By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
Ensemble Parallèle presents Philip Glass’ Orphée February 26th and 27th at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. The work is a direct adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s iconic 1950 film and screenplay, Orphée. The film is a re-telling of the classic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. The script is opulent in language, its look and use of special effects is stunningly simple yet provocative. The character of “Orpheus” is portrayed by Jean Marais, the romantic hero of Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece, La Belle et La Bête. Beside him as “Eurydice” is Marie Déa and in-between them is the figure of Death – “La Princesse” – played by enigmatic beauty, Maria Casarès. The themes are strong. What is love? What is death? What is the point of living? Jean Cocteau’s Orphée is cinematic poetry. It was inevitable that it should be transformed into an opera.
Click here to purchase tickets on-line: ORPHÉE
PHILIP GLASS’ ORPHÉE – Eugene Brancoveanu (Orphée),
Marnie Breckenridge (The Princess), Thomas Glenn (Cégeste)
ORPHÉE, directed by Jean Cocteau (1950) –François Périer (Heurtebise),
Marie Déa (Eurydice), Jean Marais (Orphée)
I met with soprano Marnie Breckenridge this past week in a rehearsal room at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She will sing the role of “La Princesse”. With one look (and a few vocal illustrations later), it became obvious that Marnie is the perfect choice for this iconic and multi-faceted role.
MARNIE BRECKENRIDGE, Soprano
MARIA CASARÈS – as La Princesse. Orphée (1950)
Sean: I first saw the film in connection with a French class in high school. I was mad for the teacher, so I joined the French Club – which meant, at the end of the semester, going to dinner at a French restaurant and then on to a French film. Imagine! It just so happened Orphée was on the bill at some avant garde-type theater and that’s where we went. I was totally taken with it. The next encounter was in college during a course in “film appreciation” and my response was the same. So, here I am studying the film again in order to appreciate its adaptation into an opera, and talking to the soprano who is singing “La Princesse”. The actress in the film, Maria Casares, seems to me a cross between Greta Garbo and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Put the two of them together and you get the alluring figure of Death.
Marnie: Yes! A very apt description.
Sean: How did you get involved with the project?
Marnie: I was called to audition for it. I used to live in the Bay Area and did a lot around here. I’ve appeared at Festival Opera, I did “Papagena” at San Francisco Opera, “Inez” in Trovatore, “Olga” in The Merry Widow – a lot of smaller things while I was still studying. I did a lot of modern music. I’ve worked one-on-one with composer Jake Haggie, a lot of stuff with him. I’ve worked with Philharmonia Baroque, composer David Conte, and I did Ned Rohrem’s Our Town at Festival Opera. I’ve had my little paw in the modern music world. Somebody at Ensemble Parallèle – either Nicole Paiement or Brian Staufenbiel – had seen or heard about me and asked me to audition. It worked out really well because I was also going to debut David Conte’s Sexton Songs. He’s done some amazing settings of Anne Sexton’s poetry. We did it with the Blueprint Series in October. I also recorded them, Nicole conducted the orchestra. So, I had already auditioned and they asked for a video of me singing something in French.
Sean: What did you sing?
Marnie: Juliette’s “Waltz” – just a little video. But, I had the opportunity of working with Nicole when we did the BluePrint Series of David Conte’s music.
Sean: How is it for you? What are you discovering about this role?
Marnie: I’m accessing my inner control. For me, it’s not an issue of Good and Evil. She is Death. I think of her more as a drug actually. I think of her as heroin, literally and figuratively. She is the “heroine” of this piece because she lets Orphée and his wife live again, even though she has fallen madly in love with him. She is this force throughout death and heroin has the power to kill you. Jean Cocteau was obviously dealing with his own demons – opium – at the time when he came out of his drug problem and wrote this. She is this mistress of people’s lives. She has the power to kill somebody and the power to make them feel absolute euphoria and love. And yet, she lets down in a moment of doing her job – which is to be a harbinger of death – and lets herself fall in love with Orphée, to have that human connection. It’s complex. As we watch the film, Maria Casares is able to maintain a kind of stoicism and lets everything happen with her eyes. On stage we can’t quite do that. From her, I’ve learned to have a stillness in my character, but there has to be a power and strength as well. She is the ultimate controller.
Sean: It’s an almost brutal kind of energy.
Marnie: Yes, and yet she falls in love with Orphée. So, she has this vulnerability. She tells him, “I loved you from the first moment I saw you.” In the film, the line is very controlled. But I’m singing it on High-A. It’s a very high passagio the way Glass wrote this. It’s very high all the time and very exciting. So, there has to be some passion behind that. I feel that, with the music, Glass has made La Princesse more human. In the film, there is more stillness. The music brings out more appassionata and makes it more flowing, more human, maybe humorous, and sarcastic. And – dare I say it? – I’ve really been able to access my Inner Bitch. And I’m really enjoying it!
Sean: High time!
Marnie: I know! Right!? Especially when you’re used to playing all these (with fingers in dimples) sweeet-eek-eek-eek… And then I come back in two weeks to do “Lucia” in Benjamin Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. I play this, like, little maid who’s crying for her mistress and very sweet and innocent. So, it’s great to play this wonderful, powerful character.
MARNIE BRECKENRIDGE. Photos, S.M.
Sean: What’s it like working with Eugene Brancoveanu?
Marnie: Oh! It’s wonderful!
Sean: He’s my Hero and you may tell him I said so.
Marnie: I will. He’s my Hero, too! He is the most generous, giving colleague, wonderful musician, so dedicated and really fun to work with.
Sean: I did an interview with him around two years ago when he was in town doing Young Caesar. We scheduled an hour, he gave me two. I’ve admired him since he was with the Adler Fellows, seeing him first as “Marullo” in Rigoletto. I swear, when he is singing near the proscenium arch of the War Memorial Opera House you can hear that thing vibrating.
Marnie: His energy is unbelievable.
Sean: He seems to me the perfect choice for “Orphée”.
Marnie: He is. And he’s done the role before.
Sean: Does the Princess have an aria?
Marnie: At the very end of the opera when she’s saying, “Turn back time. Work harder, Heurtebise. Turn back time. You have to get him back.” Because – she says, “You’ll do anything I say. Right, Orphée? You love me. You will obey me. You will do whatever I say.” He says, “Yes, I will. I will.” OK, then I’m sending you back to the Upper World. And he says ‘what, wait, I thought we loved each other’ and she says, “No. I’m sending you back.” And then she has to work so hard. Remember how she’s crying when she says, “Heurtebise, vous travail mal. Renverse les obstacles! – Go inside yourself. Leave yourself, go back, turn back time. We need every ounce of your power!” It’s a bit at the end, I guess I would call it an aria. This is not the typical form. This is the first Philip Glass opera I’ve done. So, it’s the first truly minimalist – but he doesn’t consider himself a minimalist, does he? He considers himself more of a classicist.
Sean: I would say so.
Marnie: Yes – so, there’s this kind-of aria in Act II, scene 8 – right before the last scene – when she’s singing “Turn back time” and then she goes off to her…
JEAN COCTEAU, Writer and Director — Orphée, 1950
Sean: The “back story” of a character or plot is what many actors deal with. What do you think the “sequel” would be for the Princess? As in, years later when Orphée dies – would she have the potential to bring him back to the Underworld? Do you see that happening?
Marnie: Possibly. But I think her punishment from the Judges for following in love with him and then bringing him to the Underworld and then back to the Upperworld – I think that was a big no-no. And so her big punishment in the end is the ultimate Hell – the death of death. At the end of the movie and the opera, she goes off to this place where she will never have the chance of dealing with Orphée, even if he died. Just talking ideas – Orphée would be in one place and she would be in the hell of Hells. Finito. That’s it! No chance for salvation. It’s like the Grim Reaper saying, “I’m not going to do my job” and then getting punished for that.
Sean: And throughout the story we are aware that she is making these decisions – when she’s not supposed to love or even be aware of those kinds of feelings, much less to be even processing through them. When the Judges are questioning her, she doesn’t admit to doing anything wrong but acknowledges that perhaps she overstepped her authority.
Marnie: Exactly. “Oops.”
Sean: Where are you today with the role and the rehearsal process?
Marnie: We just did a sitzprobe (rough rehearsal) today with the orchestra and it went really well. We have another week. We’re all memorized, everything is staged, and we’ve been doing piece run-throughs.
Sean: How about the costume sketches? Have you seen what you’ll be wearing yet?
Marnie: We did a photo shoot. I had a very fun, slightly Dita Von Teese, burlesque-ish, a bustier-type look. It’s not quite as ’50s / Yves St. Laurent as it is in the movie. It’s a little more Burlesque or Circus lion tamer.
Sean: More like what you would see at Teatro ZinZanni.
Marnie: Exactly, that kind of feel. It’s great.
Sean: Which brings me to the stated Circus aspects of the production. Is that used to depict the Underworld?
Marnie: Yes, the roue Cyr and silk artists are the characters in the Underworld. They also do a re-enactment, a symbolic representation of Orphée and Eurydice for their journey from the Underworld. These acrobats are also amazing actors, so we’ve incorporated them into other scenes as well. They help become the car, they’re the people in the café, lots of good scenes.
Sean: Watching those particular scenes in the film, it’s sort-of pre-Beatnik, but definitely that look of Café Society in Paris. So, what’s coming up for you after Orphée and The Rape of Lucretia at Cal Performances?
Marnie: I have a CD of all Henry Mollicone music. He’s an amazing composer. He lives in San Jose. He’s done some wonderful operas – Starbird, and The Face on the Barroom Floor which Central City Opera does every year. He and I got together and recorded most of his soprano art songs.
Sean: And I get to review this when?
Marnie: Hopefully, October. December at the latest. We’re still editing and it’s kind-of taking forever because of all our other projects.
Sean: How do you feel about all these opportunities in contemporary music coming your way?
Marnie: It’s interesting. I’ve trained so many years to be this Bel Canto singer. Jane Randolph was my teacher here at the Conservatory and we still check-in once in a while. I had a baby a year ago, so he’s out here with me and there’s a bit of a juggle going on. Right before I got pregnant with him, I did a Lucia and I’m dying to do more of that. But I have to say I’m really enjoying the modern music. It’s nice to sing something that Callas hasn’t sung. You know? Always being compared-compared-compared. And to just find my own art and whatever it is that my heart needs to say. I like the challenge of new music, of thinking ‘How does this go?!’. I got to do a Peter Eötvös piece at Glyndebourne two years ago called Sierva Maria, based on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, Love and Other Demons. An amazing opera. I covered it at the last minute. I had just performed “Cunagonde” in Candide at the English National Opera and they heard me there. So I went down to Glyndebourne from London to cover this. It was so hard and such a challenge, but I had to do it. It also had a Yoruban dialect from Africa and a bit of Spanish as well. It’s amazing. I think it opens up a different part of your brain. Most of the modern stuff I’m doing tends to be in English. I did the Unsuk Chin piece, Cantatrix Sopranica, at Berkeley a few years ago. I don’t necessarily only want to do that, but I enjoy it. So? Nice work if you can get it.
Sean: How do you maintain a regimen of practice so that you know you’re at your best when you’re not at home? How are you handling that during Orphée?
Marnie: Good question. Luckily, I’m staying with my parents in St. Helena. They have a piano, so I practice at their house. I do a lot of mental practice too. I’m in the car and I’m thinking through this whole scene – “OK, breathe there” – and I make the breaths, but I don’t sing. We’ve had a lot of rehearsals, so I’ve been singing all day. I just adapt somehow. I don’t have the same regimen when I’m on the road. I’ve been based in New York for almost four years now and I definitely don’t have the same regimen as when I’m at home. It’s a typical New York apartment and the neighbors haven’t complained yet. But I also have excellent coaches who are just blocks away from me and I’ll go to their house and work for an hour two or three times a week.
Sean: These are accompanists, right? Not vocal coaches?
Marnie: I don’t study with a voice teacher in New York.
Sean: So, it’s about cramming repertoire and last minute —
Marnie: Yes. I just did a Victor Herbert recording —
VICTOR HERBERT, Composer — JEANETTE MacDONALD, Soprano
Marnie: That recording is coming out this year, too! There’s a bunch of Victor Herbert music that’s not been recorded that somebody from the Victor Herbert Society found a sponsor to put this whole recording project together. I just got lucky!
Sean: Oh, Amen! I’ve been Victor Herbert’s biggest fan since I was a little boy and saw Jeanette MacDonald in —
Marnie: — Naughty Marietta! Then you will love this recording! It’s awesome music, all this stuff that has not been recorded. He was so prolific! We’ll have to chat again when this recording comes out.
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Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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