J’Nai Bridges: What I’d say is that all you can do is to really immerse yourself in the music and think about what you want to communicate. You can’t control the outcome but you can control yourself though.

A native of Tacoma, Washington, she earned her Master of Music degree from Curtis Institute of Music, and her Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance from the Manhattan School of Music. Bridges is a recipient of the prestigious 2018 Sphinx Medal of Excellence Award, a 2016 Richard Tucker Career Grant, first prize winner at the 2016 Francisco Viñas International Competition, first prize winner at the 2015 Gerda Lissner Competition, a recipient of the 2013 Sullivan Foundation Award, a 2012 Marian Anderson award winner, the recipient of the 2011 Sara Tucker Study Grant, the recipient of the 2009 Richard F. Gold Grant from The Shoshana Foundation, and the winner of the 2008 Leontyne Price Foundation Competition. J’Nai completed a three-year residency with the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, represented the United States at the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition and was a Young Artist at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York. The 2022-23 season will spotlight Ms. Bridges in one of her signature roles as Carmen with debut engagements at the Arena di Verona, Canadian Opera Company, and a return to Dutch National Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Bridges eagerly anticipates her Seattle Opera debut in a concert performance of Samson et Delilah as Delilah in January 2023. Additional concert engagements include Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the Detroit Symphony in November, and a world premiere by Carlos Simon in April 2023 with the National Symphony Orchestra. Other recent highlights include the 2022 Grammy® Award-winning Metropolitan Opera production of Akhnaten and 2021 Grammy® Award-winning recording of Richard Danielpour’s oratorio The Passion of Yeshua with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, performing at the National Library of Congress to honor legendary fashion designer Diane von Furstenburg as she received the 2022 Ruth Bader Ginsburg Woman of Leadership Award.

Dear J’Nai, it’s such a pleasure to be able to finally chat with you! I know that you’re currently in the middle of the rehearsals, but I’d like you to tell us more about it. How’s it going?

I’m having such a beautiful time. I’m in Amsterdam right now, at the National Opera. I’ve been rehearsing for one month and we open on Saturday, actually! It’s a very different production compared to the one in Verona… a Robert Carsen one, very modern: it’s a bit dark and I’m really enjoying discovering another side of Carmen. Since it’s not very traditional it is almost like a play in which “we just happen to be singing” like the director says to us. Of course it’s the same story and the same music but there are a lot of dialogues that makes it a really cool challenge for us and, at the same time, more accessible to the public. Jealousy, liberty and murder are things that we unfortunately also see in real life: while interpreting Carmen I don’t feel like I have to play a spanish woman… I can just be me and go with the themes that come across. Of course I love the traditional settings of Carmen as well but this is very different. We have eight performances and all the staff is French so they were really precise in correcting our diction and pronunciation. I feel like my characterization and musicality are now gone to the next level after being here. So it’s been good so far.

You recently had your debut in Arena di Verona, as Carmen. This happened though in a pretty strange atmosphere since right before one of your performances, Angel Blue cancelled her contract in Arena di Verona with a post on social media. Then, your reaction came quite quickly towards Angel’s statement, but you didn’t cancel your performances. What’s your position in all this, as a woman of colour yourself?

It was very unexpected. First of all it was amazing to be there. I’ve dreamt of singing there for a long time and this production from Zeffirelli is iconic. After the Angel Blue announcement I totally supported her even if it was made in a really unfortunate time for me since it was released the day I was debuting. I was not expecting that! I started receiving a lot of emails, comments and messages from people who actually have no idea of what it means to be an opera singer…. trolls actually, telling me “how can you sing there in a time like that”: that was a decision I wanted to make and that was really dumb from them, since they were attacking a person who was already feeling attacked. I feel like there are a lot of people out there who are targeting the wrong person just because they want to feel important, and this is ridiculous. Black people aren’t all the same. It’s racist thinking to assume all of us think the same and I didn’t want to give up this opportunity because of what some people say. I don’t think it was selfish, I think that’s what I had to do. Also, it was kind of tricky to navigate emotionally because it was uncomfortable to see blackface. To me, the issue is the lack of willingness to have a conversation about this topic, and I’m actually thankful for your question. Nothing is political about being a human being. I see the point in saying “we are just telling a story, it’s tradition” but we also have to consider that black people around the world have always been demonised, discriminated against, even killed because of the colour of their skin. We walk around with this skin and we have a very hard life, so to see it being painted on just for theatre and than just being wiped by singers that can then continue having normal white life it’s just a reminder of the pain that our ancestors have gone through and we go through every day just because of the colour of our skin. For us this is a further reminder of what we endure everyday: moreover, with theatre, in my opinion it’s just not necessary to paint the skin. We are not Hollywood! It shouldn’t be a really big deal to change a small detail that would make a huge difference to so many people. If it’s a choice, it’s an artistic choice and I think it needs to be recognised and research has to be made. That make up was really bad. I’ve never seen a black person of that colour. I was just offended at the tone of the makeup because it was so unrealistic. At least there must be an effort of doing it in a tasteful way, if it really has to be done, and even beyond that, there just needs to be a little more consideration. There are so many traditions that are just harmful and that’s not just an American thing. Yes, blackface was taken to a whole new level in America, but people need to do their research. It really started in Europe and I don’t know a single black person who is completely comfortable with it. If the Arena di Verona or another Opera House wants to continue doing this theyshould at least be informed about it instead of saying “you are too sensitive, this is American racism, this is just theatre”… I’m sorry but this is not good enough, you know? Still, I needed to perform that day, I wanted to do well and I was so happy to be there and I didn’t want this to tense my experience. There are things black people go through every day and if we had to pay attention to all the racism, either on the small or big level, I wouldn’t be able to function. So that was not something I could at the time give a lot of attention to. But Angel did and that was her choice. And that was what she needed to do for herself in order to be okay. She didn’t make a decision for everyone, but she still made a lot of people proud. I think it was a big choice because it started this conversation. She was willing to make that sacrifice! I haven’t spoken to her lately because she took a pause from sociaI media at the moment. I don’t know what else to add… If they invite me again to sing at the Arena I will do it again because it’s an amazing house!

Read the entire interview here, in the 6th/2022 issue of OPERA Charm Magazine.

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