Grammy Award-Winning Mezzo-Soprano By Marguerite Cleveland | Photo by S. Richards
Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges was born in Lakewood, Washington, where her family settled after her father retired from the Army. Like many military families away from their hometown, the local community became a family to the Bridges—and J’Nai is still connected to this place today.
Q. Lakewood is your hometown. What is one thing you must do when you return from your world travels and performances?
A. Whenever I'm home, I literally just go to the nearest lake. Lakewood, it really is as it sounds—it's filled with lakes and woods! There's American Lake, Gravelly Lake, just tons of lakes. What I love, what I have to do, is go to at least one of the lakes and just stare at the water and sit on the dock of the lake and take in the fresh air and the sounds of the birds and nature. I mean, it really does fill me back up, you know, because road life is not easy, and whenever I go home, I can truly restore and rejuvenate.
Q. What was it like to perform at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time?
A. Performing at the Met for the first time was almost like an out-of-body experience to be honest. I dreamt of that moment for so long. Having gone to Manhattan School of Music for my undergrad, I would go to the Met and sit in the nosebleeds—gather my pennies and get $20 nosebleed seats and just take it all in and dream one day that I would sing on that stage.
So, when the time came in 2019 for my debut in Akhnaten as Queen Nefertiti, it was such a full-circle moment. And it felt like, "Wow, I belong here." I've dreamt of this moment, I've worked for this moment, and it felt right. Of course, there were the natural nerves, but at the same time, it felt like I belonged. And especially entering for the first time as Queen Nefertiti, this African queen that I grew up admiring so much, it just felt like, "Wow, this is your time." So it felt right. It just felt right.
Q.In your debut performance at the Seattle Opera, you performed the role of Delilah. What did you find appealing about playing Delilah?
A. My debut performance of Samson and Delilah, it was such a huge success and honestly a highlight of my career to come home and perform for my village, my cities, that just have poured so much into me. It was really great to be able to deliver this amazing role of Delilah and expose so many people to opera. For a lot of people, it was their first time coming to an opera.
It wasn't staged. So, it wasn't the full thing with costumes and everything. But it was really a magical night, and Delilah is such an incredible role. She's just so fascinating to play because she is the most manipulative character, as far as I'm concerned, in all of opera, at least certainly in terms of women characters.
It's really fun to play her because I was constantly finding ways in which to reel Samson in. She goes from making him believe that she truly is in love with him, to him hating her, and in the end, her just wanting power. So, it's a really fun role to play, but it's a little disturbing too, because I have to get pretty dark into her psyche, which, as an actress, I have to make sure that I have my ways of getting out of that.
You have to convince the audience that she's in love with him, and then that she's not actually. That's probably the most interesting aspect of the character, and it was really great to have actual vocal responses from the audience. It was like, "Okay, great, they're getting it. I'm doing my job."
Q. Can you share with our readers some of your work to improve diversity in the opera community?
A.Some of the work that I'm doing to improve diversity in opera is, number one, having conversations about the inequities. There are a lot of conversations being had, I think especially since I moderated the panel with LA Opera—it seemed like the panel springboarded a reckoning and an awakening.
Continuing to have these conversations and also speaking with general and artistic directors on how to actually implement programs are some ways to not only diversify the audience but to make opera more equitable as a whole, and it is not an overnight process. It can be done, and it just takes awareness and the desire to want to improve our art form.
Something else I do is go to different communities—I access communities that I'm connected with, such as sororities and fraternities. My parents are both Greek, so that's a huge advantage. And I reach out to them and I invite them to the opera, as well as churches and other institutions and organizations that I have direct access and community and connection with.
Mostly everywhere I go, I do have an invited conversation with the audience or people that are involved with the opera to voice what needs to change.