A warm smile and a heartfelt hug—this was my first time meeting soprano Deanna Breiwick.
Our “interview” felt more like a casual conversation between fast friends, and she was generally more interested in asking about how I was doing during my first time in Europe than talking about herself. It’s no wonder Sophie de Lint—previously of Opernhaus Zürich but now director of Dutch National Opera—saw a spark that led to several years of employment for Breiwick at Opernhaus Zürich.
“The first time I heard Deanna was in [New York City during] private auditions I asked the Lindemann/Juilliard program to arrange for me,” de Lint says. “Deanna was 25 and stood out with her sparkling temperament, a silvery timbre, and her professionalism. I immediately thought that with her temperament she would be a big gain for the Zürich ensemble of soloists.”
Breiwick spent a year in the Zürich studio program, then worked a couple of years as a Fest singer before going freelance. In 2016, she was invited back to the Opernhaus Zürich for a production of The Wizard of Oz opera. At the time of this interview, Breiwick was their Drusilla in L’incoronazione di Poppea.
“One of Deanna’s strengths,” de Lint says, “is that she is as convincing performing a young innocent girl as she is performing a very sexy Drusilla. She can do it all and embraces challenges. She’s a gift for conductors and directors. We invited her back for Drusilla because it’s very important to us to be loyal and supportive to our young artists. But the main reason is that she was the perfect fit for this project, and I knew that [director] Calixto Bieito and Deanna would connect.”
Speaking from a restaurant across from the Opernhaus Zürich stage door this past June, Breiwick reflects on her journey from Seattle to the Met.
What led you from the U.S. to Zürich?
I did my undergrad at Mannes and master’s at Juilliard, and then I did an artist diploma at Juilliard. After my artist diploma, I came directly to Zürich and I did one year in the studio program, which is like a Young Artist Program. After that, I went into two years in the Fest and then went freelance after that.
Was it difficult to get work at first, after going freelance?
Within weeks I was getting offers through my website, which was very empowering for me. I was negotiating contracts and I was negotiating fees, [which is] not something I want to do now. But at the time it was really cool to be my own boss and to see that I could take care of myself. And then I signed with the management I’m with now, Sam Snook with IMG, which I’m very happy with.
Do you have a home base currently?
Since May 2016 I’ve been doing the opera homeless thing. I have a storage unit in Seattle and I have a wonderful friend who I sublet with in New York and I’m just hopping around, and it’s fun.
How early were you exposed to the idea of singing professionally?
My mom is a singer and she never pursued it professionally but she went to college for it, so I grew up with music around the house. She’s a wonderful pianist as well. And she was taking voice lessons when I was a young girl, so I would go sit in on her voice lessons. I would just tag along with her, so I was watching voice lessons from age four or five.
When did you first perform?
I sang in my first performance when I was five. I sang a song called “Livin’ that Givin’ Way.” It’s about cows sharing their milk, and how we should follow their example. We have a video and pictures of it. I actually keep a picture from that performance with me, because sometimes I look back on it if I’m feeling a lack of joy in what I’m doing or the stress is just crowding it out.
What is it about that photo that keeps you going?
I look back on that photo and see so much joy on my face and I’m like, “OK, that’s what I need to go back to—just the pure joy of singing.” I felt that joy from a young age.
When did you start taking voice lessons?
When I was eight. Children’s musical lessons, you know—singing musical theatre songs, singing pop songs I’d heard. I was a classical harpist at the time—I started taking lessons when I was seven and played till I left for Mannes—so through that I became more interested in classical music. I didn’t have a harp in New York City and fell out of practice, but the lessons that I learned as an instrumentalist during that time have greatly informed my musicality.
As you approached college, was it a given that you would major in voice?
I was very conflicted about whether I should go to a liberal arts college or go to a conservatory. But I’ve always strived for a high level of excellence in whatever I do, so if I ended up wanting to be a voice teacher, I still want to get the best possible training I can get. I also knew [Mannes College voice teacher] Beth Roberts—I had a trial lesson with her when I was 17—and I thought, “That woman can teach me how to sing.”
When did you decide that singing could be your career?
It was actually when I was in Mannes. I was in a conservatory, so you would think I was all in for a performance career. But I was such a homebody and thought I wanted to get the best education possible and then go back home to Seattle to teach. I thought maybe I’d go into music education.
Was there a specific turning point?
I had never done opera before—the only theatre I’d done was Luisa in The Fantasticks in high school—and in my third year at Mannes we did Dialogues of the Carmelites, and I sang the role of Sister Constance, and that changed my life. I connected very much with the character personally, and I felt very moved by the piece and the stories of these strong women living with so much conviction. I was inspired by the piece, and the whole experience was wonderful. There was a sisterhood.
Opening night, I remember afterward that I thought, “This is what I want to do. There’s nothing better than this.” That solidified it for me, and then I began looking into grad schools because I knew I wanted to be a performer.
How did you get that initial contract with Opernhaus Zürich?
I did an audition in New York when I was at Juilliard. Honestly, it was a very good audition because I had no expectations for it, but they hired me on the spot. I didn’t have anything lined up for after my artist diploma and I thought, “Well, this is presenting itself—I should go.”
Did you feel like you adjusted well to living in Switzerland?
I had never even been to Switzerland before and I moved here. But there’s something that’s really—funny, kind of spooky, actually. Last year I was cleaning out my childhood room and I found a letter I had written to myself when I was 10, and it was all these dreams and goals. One of them was to live abroad in Europe for a time, preferably Switzerland. So, it was meant to be.
I have had a wonderful experience here, and this is one of the cool things about what we do: you have homes all around the world and you have family all around the world.
Did you ever doubt you would get into Juilliard for your master’s?
Along the way, even without totally noticing it, I have been clearly setting goals. I’m a bit headstrong and ambitious when it comes to chasing my dreams. I think it’s important, and you have to find out what you want in life. When I was at my last year of Mannes, Juilliard was my dream school.
I wanted to go there, and every time I walked by Juilliard I had a little chant. It was, “Juilliard is mine, 2009.” I did that for six months leading up to my audition—and when I got there for my audition, it was like, “This is mine.” I had an incredible feeling of confidence. I felt like I had already taken it.
Did you do something like that with the Metropolitan Opera? Was that house in particular something you were striving for?
Even more than performing, I love the rehearsal process. And I love a high level of music-making, storytelling art. If I can have those things wherever I am, I am so happy.
So, I think with the Met, yeah, I remember I made some goals for myself to accomplish before I was 25. One of those goals was to win the Met competition before I was 25, and I got into the finals when I had just turned 24. I did the finals and didn’t win, which was hard for me because I had put so much pressure on myself and was banking on it. Looking back, I think, “Come on, Deanna. You made it to the finals.”
If anything, it lit the fire under me a bit, just to feel that step away from where you want to be. I think it pushed me to work really hard. And then after that, I guess, I’ve always thought I would like to sing on the Met stage. I don’t know if I’ve ever really shot for specific stages—it’s more that I just want to sing at really great places with great people. I want to sing music that in some way feeds me and in some way keeps me growing and learning.
Do you think that setting high goals has set you up for success?
I think it is good to define where you’d like to be. It helps keep you on course and helps you enjoy the suffering—the process that it takes you to get there. You’ll stay in the practice room and keep working away when you feel that could be a reality in the future. And I think that if you don’t make it there, at least you know for yourself that you gave it everything you could, and at the end of the day when you’re going to bed at night, that’s it. You know you did right by yourself.
I think it’s good to shoot for the stars and have those goals in mind but not to lose yourself in the future plans and to focus on now. I think that work could then potentially lead you there. And if not, still, you’re doing good work.
You made your Met debut as La Charmeuse in Massenet’s Thaïs in 2017. What did you think when you found out you were heading to the Met?
I was ecstatic. I called my mom, and I was pretty darn excited. It took a long time for it to set in.
And the cool thing was when I got there, I felt some serious nerves that opening night—but, honestly, at the end it just felt like another stage. I’m doing the same thing that I do everywhere, so that was kind of cool to realize. It was almost anticlimactic, but in a good way.
This is my job, this is what I do. It doesn’t matter what stage I’m standing on. Someone recently asked me what my dream job or life situation would be, and I replied without hesitation, “I’m living it.”
Have you dealt with any major periods of self-doubt?
I have found that I have a very busy mind and I am very good at jumping to the worst-case scenario. But in the past few years, I’ve gotten into mindfulness and meditation. Just something as simple as observing my breath has really helped me. I do yoga, which has been everything. It has changed how I sing and my relationship with my body.
Have you ever considered an exit plan for this career?
I’ve always said, “If I stop loving this, if this is making me miserable, I’m out.” No matter what path you choose in life, there will be pros and cons; there’s no easy way. But it’s about finding the problems that you can live best with.
This career can be so stressful and discouraging sometimes and can really beat you down, but I find if you can still deal with that and move forward and live with those challenges, it’s still worth it.
Do you miss being based in Zürich?
I always had the idea that my time in Zürich would be temporary, but I am conflicted about that. I feel very at home here, but there is some ease with being back in the States and close to family. Hopefully I can continue to do this—hop back and forth, the gig life.