I have a huge fondness for South-African mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt. I admire her charisma, how she embodies the life of a character, and her voice, of course: soft, round and warm. With the high register of a soprano, but with darker colours, and a calm, unforced lower register. Unmistakably a mezzo.
In 2004 (revival: 2011) the Netherlands got to hear her live on stage for the first time. She sang Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauass at the National Opera. One of the most famous pants roles so many mezzos seem to play their fair share of.
Michelle Breedt (Octavian) and Anne Schwanewilms (Marschallin) in Amsterdam. Foto: Monika Rittershaus
Besides Octavian, Breedt has other (young) men and boys in her repertory. Cherubino, of course, but also Chérubin by Massenet, Stefano (Roméo et Juliette), Nicklausse (Contes d’Hoffmann), Idamante (Idomeneo) and Annio (La Clemenza di Tito).
She also sings Carmen, of course, and Charlotte, Brangäne and Mélisande, but what really sets her apart from her colleague mezzos is the number of modern and contemporary roles in her repertory. Roles in modern and forgotten operas which she studies with a dedication that is typical of her and which she brings to life so memorably. Roles that demand a bigger than usual acting ability because her characters often move between good and evil.
Take for example Mère Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (a role she sang in november 2015 at the National Opera in Amsterdam), a woman who, for many people, stands for religious fundamentalism.
Michelle Breedt (Mère Marie), Sally Matthews (Blanche) Amsterdam, 2015. Foto: Hans van de Boogaard
Is that really the case, though? What does Breedt think of this herself? Of Marie, but also of those other two unconventional characters: Lisa in Die Passagierin by Weinberg, and Cayetana, Duchess of Alba in Goya by Menotti.
The day we spoke to each other, Breedt was in Spain, singing Fricka at the Oviedo Summer Festival.
Michelle Breedt as Fricka
“I am not very fond of Fricka. It is a wonderful role, of course, very dramatic too in her confrontation with Wotan. To me, Fricka is too one-dimensional, too certain of herself and her own truth. Only she knows what is good. No, if it has to to be Wagner, give me Brangäne. Brangäne has doubts, which make her react spontaneously and emotionally. I can do so much more with that.”
Breedt (Brangäne) with Iréne Theorin (Isolde):
Breedt has been singing for many years at the largest opera houses of the world, but she gained special recognition for the part of Lisa, a former SS guard in Auschwitz, in Mieczysław Weinberg’s Die Passagierin . Breedt created the part at the world premiere in 2010 in Bregenz and repeated it in 2011 (in English) at the English National Opera, and in 2014 at Houston Grand Opera.
“In Bregenz I met Zofia Przesmysz, the author of the book the opera is based on, but I did not discuss the role with her. I also did not read the book. I specifically did not want to do that. I wanted to remain open to the role as much as possible, because I needed to transmit the reality of the opera. Also people who had not read the book or did no see the movie should be able to understand the opera. My starting point was Weinberg’s music, which I studied intensely. I wanted to be as faithful to his music as possible. His music is truly magnificent. I had to stay faithful to the role he wanted. His music speaks a natural language. In addition to the music, I had the libretto. I did a lot of research on my own too. An American book on German female camp guards was extremely helpful. I had to be careful not to make Lisa into a caricature: after all, the libretto is written from her perspective.”
“I am from South-Africa and I have lived through the Apartheid. I know from experience you don’t know everything, cannot know everything, even if you are right in the middle of it. So I can more or less understand people who say they did not know anything about it.” After a short silence she softly sings: “I wanted to help them and they really liked me” … “The ship is a metaphor for practically everything. You are locked up, and cannot escape, but you sway on just like the sea.”
Breedt also sang the role in English. Did that make a difference? “O yes! I really hated singing it in English. The opera is very sensitive to language, and English makes Lisa sound too nice. It is really a language thing, German simply sounds harder.”
Another world premiere on Michelle Breedt’s repertory is Goya by Menotti, in which she sang Doña Cayetana, the Duchess of Albas.
Michelle Breedt (Cayetana) with Plácido Domingo (Goya)
” I am always curious and eager to learn and do a lot of background reading before I undertake a role. I try to get my inspiration from the historical context. So I studied the entire house of Alba, and the period they lived in. Cayetana was a free spirit, very brave as well, but she was also a manipulator. A highly complex personality of great psychological interest.”
In answer to my question whether she considers Mère Marie a manipulator as well she immediately said yes. But things are complicated.
“The libretto does not do her justice. She is certainly controversial, but she stands for what she believes in, her religion. I mean, how many people are prepared to die for their ideals? For their faith? And no, of course you cannot compare her to the suicide attackers of today, because they want to take along as many innocent people as possible. That is not the intention of true martyrdom.”
Trailer from Amsterdam:
“Marie has a very strong character, she would rather die as a nun than renounce her faith. The libretto is not fair to her, because it does not say what happens to her afterwards. It is her biggest tragedy that she cannot die together with the others, that she has to keep on living. That is her martyrdom. In fact, she is a deeply sad figure who has to continue living while all she wanted was to find death.” Breedt herself grew up in a religious family, can she identify with Marie? “I can identify more or less with the religious aspect, but the thought of a convent is alien to me. For me, that is one step too far. Shutting yourself off from the world is not for me. You miss out on life itself that way, which goes against my life’s philosophy. I love challenge, I love life.”
As opposed to many mezzos Breedt does not sing much Händel. Not much Verdi either. She does sing a lot of modern repertory, though.
“I am not a coloratura mezzo. My voice is different from that of Cecilia Bartoli. I am more someone of the long lines. There are not many Verdi roles that fit me either. Apart from Eboli, that is, and I have indeed sung her. I recorded a lot of modern and ‘Entartete’ music when I worked frequently with Gerd Albrecht. We did not have a lot of time, but it was too important not to do it, to leave it. I am extremly happy I did, because the operas are now documented.”
“My dream role? Regardless whether I could sing it?”
“Oooo… don’t laugh!” she exclaims, chortling. “All those gorgeous Italian tenor favorites! Nessun dorma, Donna non vidi mai…
Seriously: “Kundry, perhaps. Or Sieglinde. Or Marie in Wozzeck. I would like to try out more “zwischenfach” roles. I am a real mezzo-soprano in the true meaning of the word: between soprano and alto.”
Michelle Breedt gives Masterclass in Bayreuth:
English translation: Remko Jas