The 2016/17 season is a big year for J’Nai Bridges. She recently made her San Francisco Opera debut as Bersi in Andrea Chenier (a role she will later reprise at Bavarian State Opera in Munich), Bridges will make her LA Opera debut as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten on November 5. She has become one of the most sought after mezzo-sopranos of her generation, but she didn’t always long for a career in opera.
Bridges was well on her way to becoming a college basketball star when she discovered a passion for singing that couldn’t be ignored. She joined her high school choir, started taking private voice lessons, and eventually made the decision to become a singer.
“My parents said, ‘You just started singing classically, are you sure you want to do this?’ I told them I had this feeling in my gut and in my soul telling me I need to pursue opera” recalls Bridges.
The choice to sing opera came a little later. She recorded four songs for a pre-screening tape to apply to music schools. Surrounded by her family, Bridges heard herself on tape for the first time.
As she listened to herself sing “An die Musik” by Franz Schubert she said, “That’s me? That’s my voice?’ My own voice touched me. I started crying and then my family members started crying, because they were also touched,” recalls Bridges. “I knew that opera had really chosen me. I felt it was my calling and I knew I wanted to do this and discover more. I wanted to know more about everything involved in this art form. I’m still learning and that’s exciting to me.”
Pursuing her opera dream has taken Bridges far. First, she earned degrees at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music (where she met Akhnaten co-star Anthony Roth Costanzo) and the Curtis Institute of Music. She honed her craft as a young artist with the Glimmerglass Music Festival, singing the title role of Carmen and covering additional roles. She went on to a three-year-residency with the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. While in Chicago Bridges performed in several operas (including Il trovatore, The Passenger, and La traviata), so it was no surprise that she was invited back to sing Carmen in the world premiere of Jimmy Lopez’s Bel Canto earlier this year.
All of these triumphant experiences have made Bridges fall even more in love with opera – a love that she’s shared with family and friends.
“Opera is a journey shared by cast members and the audience. Going through the storytelling experience is exhilarating, as is transforming into a completely different character on stage,” says Bridges. “Being able to share opera with people who have had little to no exposure to it is also incredibly rewarding. I was introduced to opera later in life and because I’ve exposed many people in my family and community back home to this art form, it’s opened up their worlds just as much as it has done mine.”
Bridges continues to share her love of opera with the world when she takes the stage as Nefertiti in Akhnaten.
While most people may not be familiar with Akhnaten (though they know his son King Tut), Nefertiti is very well-known. Famous for her beauty and strength, Nefertiti has captivated scholars for centuries (not unlike Cleopatra). But, for Bridges, embodying Nefertiti has naturally made the character much more personal – less iconic and more real.
“Growing up, my parents were really into African history – and history in general – and so we had these ankhs around the house. I grew up seeing my mom wear ankh necklaces and earrings. Ankhs symbolize eternity and a breath of life. That’s how I see Nefertiti – a strong, beautiful, and eternal woman – a breath of life,” explains Bridges.
Playing Nefertiti in this production has been an illuminating experience for Bridges, particularly because of director Phelim McDermott’s take on the piece. He’s created a dreamlike atmosphere with his production of Akhnaten. One of the elements of McDermott’s “Akhnaten Dream” is that the entire cast will move slowly for the entirety of the opera. The movement helps express the inner life of the characters and tells the story visually. But, it’s also incredibly challenging.
“At first, I didn’t know how the slowness would translate. Then, I watched it during rehearsal and was so moved. The more energy we give to the subtle movement, the more effective it becomes. It’s really satisfying to do and inspiring to watch,” says Bridges.
She continues, “I always take something away from working on a production, but this show has really caused me to dig deep into who I am, slow down and focus on one thing at a time. It’s allowed me to be even more present both in the opera and in life.”
Being even more present is something Bridges will surely utilize as opera continues to choose her and she journeys through what’s sure to be a long and exciting career.
To learn more about and purchase tickets to Akhnaten, click here. Contains nudity. Parental discretion advised.