J’Nai Bridges, Beth Morrison, Camille A. Brown, Esperanza Spalding, & Carlos Simon Named Part of The Kennedy Center’s 50 Cultural Leaders

By Afton Wooten

In celebration of The Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary, the organization has inducted 50 cultural leaders that represent its hopes for the next 5o years. “The Kennedy Center Next 50” includes both individual artists, writers, chefs, athletes, and other leaders and organizations that are paving the way forward in their fields.

The initiative will have “the cultural leaders will take part in Kennedy Center programs, forums, residencies, and events—such as Arts Summit, the Center’s annual convening investigating the power and potential of the arts—and work with the Kennedy Center to create opportunities for discourse with civic leaders to ensure that the voices of artistic and cultural leaders are lifted and heard.”

The five inductees to the program working in opera are American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, opera producer Beth Morrison, Metropolitan Opera choreographer Camille Brown, and composers Esperanza Spalding and Carlos Simon.

J’Nai Bridges will be a guest artist at the Kennedy Center this season. Bridges will star in the world premiere of “Written in Stone” by fellow inductee Carlos Simon. This opera written for Bridges will run March 5-25, 2022 in the Eisenhower Theater. Directly following this engagement, she will also be a soloist with The National Philharmonic with yet another world premiere in “A Knee on the Neck” by Adolphus Hailstork and sing the mezzo-soprano solo in Mozart’s Requiem. This concert will take place on March 26 at Strathmore Concert Hall. Her guest artist run will wrap up on Jan. 31, 2023 (rescheduled from Feb. 1, 2022) with the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra.

Bridges is leading conversations about racial justice within the performing arts. She piloted a panel on race and inequality in opera alongside LA Opera in 2020. The panel gained international attention and according to The New York Times is a” conversation of striking scope and candor.”

The next Kennedy Center cultural leader is Beth Morrison, a leading opera-theatre producer and the President and Creative Producer of Beth Morrison Projects (BMP). Morrison has been named the Best Artist of the Year as Agent of Change through the Musical America Awards and has been described as “a powerhouse leading the industry to new heights” by WQXR. BMP was founded in 2006 and began working with both emerging and established living composers of opera, musical theatre, and vocal theatre. The company focuses on supporting artists’ works through commissions, developing, and producing. She also has been a tenured producer for the Yale Institue for Music Theatre and New York City’s Opera’s VOX: Contemporary American Opera Lab. Alongside her producing endeavors, Morrison is an internationally sought-after keynote speaker.

Camille A. Brown is a groundbreaking choreographer, artistic director, and stage director. Both Brown and her dance company, Camille A. Brown Dancers have been highly praised and awarded. In 2021, Brown received the International Society for the Performing Arts’ Distinguished Artist Award, a Dance Magazine Award and the Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Choreography in 2020, she is a five-time winner Princess Grace Award winner, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, and Doris Duke Artist Award recipient. Her choreography has won multiple Tony and Drama Desk Awards.

Brown is also a Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow, TED Fellow. Her work has been commissioned by many leading dance companies including Urban Bush Women, Complexions, and Ballet Memphis. She choreographed the 2017 Broadway revival of “Choir Boy” and NBC Live in Concert’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Brown made her Metropolitan Opera choreography debut in 2019 in “Porgy & Bess.” She returned to the work with the Met in 2021 in the historical production of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”

This year Brown will once again make history as she choreographs and directs Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” the first Broadway show to be both directed and choreographed by a Black woman in decades.

The four-time Grammy Award-winning instrumentalist and multi-faceted musician Esperanza Spalding (also known as Irma Nejando) premiered her and Wayne Shorter’s new opera “Iphigenia” in the Fall of 2021. Spalding wrote the libretto and sings the role of Iphigenia of the Open Tense. The opera’s sold-out Kennedy Center debut was in Dec. 2021. The final leg of its tour will be at The Broad Stage in Los Angeles Feb. 17-19, 2022.

Outside of her work in opera, Spalding is developing a mockumentary with brontë velez and San Francisco Symphony and is hired by Harvard University to “co-create and learn with students enrolled here, working on developing creative practices that serve the restoration of people and land.”

The final Kennedy Center Next 50 representative involved in the opera scene is composer Carlos Simon. Simon is currently a Kennedy Center Composer-in-Residence. His work has been commissioned by Los Angeles Opera, Washington National Opera, New York Philharmonic, and Philadelphia Orchestra to name a few.

As mentioned above, his opera “Written in Stone” will make its world premiere at the Kennedy Center on March 5. His new work “Tales – A Folklore Symphony” will also be performed in Washington D.C. on March 3 – 5.

Other well-known members of the Kennedy Center Next 50 Cultural Leaders are poet and activist Amanda Gorman, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s Co-Captain Megan Rapinoe, Black Futures Lab, New York Times Best Selling Author Jason Reynolds, and SchoolTalk. The full list can be found here.