BWW Interview: J'nai Bridges Morphs from Sports to Suzuki in SDO Butterfly
When it comes to rising stars in the opera world, J'nai Bridges is one to watch. Since participating in Lyric Opera of Chicago's esteemed Ryan Opera Center, the award- winning young mezzo-soprano already has become recognized for her multi-varied sound ranging from rich and impassioned to delicate and sensitive, and has has proved her vocal versatility in repertoire that includes operas of Verdi, Rossini, Dvorak, Bellini, Mozart and Bizet. She makes her San Diego Opera debut as Suzuki in Puccini's Madama Butterfly on Sat., Apr. 16.
EM: J'nai, welcome to SDO! I'm fascinated by your name. What is the story behind it?
JB: The story behind my name is fun. My parents loved the music of soul singer Freddie Jackson. One of their favorite songs is called "Janay." It's a love song so they always called me their love child because I was named after this song. They were very creative with the spelling. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Jackson a couple years ago and when I told him the background of my name, he hugged me and didn't let go.
EM: Your musical and educational background is amazing: Curtis Institute, Manhattan School, Lyric Opera of Chicago's prestigious Ryan Opera Center training program. What was your journey getting there?
JB: I am extremely grateful for my musical and educational background. It came about in a very unusual way. I was an athlete in high school with my sports being Track & Field and basketball. I had a few scholarships to play in college, but I turned them down when I discovered and fell in love with classical vocal music. I have played the piano since the age of five, so classical music was always a love of mine. However I had not been exposed to opera. My junior year in high school I needed to take an art elective, so I decided to join the choir. My choir teacher immediately identified a natural gift in my voice and suggested I take private lessons. I did and instantly fell in love with singing classically. I didn't have much time to get and audition pre-screening package together, but nevertheless I did! I quickly learned and recorded songs in Italian, French, German, and English per the undergraduate audition requirements. I was granted a live audition at Manhattan School of Music and was quite nervous but I sang my heart out. The next thing I knew, I was admitted into MSM in the spring! From that point on I worked extremely hard and graduated with the highest honors, one of them being admitted into The Curtis Institute of Music. Curtis is a special place. We got to sing a large amount of roles long with a ton of stage experience. We also auditioned for opera companies, orchestras, and management almost weekly. Given the opera studio is extremely small and selective, we basically got one-on-one attention at all times. This is what sets Curtis apart from other conservatories. At Curtis, the Lyric Opera of Chicago came for auditions. They heard me and immediately accepted me into their young artist program. I always say that I didn't choose opera but it chose me. I have just been listening to my heart, gut, and God. It was also helpful that my parents and family supported me 100% through this decision, and they still do! I do give credit to my athletic background because I have gotten great discipline from it.
EM: What happened after Ryan Opera Center?
JB: After my graduation from the Ryan Opera Center I immediately took a vacation. The Ryan Center was an incredible three years of almost working non-stop, so it was due time to grant my mind and body some rest. My next engagements included performing at CSO with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and preparing for the "Cardiff Singer of the World" competition. Both were extremely exciting experiences! Following Cardiff I sang my first Suzuki at the Wolftrap Opera Festival.
EM: Ravel's Chansons madécasses with Yo-Yo Ma and the CSO. How exciting was that?
JB: Performing with Yo-Yo Ma was absolutely life changing. The first time he saw me he said, "Wow, you're so beautiful and it's an honor to make music with you." I honestly thought he was talking to someone else. (Laughs.) He is one of the warmest human beings I have ever encountered. His energy and connection to the piece made me dig extremely deep into myself onstage. We made beautiful music and I am still on a high from that day.
EM: Who have been some of the most influential singers you've studied and worked with?
JB: Simon Estes without a doubt has been influential. We haven't worked with each other on vocal repertoire, but he gives me wonderful advice and encouragement. Not to mention he is an absolute legend. It means a lot to me as an African American who had many struggles so I could be where I am today. Renee Fleming has also been quite influential. We worked many times together while I was in the Ryan Center. She is an excellent teacher and gave some great career advice.
EM: What are some of your favorite operatic roles?
JB: Carmen, Charlotte, Idamante, Amneris, Adalgisa to mention a few.
EM: What roles are you most looking forward to performing for the first time?
JB: I'm very much looking forward to performing Lucretia this summer at Wolftrap. It's a role that I have always wanted to sing. I love the dark emotion she portrays. I'm also looking forward to performing Bersi in Andrea Chenier in San Francisco and again in Munich! I love Verismo opera. Lastly, I am very much looking forward to playing the role of Nefertiti in Akhnaten at L.A. Opera. I have always had a love for that Queen and I find Glass's music incredibly mesmerizing.
EM: Do you have a preference between performing opera and symphony, or do you love them equally?
JB: I love them equally! I hope my career always brings me a combination of both every year that I sing. With opera, I enjoy completely transforming into another character and collaborating with other singers in that operatic manner. The costumes, makeup, sets, and rehearsal process are all so magical. Being a mezzo, we have a plethora of symphonic and orchestral works to delve into. I enjoy the intimacy of singing this repertoire and collaborating closely with the conductor and orchestra. Both opera and symphonic/orchestral work are very close to my heart.
EM: What are you most looking forward to in SDO's Madama Butterfly?
JB: Besides the fact that I will be in an incredible city with gorgeous weather for a month, I am looking forward to collaborating with all of the amazingly gifted artists of this production. It's always interesting to experience the different dynamics that make a show. I cannot wait to sing alongside Latonia. When I went to Curtis she graduated from AVA a few years before, and I have always admired her. Now I get to sing with her! Lucky me! I already feel so welcomes at SDO so I am looking forward to the whole process!
Photo credits: Kristin Hoebermann