Popular belief has it that to be a successful opera singer, you need to live in one of the major metropolitan centers and concentrate on promoting yourself and your career. Robert Breault, however, defies that conventional wisdom.
For the past 12 years, he's made Salt Lake City his home. And his career hasn't suffered one bit.
Breault has an active career, singing with opera companies and orchestras throughout the United States. And on Friday, he'll be making what many would consider his long overdue debut with New York City Opera as Alfredo in "La Traviata."
Breault is no stranger to the Big Apple. "It'll be exciting to sing there," he said, "but I've been singing in New York for years. I've performed at Carnegie Hall, and I've done four or five different things with the Opera Orchestra of New York."
When Breault auditioned for New York City Opera, he was asked to sing five arias. "That's very unusual to be asked to do that," he said. The following week, the company called him to find out if he was interested in doing "La Traviata." "Alfredo was the role that I really wanted to sing," he said.
Breault has sung the role twice before. The first time was a few years ago in Michigan under the direction of his former voice teacher, Lorna Heywood. His second encounter with the role was this past summer in Chautauqua. "It was in English, like everything they do there. I've been having to learn the part again for New York and purging my brain of the English translation."
Complicating things is the fact that Breault will also sing Alfredo with New Orleans Opera Association while he's in New York. That came about because he accepted the New Orleans engagement before he knew he would be doing the part with the New York City Opera. "I'm going to be working with two different stagings and two different directors at the same time. George Manahan and Robert Lyall are very different," he said, referring to the New York City Opera music director and the New Orleans Opera artistic director, respectively. "Robert is a detail kind of guy, so it should be very, very interesting."
However, Breault doesn't seem to mind being in two places at the same time. "It's a great role and I'm looking forward to doing it again."
Breault admitted that the audition process at New York City Opera was a bit odd for him. "When I walked in, it was like a cattle call. It was so strange." He said that most singers who live in New York run into each other at various auditions. "Living in Utah, I'm out of the loop. Nobody knew who I was. They knew my name, but they had never heard me sing."
Breault recently changed managers, a move he feels has helped his career. "I decided to take the risk and go with a new agent this year." Breault wasn't dissatisfied with his old agent, but he realized that he was in a rut. "I was singing at the same places over and over. I'd go to new places, too, but I always kept returning to the old ones."
Breault said that his new agent is careful about how he markets him. That, and his large repertoire make it difficult to put Breault in a vocal category. "It's confusing for people. I've been asked to sing 'Cavalleria' for Opera Arizona. I've done 'The Creation' and 'Messiah,' and now my agent is trying to convince people that I can sing 'Boheme.' "
Breault is comfortable with many different roles. "I feel I can do two or three different kinds of repertoire. I can sing all the coloratura stuff and also heavier parts, although I don't consider myself a dramatic tenor."
Other roles Breault has recently added to his repertoire include Mario in "Tosca" and the title character in "Stiffelio." Another new character for him is Steva in Janacek's "Jenufa," which Breault will do with Utah Opera in January. "I've sung Janacek before, but never in Czech," he said. "Once I have Alfredo down, I'll begin to study the language. I'm going to have some down time in New York, which I can use to study."
It wasn't a singing gig that brought Breault to the Beehive State. He came here to take over the opera department at the University of Utah. "I was 28 and had just finished my doctorate when I was offered the job." But the position gave the young singer what he was looking for. "I enjoy teaching, but the job also lets me continue with my singing career."
He said that his decision to come to Utah to teach was greeted with skepticism by friends and colleagues back East. "They couldn't believe I was moving to Utah. They told me not to go and to stay away from teaching, because that would be my death warrant." But Breault wasn't swayed. "I was stubborn and naive and felt that I could do anything. And I took the job as long as I could sing and pursue my career."
Breault hasn't regretted it. "This is a great place for me to teach," he said. "There are so many 17-year-olds who come to me with a love of music and singing you don't find elsewhere."
One student he's particularly proud of is Celena Shafer. The Utah native is increasingly in demand with orchestras and opera companies in the United States and Europe. This past summer she appeared as Hero in Berlioz's "Beatrice et Benedict" at Santa Fe Opera, and in January she'll return to Utah Opera as Tytania in Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"I got Celena her first big role," Breault said. He told her she needed to record an especially demanding and virtuosic aria from Laurent Petitgirard's opera "Joseph Merrick dit L'Elephant Man." "The composer couldn't find anyone to sing it, not even Natalie Dessay. I told Celena she could do it." Breault and Shafer recorded the work four years ago with the Nice Opera, which was released on CD in 2001. The opera is scheduled to be released soon on DVD.
Even though teaching, and more recently consulting with singers, take up a large part of Breault's time, he nevertheless has a hectic performance schedule. "I've had an extremely active concert career," he said. "I've sung with the major orchestras in North America, and I've done five roles every year for the last 10-12 years."The downside to a career like Breault's is the travel that's involved. "Last year I calculated that I spent over a month just traveling." He admitted that it can be tiring, and that he probably wouldn't be able to do it without the support of his wife, Julia. "I don't think I could do it without her. She is a tremendous support. Whenever I talk about possible roles, she goes and buys the CDs and the scores and we discuss them. She wants to learn more about operas. It's important to have your partner with you like that, and I'm very lucky and blessed to have her."