Soprano Marnie Breckenridge finds the magic in SF Symphony's 'L'enfant et les Sortileges'

Soprano Marnie Breckenridge finds the magic in SF Symphony's 'L'enfant et les Sortileges'
Marnie Breckenridge performing onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. | Photo: Jill Steinberg
By Cedric Westphal - Published on June 28, 2019.

Based upon her recent roles, it seems the art of soprano Marnie Breckenridge imitates the geography of her life. Recently, she played Georgia O'Keeffe's friend and fellow artist in "Today It Rains." The opera is based on a fateful train trip O'Keeffe took to New Mexico — where Breckenridge trained in the Santa Fe Opera's apprenticeship program.

This weekend, Breckenridge will be a soloist in the SF Symphony's semi-staged production of Maurice Ravel's short opera "L'enfant et les Sortileges." The opera is in French, the first language she studied in school, and as the mother of a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old, she can relate to the "Where the Wild Things Are"-esque storyline, where an angry child is sent to his room and the objects there come to life to take revenge on him. 

The libretto of "L'enfant et les Sortileges" (whose title translates to "The Child and the Magic Spells") is by the French novelist Colette. Colette's "crazy, wild, fantastic life, and that underlying rebellious quality to her life, really comes through in the spoiled brat, in the rebellious child," Breckenridge says. "The way Ravel sets the words is just so delicious."

Breckenridge has a long-running relationship with the Bay Area, in her art and her life. A native of Southern California, her family moved to Napa Valley after she started college as a pre-med student.

Then, she recalls, "I was in a terrible car accident and I was almost killed and broke my femur." Realizing that her true passion was for music, she applied and was accepted to the SF Conservatory of Music, from which she received a master's degree.

"I always knew how to sing," she explains. "I just had to start studying operatically."

After nine years in New York, she and her family decided to move back to the Bay Area three years ago. "My husband was tired of New York, and he's not a musician. Being here has been better for my career — I'm able to have a bit more peace being near my family." 

Marnie Breckenridge (right) in "Today It Rains," with Blythe Gaissert as Georgia O'Keeffe. | Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo

Breckenridge still sings a lot in New York –– she has another performance in Carnegie Hall coming up next year, with composer Robert Paterson. But she appreciates working from home and reconnecting with companies in the Bay area.

Next year, she will portray Dianne Feinstein in a new version of Stewart Wallace's 1995 opera "Harvey Milk," staged by Opera Parallele to coincide with the 90th birthday of its namesake. And she's returned to the SF Conservatory, this time as a part-time faculty member.

"I'm a performer, I'm a singer, number one," she said. "But it's a toe in the water, a side way for me to give back. I enjoy telling the 20-year-olds what I wished somebody had told me when I was 20. Sharing with them the ins and outs to get around this crazy business."

Her own career was boosted by the San Francisco Opera, whose then-general director, Lotfi Mansouri, hired her directly from an audition in 1996. Breckenridge has since worked extensively with composer Jake Heggie, another protege of Mansouri who got his start working in the opera's PR department. 

While Breckenridge has sung classic parts in operas like "Lucia di Lammermoor" and "The Magic Flute," these days, her focus has shifted towards modern music and creating new roles.

"There are so many great composers out there, so many not-archetypal stories that need to be told, as we continue to evolve and wake up as a species," she explains. 

While she was looking forward to working with SF Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas for "L'enfant et les Sortileges," he will not be conducting the performance, as he is recovering from heart surgery.

But she remains enthusiastic about the production's unique staging, created by Opéra National de Lyon, in partnership with L’Auditori de Barcelona.

"It's so fascinating," she said. "LED lights screen in front, and the actors and singers, we throw our hands and light effects happen on the screen. It's pretty remarkable."

"L'enfant et les Sortileges" will be performed by the San Francisco Symphony this Saturday, June 29 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 30 at 2 p.m. at Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets start at $30.