J’Nai Bridges has a voice that has graced stages across the world. The international mezzo-soprano opera singer has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Dutch National Opera and Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, among others. Now, Bridges will be featured in the Washington Performing Arts’ “Home Delivery Plus” program premiering at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 26. Titled “Rising, Together,” the program is centered around community, and will feature works by contemporary and classic composers. We caught up with Bridges ahead of her program to talk about her upcoming performance, race and opera, and how Covid is changing the industry.
District Fray Magazine: What drew you to the world of opera?
J’nai Bridges: My gift of operatic voice was discovered by my high school choir teacher. She heard my voice, noticed a natural gift and suggested I study privately. I began my senior year of high school and absolutely fell in love with the art form of classical vocal music. I was really captured by the magnificence of the art form. I remember watching DVDs of operas and just being completely transfixed by the productions.
How does the program for your upcoming performance, “Rising, Together,” embody the themes of “uplift” and “community”?
The program I put together features many up-and-coming composers, who are also my friends that I’ve worked with. I feel like we are at a time in our country and world where this is a great moment to highlight voices that have not been heard, but have been there. I open up my program with a prayer. It’s actually the text of Langston Hughes called “Prayer,” and composed by my friend Carlos Simon, who is an incredible composer. It basically says, “Gather up in the arms of your pity in the arms of your love.” That is my opening offering. The rest are songs and pieces that are really near and dear to me that have gotten me through some difficult times. I’ve arranged a new version of “Let Us Break Bread Together.” Again, the theme [is] togetherness. Each song I’ve offered shines a light on different emotions we have as humans, starting and ending with togetherness.
What kind of challenges do Black women face in opera?
I can’t speak for all Black women, but representation is greatly lacking. When I speak of representation in the opera world, I don’t just mean singers. I think what is truly lacking and needing of improvement is representation behind the scenes as well: on artistic boards, general management, artistic management, the people making decisions. In America, we’re filled with so many incredible representations of culture and we’re very diverse, but the classical music world most definitely does not reflect that. I’m very hopeful because I know first-hand that companies are working to rectify this situation, but it’s not an overnight process. It requires dismantling systemic racism and systemic white supremacy. It’s not easy, especially in an art form so steeped in tradition. The way to diversify audiences is to diversify your stages and your companies, through and through.
How has Covid changed the work you have been doing over the past year?
I’m actually in a really good place artistically. Covid-19 has presented opportunities to me that I would have never imagined. I have written two articles and I’ve collaborated with artists of different genres, which is something I’m actually really passionate about. I think Covid-19 has also forced us to be more creative and approach our art form differently, because we can’t do things like we typically do. We’ve had to think of alternate ways of putting on operas or concerts, and I think it’s great. I hope [these changes] stay because it’s necessary in terms of accessing different demographics and keeping seats filled. Opera is so steeped in tradition, and we’ve done things in a certain way for hundreds of years because that’s how it’s always been done. But it’s 2021, and the world has definitely changed.
What should we keep an eye out for from you in the near future?
I’m putting on a recital with LA Opera that will be virtual in the coming months, and will be free for everyone to watch. And then, I will be in Amsterdam performing excerpts from “Anna Bolena.” It’s actually excerpts from the whole trilogy, Donizetti’s “Tudor Trilogy,” and that will also be virtually streamed in April.
“Rising, Together,” premieres on Friday, March 26 at 8 p.m. and will be available for streaming through Thursday, April 1. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here. Learn more about Bridges at www.jnaibridgesmezzo.com or follow her at @jnaibmezzo on Instagram.
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