This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
Celebrated mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges is comfortable in the roles of Queen Nefertiti and Carmen. She joins me to discuss this balancing act, how her personal practice has shifted during the pandemic, and how her basketball background informs her operatic practice.
METROPOLITAN OPERA AND WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA DEBUTS
Anna Heflin: The 2019-2020 season was a turning point in your career as you made your Metropolitan Opera and Washington National Opera debuts this season, both of which received rave reviews. Unfortunately, your WNO run was cut short due to COVID-19. How have your short-term and long-term goals shifted due to the pandemic?
J’Nai Bridges: The 2019-2020 season was undoubtedly my most thrilling season thus far. It was indeed quite jarring to suddenly go from the feeling of a career high to being completely blindsided with no work. I am still navigating my now short-term goals, but my long-term goals have mostly remained the same. My short-term goals were to diligently prepare for my upcoming summer engagements. Preparing Carmen, Wozzeck, concert repertoire by having lessons and coachings. While I will continue to take voice lessons now virtually, I have also been giving voice lessons and coachings. Something that I have always wanted to do and now have the time for it. While it is intended for the short-term, I anticipate it becoming a more consistent practice. In general I am beginning and completing projects that I now have time to pay attention to. My long-term goals have not changed and I will keep working towards them regardless of the pandemic. Some have been slowed down simply because of lack of income, but I am hopeful it will pick up again.
SINGING THE TITLE ROLE IN CARMEN
AH: You were scheduled to sing the title role in Carmen this October at The Metropolitan Opera. Regardless of what that performance will look like, as there’s currently a lot of uncertainty, what is your relationship with the character of Carmen? Is there anything that’s problematic about the role and/or the opera to you? If so, how do you deal with this and embody the character in a way that feels authentic?
JB: My relationship with the character is ever-evolving. I do not think there are problems with the opera or character, however I do think it’s easy to fall into the traps of playing her one-dimensionally. I have so much fun with her because she is a master-manipulator, and this requires tapping into many different tactics and emotions. I also believe that she is not as cold as one might think, which then gives room for the audience to feel empathetic towards her at times. I actually relate to her in some regard, so it is easy and natural for me to embody the character. There are definitely some disturbing moments in the opera that parallel with issues we still deal with today. The idea of ownership for instance. I think it’s important to talk about and continue to focus on the wrongs of this theme in the opera, and hopefully the more people see this the more uncomfortable they are with it.
NEFERTITI IN PHILIP GLASS’ AKHNATEN
AH: What is your relationship with the role of Queen Nefertiti? Was preparing and performing that role different than preparing and performing other traditional operatic roles? Did you get into Egyptology at all?
JB: I have always had a relationship with Queen Nefertiti. Growing up, my parents made it a point to introduce and educate us on African Queens and Kings, especially because it was not something acknowledged in school. So going into role study and preparation, I had a knowledge of whom Nerftiti was. I did however learn substantially more about this period and relationships of Akhnaten’s reign. It is incredibly interesting and has continued my love and interest for Egyptology.
Preparing this role was drastically different than preparing traditional opera roles. I was not able to work directly with a language coach because it is not so easy to find someone that speaks ancient Egypitan. Thankfully with the help of the reference key in the score and a loose translation, I was able to know the meaning of each line. Musically it was a challenge like no other. The repetitiveness with slight differences makes for some difficulty in memorizing, but once you do it is locked in forever. The slow motion movement was a very beautiful choice of direction. While at first, very exposing and uncomfortable, it soon became second nature and very helpful for focus of the difficult score. I have never felt so in tune with my body in a production, but this role forces you to be extremely present which is something I am now more than ever inspired to be.
AH: Philip Glass’ operas are nonlinear, they don’t tell a story in the same way as a traditional opera. Does this change how you approach preparing the music and the roles?
JB: Yes and no. Yes because I feel Philip Glass’ operas leave more room for the audience to be a part of the story telling. With this idea in mind my approach to the role is not so set in stone, rather ever evolving especially because there is so much unknown and new information of the character being discovered. At the same time, I have ways in which I learn the actual music that are consistent no matter the role. Note by note, word by word, phrase by phrase.
AH: Was there a moment when you decided that you would pursue contemporary and traditional opera? Have you made a conscious effort to continue pursuing both or has it happened naturally?
JB: There was not an actual moment when I decided to pursue both contemporary and traditional opera, but I like to say it chose me. The opportunities of singing both styles were presented at an early time in my life starting with the role of Polly Peacham in Britten’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ at Manhattan School of Music. I loved learning the music so much, and when I went to Curtis I was also offered a few contemporary roles that came very naturally. In my audition package I always offered a contemporary aria to let it be known that I can learn and also love new music. I do not believe in being placed in a box, and I have simply made a conscious effort to pursue music that speaks to me no matter the style or time in which it was written. I am very grateful that I have opportunities to do it all and will do it as long as it sits well with my soul.
AH: Are you feeling compelled to listen or sing anything in particular right now? Has your personal practice shifted? If so, how?
JB: I am compelled to find and practice other sounds and styles. I grew up singing gospel and jazz, so these are styles that I love and have wanted to hone more in on. I love the idea of mashing styles together, and in fact I have done some concerts with jazz musicians to great success where we combine the styles. I want to continue to find my sound in this world, where someone can hear it and say “That’s J’Nai Bridges”.
BASKETBALL INFORMING OPERA
AH: Before becoming an opera star, you were a serious basketball player on track to have a career as a pro. How did your background in basketball inform your approach to singing opera and working with a cast of singers?
JB: My history with basketball has greatly informed my approach to singing and working with my colleagues. There are a myriad of parallels between the two. Because singers are out instruments, the physical demand on our bodies to perform an opera takes just as much hard work as playing a basketball game. Sometimes at the end of an opera (depending on the role) I feel like I just played 60 minutes of harcore up and down the court basketball. Through basketball I developed a hard work ethic, leadership, determination, ability to come together and work with people, knowing how to take direction and knowing how to make sacrifices to be great. All things that directly correlate with being a successful opera singer.
J’Nai Bridges, known for her “plush-voiced mezzo-soprano” (The New York Times), has been heralded as “a rising star” (Los Angeles Times), gracing the world’s top stages. Her 2019-2020 operatic engagements in the U.S. this season include her debut at The Metropolitan Opera, singing the role of Nefertiti in Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten, and her house and role debut at Washington National Opera performing Dalila in Samson et Dalila. Bridges will sing the title role of Carmen for the first time in Europe at the Dutch National Opera and will make her debut with the Festival d’Aix-en-provence singing Margret in a new production of Wozzeck, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.