Marnie Breckenridge is an internationally acclaimed soprano from St. Helena. Growing up, she loved singing and was a natural performer, and her teachers throughout high school and college told her that she could do this professionally. While attending PUC, Marnie majored in music and performed solo many times for vespers and church, which helped her understand what it takes to perform. Since graduating in 1993 with a BS in music, she has been traveling the world working in opera and theatre, performing at Carnegie Hall, and winning the prestige’s San Francisco Conservatory of Music Alumni of the Year award in 2013.
Tell us about being an internationally acclaimed soprano. What do you enjoy most about what you do? What’s the most challenging?
There’s something truly exhilarating to me about embodying a character in an opera or theatre work— singing their thoughts, hopes, and dreams — being an advocate and vessel for the music as well as for the journey of the specific character and the overall gestalt of the opera — it really floats my boat! When I’m on stage, in costume, making LIVE music with a huge group of people within the machine (takes so many people to make it happen – from costumers, makeup designers, set designers, director, lights, orchestra, conductor, other singers, etc.) it feels as if we, together, can stop time and offer insights on how to change the world with our intentions and vibrations for that moment/hour/performance time. I believe in theatre as a way to enlighten us and awaken us to the many and varied ways in which we can evolve to be better, more empathetic, and loving humans.
I also truly enjoy traveling and seeing the world…but only for about 3 days solo (having my thoughts to myself (silence) and sleeping in — skipping the 6:30 AM wake up and carpooling to school). But after a little time alone to get the lay of the land in the new city, I miss my husband (Alex) and two children (Gus, 12, and Alexa 10) way too much. The biggest downside to traveling and being away for long periods of time is the loneliness. However, when the kids aren’t in school and have a moment to join me, there are many wonderful educational experiences for them to soak up.
What inspired you to become a singer?
I’m not sure exactly what inspired me to become a singer. I think I have just always been one. Like it’s just who I am. Marnie the singer. My parents tell me that I was always singing. I used to line my stuffed animals up in my bedroom as a 7-year-old and sing to them for hours and hours. I would make up stories and sing those stories to them….tears streaming down my face in dramatically imaginative moments and all. I wanted to be “the next Barbra Streisand” when I grew up. Haha! But as I went to PAJA (Pomona Adventist Junior Academy) then MBA (Monterey Bay Academy) then PUC – my dear teachers always encouraged me to sing solos…and a few of them here and there even said little things like, ‘you could do this professionally’, etc. But instead of Contemporary Christian or Broadway, I leaned more towards Classical as I came from the liturgical world of singing in church. Mom was an organist and also sang (beautiful mezzo-soprano voice). Also, my mom’s cousins (a few times removed) were the Hooper family as well as Maurita Phillips Thornburgh. Wayne Hooper wrote such beautiful songs. Maurita sang a lot of his music. She inspired me to think about classical singing as that was the style she had mastered so beautifully. And I was more moved and got more goosebumps while listening to classical music and opera, so that’s the direction I went. I had studied pre-med for like 5 minutes my freshman year then realized quickly I needed to succumb to my own natural talents and leave o-chem, phlebotomy, and biology tests to someone else.
You’ve performed at Carnegie Hall. Can you share with us what that experience was like?
Carnegie is a great hall. The acoustics are just splendid. Easy place to stand and express knowing the sound will carry in that perfectly reverberant place. When I was a sophomore at PUC, our Pro Musica group sang in a large choir (with other schools) at Carnegie Hall in John Rutter’s “Requiem”. I remember sitting in the audience while another choir was rehearsing, and I said to myself, “I’m going to sing solo in this hall someday”. When it finally happened, it was for the soprano solos in Mozart’s “Coronation Mass”, and mostly it was a really fun experience. I got the new gown, did the hair and nails, took cheeky photos in front of my dressing room with my name on the door…the whole deal. But a funny thing happened- in that the conductor forgot I had a long cadenza (a florid addition to the end of a phrase) towards the end of my first aria, and he just sped on through to the next music as I was singing my cadenza! I had to stop singing it mid-vowel and jump to the new spot in the score. My heart SANK in at moment. Here I was making my Carnegie Hall debut, and the conductor jumped on my line! He made it look like I messed up! It was so sad! So I just kept going — which has been my motto: JUST KEEP SWIMMING (thanks, Dory). But let’s face it, Carnegie Hall is just a HALL. We assign so much ego attachment to things. Yes, I am a professional, and I “deserve” to sing in big important HALLS throughout the world. But would I be any less of a pro singer and actor had I not sung there? Consider, if you will, all of the amazing people who never get to sing in Carnegie or Davies Symphony Hall or at the Metropolitan Opera but they deserve to! It is a numbers game for sure. It’s who you know/where you are in that moment, etc. I only say all of this because although it did feel special to sing at Carnegie, and I’m happy that my life goal came to fruition, I’ve actually had much more artfully fulfilling experiences in little churches at the end of dirt roads, out under the stars by a campfire, or in a teeny theatre with no budget to pay their singers, etc. than at that big important hall. Were those other experiences any less important? I don’t think so.
What opera have you enjoyed the most performing?
My most performed operas are Cunegonde in “Candide” (Based on the Voltaire) and Lucia di Lammermoor. Both have special places in my heart. They are challenging to sing, and both tell interesting stories about young women who were subjected to their ‘lot in life’ without choice. Cunegonde experiences every embarrassing and belittling thing in life yet emerges on the other side a more wholesome and evolved human. Lucia di Lammermoor is forced to marry a man she doesn’t love so the insanity of it all drives her to murder him then she dies immediately afterward — not before the townsfolk and her family realize they should’ve been nicer to her.
How did your time at PUC help prepare you for your career?
We had great fun singing all types of songs and styles of music in Pro Musica with Dr. Jim Kempster and even performed a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, “Trial By Jury”, while I was there. The many times I was able to get up in front of the whole school to perform solo for vespers or church really helped me get a strong foothold in understanding what all it takes to perform. I was also fortunate enough to be able to tour with Dr. Leroy Peterson and a string quartet to Norway and Sweden (which included current PUC orchestra conductor Rachelle Berthelsen Davis).
What did you enjoy the most about your time at PUC?
I enjoyed just about everything about PUC. What fun years those were. The combination of independence driving myself around in a car in the gorgeous Napa Valley filled with fantastic friends having hilarious adventures with a home base of an excellent institution of higher learning whose teachers were supportive, kind, and encouraging? That’s what I would call an exquisite combo!
What are your hobbies?
For many years, I have said, “I don’t have any hobbies” because I truly didn’t have time to! With everything I had to learn about how to be an opera singer, it felt like I was continuously reading books on opera, studying languages (Italian, French, German), memorizing the next pieces, etc. My hobby was STUDYING! But now, I like to include attending my children’s sports/theatre performances, hiking, ballet barre workouts, interior design/decorating, letter writing, and practicing calligraphy as hobbies!