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Back to the Convent: Deanna Breiwick on Returning to ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites’

Deanna Breiwick. Photo Credit Daniel Volland

Dialogues of the Carmelites holds a special place in San Francisco Opera history. In 1957, less than nine months after its world premiere in Milan, the opera made its American premiere right here in California, under the supervision of then-general director Kurt Herbert Adler.

It would go on to be one of the most acclaimed operas of the mid-20th century, a harrowing depiction of faith tested by violence.

But it’s not all grimness and despair in Dialogues of the Carmelites. For an opera about nuns facing martyrdom, the show presents a rousing vision of sisterhood forged in fire—of strength and friendship even in the darkest of times. And there is no better example of that than Sister Constance, a character whose irrepressible joy radiates from the stage, even as the scaffold rises before her.

Dialogues of the Carmelites returns this fall as part of San Francisco Opera’s 100th season, and  a newcomer has arrived to tackle this pivotal role: soprano Deanna Breiwick. The Seattle native makes her company debut as Sister Constance, the character who helped launch Breiwick’s career when she was only 21.

In a new video interview, done between rehearsals, Breiwick offers a glimpse at her musical upbringing and peels back the layers of her character’s chipper demeanor.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What was it like growing up in Seattle, surrounded by musicians and vocalists? Who did what in your family—and who did you aspire to be most like?

DEANNA BREIWICK: My main inspiration growing up was my mother, and she still inspires me today. She's a wonderful musician, a beautiful singer and pianist.

And so since I was a baby, I was listening in on her voice lessons, and when I started showing the desire to sing, she would play for me. And even for my college and conservatory auditions, she played a lot of those for me.

So we share that very special bond and musical communication. My dad is a businessman, business owner, so I say I get the music in my life from my mom, and I get sort of the business sense from my dad.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Did you ever find yourself drawn away from music, toward another discipline? Why or why not?

BREIWICK: I have always felt that music is my destiny. From a very young age, I felt it was my way of expressing. And I was a harpist as well, so I was playing the harp and singing.

I guess if I considered another path, I remember considering languages or psychology. But the amazing thing about opera is that it draws all of those mediums together into one beautiful art form. So I truly feel that—in opera and being an opera singer—so many of my passions are combined.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What was your very first encounter with opera?

BREIWICK: My first encounter with opera was with operetta—with Die Fledermaus at the Seattle Opera. My voice teacher at the time took me, and I was completely enchanted by the laughter, the drama, the singing, the vocal acrobatics, the costumes.

I was enthralled by the art form from a very young age. And then it was a few years after I started to begin to dabble in it myself and discovered that I love the thrill and the challenge of singing this repertoire.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I can’t imagine someone who’s been performing since they were five having stage fright! Do you ever get struck with the jitters, and if so, how do you handle them?

BREIWICK: Stage fright! So as a child, I never experienced it. I was completely free and fearless.

As time has gone on—as I have become more invested in this and come to care far more for what I do—I do feel like the stakes have risen and I have experienced more stage fright.

I will say that my self-awareness and ability to deal with that—with those nerves—has also increased. And so, I have ways of being able to center myself, to be in the moment, to still feel alive and not shut down if the nerves do hit.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did you get passionate about yoga? And what’s your favorite move?

BREIWICK: How did I get passionate about yoga? So along with being an opera singer, I am a yoga teacher. I am very passionate about yoga and the benefits that it can bring to us physically, spiritually, emotionally, mentally.

I think what yoga has taught me is: On the mat, say you're in a challenging pose. And you're trying to hold this pose. You're trying to get into it, and your body's shaking. You feel this panic—this fight-or-flight—rise up.

And through the practice of yoga, we breathe through it. We find gentleness, compassion, our breath, even through these moments of turmoil and challenge. And I find that, when I'm able to practice that well on the mat, I'm able to bring that into my life.

My favorite pose? I mean, I love Shavasana. I love laying down and just being at rest. And yeah, that one feels really good to me.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: At age 21, you performed in your first opera—the same opera you perform for San Francisco Opera’s 100th season, Dialogues of the Carmelites. Can you describe that first role on the opera stage? What was it like to get into character? 

BREIWICK: So at age 21, I sang my first opera. And it was actually this role, Soeur Constance, and it was absolutely life-changing for me.

At that point, I wasn't sure if I wanted to go into opera. I knew I loved singing. I knew I loved music. But this really showed me the power of what an opera can be: bringing together storytelling, powerful music, these gorgeously effectively written characters.

So it's wonderful to return to her—to Soeur Constance—who has such a dear place in my heart after all of these years.

And I would say—in learning this role, learning a role for the first time—I think I was surprised with how much depth and nuance is there: that it's not just some character, but it's a human being with all of the nooks and crannies that you yourself have, the strengths and the weaknesses, the quirks, the triggers, the joys.

And the deeper you get into that, I feel like as I study these roles and that being the first one, but as I study these characters over time, I feel an increased sense of empathy within me. And I think that’s actually one of the greatest gifts that can come from this line of work is that it cultivates a deeper and more expansive capacity for empathy within us.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: The French composer Francis Poulenc only wrote three operas—and you’ve performed in at least two of the three, including Les Mamelles de Tirésias. What’s the hardest part of singing Poulencs music?

BREIWICK: Out of the three operas that Poulenc has composed, I have now sung roles from two of them. So Soeur Constance and then also Thérèse from Les Mamelles de Tirésias, which is a colorful, fantastical, thrilling piece to sing and play with.

I find that his music really sings itself in me. It does not feel difficult. It feels very natural and intuitive. I like the way he sets text. I find I can really ride that line of communicating, of bringing forth the text, but also really singing through it. And his harmonies are just luxurious, luscious, beautiful—the kind of music that your body responds to.

You hear it a lot in Dialogues. You start hearing some theme come in and I just feel: Oh, my gut starts churning. Or I feel the the hairs raise up on my arms. And I love that: that his music provides such a visceral experience.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Sister Constance is a pretty peppy character—especially for someone who has premonitions about her own impending doom. Do you see overlaps between yourself and your character? How do you relate to her?

BREIWICK: I feel that Soeur Constance and I, as people, actually have a lot of overlap. I think we both present very much in a similar way: with cheerfulness and delight in life and a joyful spirit. But there's also that shadow side, a more melancholy side, a deep intuition—very empathetic and feeling in touch with those around her.

I would say, of any character in opera, I relate to Soeur Constance the most. And I really love her, and I learn from her. I feel like she is able to—. You'll see her just seamlessly flow through the highs and lows of life. One moment, she's talking about death. The next, she's talking about the pure and utter delight she feels in being alive. And she's unfazed and she talks about these things and just glides through them with so much acceptance.

And I aspire to be more like her in that way, just living with this beautiful sense of acceptance for what is and what is outside of our control. She's a little philosopher. I think that she teaches all of us a lot.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What do you hope audiences take away from this upcoming production of Dialogues of the Carmelites?

BREIWICK: What do I hope you, as the audience, will take away from this experience? I hope it's very similar to what we have been experiencing as the artists, which is a reminder of how beautifully connected we all are: people of so many different walks of life, people from different time periods, and yet finding these core, shared, universal struggles, pains, joys. And I feel that this piece very powerfully brings those to the surface. So I hope that you feel connected and that you feel moved.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What is a dream role you hope to play some day, and why?

BREIWICK: My dream role? So I have to say, first, that my favorite role is actually this one, Soeur Constance. I experience so much joy singing this.

But as for singing for the future, I would love to sing Semele. I love singing Handel. I love the creative agency and freedom that we get to take as artists in that repertoire. So yeah, definitely Semele.

See soprano Deanna Breiwick in Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, on stage starting October 15, 2022. And follow her on Instagram with the handle @deannabreiwick.