Q & A: Mezzo J’Nai Bridges on ‘Satyagraha,’ Basketball & Her Upcoming Carnegie Hall Recital

By David Salazar

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges’ first love was basketball.

“It was something I was quite great at, and could see myself going far in,” the Lakewood, Washington native revealed to OperaWire in a recent interview.

But eventually, something else took over her life as she grew older and she knew that she had to leave her first love behind to pursue her true love.

“I wasn’t nearly as good at singing as I was in basketball, but it brought me this feeling that nothing else had. It was a feeling that I could not ignore because it felt so right,” she explained. “I felt a deep sense of satisfaction and contentment when I began.”

A number of universities didn’t want her to stop playing basketball, offering her great scholarship opportunities to remain on this track.

But she chose not to.

From there, the mezzo not only graduated from such prestigious institutions as Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music, but she would go on to work at the Ryan Opera Center as a young artist and then competed in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2015. Additionally, she won the Marian Anderson Award in 2012 and was also given a Richard Tucker Grant in 2016.

She’s performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Bavarian State Opera, the San Francisco Opera, and Opernhaus Zürich, among many others.

And now she’s appearing at the Los Angeles Opera in Philip Glass’ “Satyagraha.”

Looks like the decision paid off in spades for Bridges. OperaWire recently spoke with her about the involvement in the Glass opera and other projects on her horizon.

OperaWire: “Satyagraha” is a challenging score on many fronts. What is your process for learning any new opera for the first time?

J’Nai Bridges: I first look through my part briefly to see how long the role is. Depending on the language I translate my part and I will often highlight key instances, such as meter changes.

I often speak the lines before singing them. This helps me get the language and rhythm in my body while preserving my voice. Lastly, I will sit at the piano and learn the music note by note phrase by phrase.

OW: What are the challenges of “Satyagraha?” How does Philip Glass challenge the singer in ways that other composers do not?

JB: The primary challenge of performing Satyagraha is staying on track musically. Because of the repetition, it’s easy to lose your place in the music. It takes extreme focus at all times. Also memorizing Sanskrit was quite difficult because I had absolutely no familiarity with the language.

OW: What do you enjoy most about performing this work?

JB: I enjoy that this work is truly an ensemble piece. Unlike traditional opera, we mostly sing in ensembles with the exception of a few scenes. It gives a true feeling of unity and conveys that no one character is more important than the other, which is in fact woven into the meaning of Satyagraha.

OW: Switching gears a bit, you are doing a lot of modern works in the next few months. What attracts you most to modern music?

JB: I never anticipated I would be singing so much modern music, but it has been incredibly rewarding to include in my season calendar. I am very attracted to pieces that discuss the issues of our current society, which modern works often do.

I also find it a great privilege to bring light to stories that have never been told. I enjoy the challenge of tackling difficult music and making a role my own. With every opera, I delve into I naturally I strive to make it my own, but with new music, it seems there tend to be fewer preconceptions. It’s as if you have a blank canvas and can create whatever you desire.

OW: You will be performing a recital in Carnegie Hall in December. Tell me about the program.

JB: I’m singing many negro spirituals, Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder,” Montsalvaghe’s “Cinco Canciones Negras,” and some new works by American composers such as Richard Danielpour and Shawn Okpebloho. My collaborative pianist is Mark Markham.

OW: How did you come up with that mix of music. What was the underlying theme?

JB: My process started out as what overall theme I want to express along with who I am. I believe that if each and every one of us looks deeply into ourselves and decide to be better, we can eradicate all the injustice and evil in the world. With my program I want people to walk out of the hall asking themselves “How can I be better? How can I help someone in need?” I ask myself these questions every day, and I believe the program I have chosen touches on the themes of loss, forgiveness, happiness, and hope.


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