parts of all time,” and has already started looking at Lulu. Coyly she admits she’s already had “a couple of bites” from British companies, and if her performance and reception later on that evening is anything to go by, this UK appearance will surely prove the first of many. You heard it here first.
The show runs at the London Coliseum until 12 July 2008. Tickets are available on 0871 911 0200 (24 hrs) or eno.org