The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano, discusses the abrupt end to her performances and the effect that it had on her. One of the most impressive things that I noted in her interview was the passion that she has for the art and for helping drive forward the diversity of opera.
J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano
Interviewed July 8, 2020
TB: I always like to start off these interviews on a positive note. So what is the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
JB: First of all, thank you for having me. It’s a wild time and I am happy to join you today. The best thing that’s happened to me this week? Well, I’ve actually gotten several calls from opera companies asking for my advice. And I think that it’s really inspiring to me because it shows me that not only are people having conversations about the necessary change (and changes) that need to take place, but they’re actively working towards them. So, I’m very hopeful. It started off my week very, very well. There have actually been a few, but that was one of the good things that happened.
TB: Well, it’s interesting because I was doing some research before we chatted. Because early on in your career, you’ve had a lot of success already and I would say that Nefertiti [Akhnaten, Metropolitan Opera: November 2019] is probably one of the break out moments. Correct me if I’m wrong?
JB: No, absolutely, you’re right.
TB: So what would be one of the things that you’re proudest of in your career so far?
JB: Well, I would have to say that would be it; making my Met debut in the iconic role of Queen Nefertiti. It brought so many things full circle. I grew up with this idea that Egyptian kings and queens are who I come from. So I’ve had a lot of background knowledge of Queen Nefertiti prior to debuting the role. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to enter the Met than with this iconic African Queen and also with this incredible Philip Glass opera that is so rarely done. I thought it was a really interesting way to be making my debut. It was kind of an unanticipated way, but it garnered so much attention because people were just interested in this opera.
I went to school at Manhattan School of Music and I did my undergrad studies there. So it was also full circle in that way. It felt like I was coming back home to where it really all began. And I have so many friends, colleagues, mentors, and teachers that still reside in New York. So it was a bit of a homecoming for me. It just felt like one of the most memorable moments in my career for sure. It also sparked many other really incredible projects to come. So yeah, I would say that that’s definitely been the highlight for me. Well, there have been many, but that was something that I just truly am still on a high from, to be honest.
TB: And although this opera was created in the 1980’s it is not done often, so [you were] integrally involved in creating a role as well. Because for so many opera singers it’s about the idea of recreation, but you’re actually involved in the development of this character as well. That has to be wonderful.
JB: Absolutely and that’s part of the reason why I love singing new music and contemporary music so much because there are rarely any preconceived notions or ideas about how it should be. So I love singing new music and Philip Glass for that reason, because people seem to be more receptive. And I think that’s partially why it was such a big success for me at the Met. People were just ready to receive and less eager to negatively criticize, I would say. So that was definitely a highlight for sure. Gosh, what a moment.
TB: So tell me a little bit about where you were and how you first realized that you were going to be affected by COVID-19?
JB: I was in the middle of a run of Samson and Delilah making my debut with the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center. It was also my role debut of Delilah. It had been many years, honestly, of prepping for this role and I was so ready. We were three shows in: they were getting great reviews and being received well by the audience and I was just having so much fun with the role. I mean to me, Delilah is one of the most interesting characters in opera because she’s a master manipulator and with that comes so many different emotions and tactics that you can tap into. So I was having so much fun and I couldn’t wait until the next show, but COVID hit and everything immediately stopped.
I went from this total high—a high of being at the Met and in the middle of this successful run—to absolutely no performances at all and it was a shock. It was like being diagnosed with a really terrible illness. You go through phases. The first phase is shock and disbelief and then the second phase is you want to fight back. You want to fight this. So it got cancelled and I actually stayed in DC for about a week. Then I finally went to my apartment in New York. And I was still kind of in shock, but I decided: we’re not having anymore performances, so I’m going to fight and create in however or whichever way that I can. So I was creating a lot of digital content. It was good, but it just became exhausting and really unfulfilling after a point. So I stopped that and then I think I entered into the third phase, which is just despair.
I was really sad and I actually went to Houston to be with a friend and isolate there because I was alone in New York. New York is a difficult city if you can’t do anything and go outside. So, I went to Houston, got some sun, and was with my friend, but was just kind of depressed, actually. Then I snapped out of it and I decided, I’m going to take control of my life and accept what it is: my gigs have been cancelled.
My next engagement was making my European Carmen debut at the National Opera in Amsterdam. So that was cancelled. That was a huge blow, because I love singing Carmen. I think maybe it’s one of my signature roles, even though I’ve only sung it a couple times. But I just feel so connected to the role. It fits me, [both] vocally and temperamentally. So I was really excited to play that role and debut it in Europe with a house that I love so much.
So that was cancelled and then my next engagement was cancelled, which was another big one; Wozzeck at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence with Sir Simon Rattle conducting. So it was going to be a really big spring and summer, and now it’s just all taken. But while I was in Houston, I was able to kind of take control of my emotions a bit, after feeling them. I like to tell people that it’s okay to feel bad. Don’t ignore those feelings.
So I started practicing again, teaching a few students, doing masterclasses, and I was invited by LA Opera to do a virtual recital. But I still wasn’t really in the place to deliver my voice in that way. So I asked if I could host a discussion and this was after the murder of George Floyd, and they said absolutely. So I gathered some of my closest friends in opera—all African American—and they agreed. They were a little confused as to why I was wanting to do this on such a platform, but we talked about racism and inequality in opera. It was received very, very well. But it was pretty scary to do, because I don’t think anything’s been done like that, certainly not in the opera world. So it was a very vulnerable experience, but I think... Actually, I know it was helpful for everyone to just speak very transparently and for people to hear our stories, and for companies to know that things have to change and this is the time. There’s no better time to change for the better.
Since then, so many things have just opened up. I have been in contact with some companies about how to improve diversity and also collaborating with them just on my own artistic expression. Also, I got a call that was super unexpected to go to LA and collaborate with the LA Philharmonic with Maestro Gustavo Dudamel for an incredible fundraiser for COVID-19 relief. It was a global initiative that raised 7 billion dollars. I was on the program with mainstream artists such as, Jennifer Hudson, Shakira, Justin Bieber, and Usher. It was an unbelievable experience and I feel in a way I manifested that. Because I told myself, you cannot let this pandemic and even the killings of unarmed black people stop you from operating and creating and being. I believe in God, so I just prayed. I was like, please just direct me and open up some ways in which I can use my platform and my voice to create change for the world.
I feel very grateful to be an opera singer, to be able to share my gift, and (hopefully) to induce change in people and bring people happiness and hope. But this... it was on a global scale. I’ve always been an advocate and an ambassador for opera and bringing in new audiences. So to be able to be slated on this program with mainstream artists, and representing the classical art form, classical voice, and opera was just like a dream come true. It’s something that I’ve really been focusing on and asking for. So many good things are happening despite this tough, tough time that we’re in. And for that, I’m grateful.
TB: And following up on the performance with Maestro Dudamel, it was hosted by The Rock and your yellow dress was just perfect.
JB: Thank you. I am very fortunate because I have very close friends and I have a lot of gowns that I haven’t worn yet. You might say I have a bit of a problem, but they’re part of what I do. They’re a write off. So I called my best friend—she has access to my place—and so I said, “I think this is happening, I need you to send me this gown.” Because I just knew immediately. That’s one of the first things that I do, visualize what I’m going to wear. And it depends on the season. It depends on the occasion and that was one I hadn’t worn yet. I planned on wearing it this summer at the BBC Proms—I was slated to sing there too—but that was cancelled. So it worked out perfectly.
TB: So one of the things for opera singers is that they are independent contractors. So, I can guess from what you have said about cancelled contracts that this is having an impact on your financial situation. Would you mind talking a bit about that and about these gigs that have been cancelling? I would say not only for the spring/summer, but now that we’re also looking into the fall as well.
JB: Oh yeah, definitely. My whole year has been cancelled until January. So it is a great strain financially on artists. Because we are self-employed, we’re sole proprietors. Not only that but specifically to be an opera singer it is very expensive. I spend upwards of $5,000 on learning a role; between coachings, language lessons, movement classes, and sometimes I’ll even fly to a different country to study the culture. For instance for Carmen, I went to Spain and I took flamenco and studied Romani culture. So it can be very expensive depending on what goes into studying a role. And so the output of preparing before you even step foot onstage means you’re at a financial loss. So we’re expecting to be reimbursed in a way and to be compensated for the work that goes into studying a role. When an engagement is cancelled it’s just like, “Well, there goes that money...” So for a whole season—well, the rest of the year—to be cancelled, it’s very, very stressful. And there are fundraisers that are happening and scholarships, minimal scholarships. There are some out there that we’re able to apply for but it’s just not enough. Between having to pay for living expenses and food, not to mention if you want to continue to study. Because once everything opens back up, it would be nice to be able to be in a good shape. But that doesn’t come without a cost, so it’s really challenging.
There are some companies who have paid their artists a percentage of what they would have made, which is very helpful. And I am doing some virtual performances and engagements that are compensating a bit as well. But it doesn’t add up to the fees that I would normally be getting. So it’s just a challenge. I have had to change a bit of my lifestyle. Although, we all have. But it certainly helps me put things in perspective and not take things for granted. You know, I do miss a certain way of life. But I am not able to live the way that I usually do right now. So it is what it is and I am just doing my best and hoping that more people will realize the financial stress; and hoping that our government will realize that too, and be more gracious and helpful.
TB: To date, what would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned in this situation?
JB: Wow, that’s a great question. Well, I don’t know if it’s a hard lesson but it’s definitely a lesson that I’ve learned; that my career does not define me. I’ve been stripped of performing on stage. And so much of what we do as singers feels like it defines us because we are our instruments. As a vocalist, I can’t disconnect from my voice. So it’s a beautiful thing, but it can also be a bit stressful sometimes. So I say that to say, because my instrument is literally a part of me, it’s hard to not think that my career isn’t intertwined with who I am. My voice is a part of who I am. It’s literally attached: my vocal cords are in this body. So that’s been probably the hardest lesson. I am J’Nai Bridges without a career. My career doesn’t define who I am, is basically what I am trying to say. I have a lot of amazing attributes and qualities. I’ve discovered some of them because of this pandemic, which is really cool.
TB: I think that that’s a lesson that many artists need to be reminded of. You are more. You are more than just a pair of vocal folds. You are more than the sum of your parts.
JB: And you’re more than the accolades that come along with your career. Because it’s easy to get caught up in that and be confused by that. It’s like no, I actually have a lot of worth without you clapping for me, or telling me how good I sound, or how pretty I am. It’s nice. It’s certainly flattering and who doesn’t want to be complimented? But again, all of that shouldn’t matter so much.
TB: One of the things, as you’re giving me the rundown of COVID cancellations and where you were, was talking about your creative process. How, at first, you really wanted to fight to be able to sing, and then you went through a lower period, and now you’re emerging back out and really working on those things. So, is there something that has helped you as you’re getting through this?
JB: Yeah, definitely. There was a phase where I just couldn’t sing. And I still don’t sing as much as I typically do. Just because it’s hard to motivate myself some days. But actually, I think what helped me was just taking that time off; really just working through my emotions and not forcing myself to create or sing or do anything. That actually really helped me; then also just the encouragement of really positive people in my circle and affirming that everything was going to be okay. There was a time where I did have thought like, “I’ve worked so hard but this pandemic is just going to kill all of the hard work that I’ve done.” I had a friend just say, “What? Are you crazy? That’s just not true.” Because I think a lot of people have had the fear that they’re not going to be relevant anymore. But that all ties in with this idea of vanity. So, I’m over that fear. Because I think that whatever is for you will be for you. And I truly believe that. This career—singing opera and being a performer—is my calling. So I can’t control what is going to happen. I can only control myself and what I do. So that really helped me, just having some friends put everything into perspective. Also, I’ve been working out a lot and just that release really helps me. I’m pretty ritualistic in working out, but it definitely helped me.
Also, I’ve been working out a lot and just that release really helps me. I’m pretty ritualistic in working out, but it definitely helped me.
TB: So, it is July 8th, 2020. Minus a pandemic, where would you be and what would you be doing?
JB: July 8th, I would be at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in Provence, France—in the South of France—singing the role of Margaret in Berg’s Wozzeck conducted by Maestro Simon Rattle. And I was really looking forward to that; being in the South of France in the summer, working with such an incredible Maestro, and also another interesting opera to add to my repertoire. It was a smaller role... It is a smaller role. But I actually love that opera, and it just would have been really cool to delve into that world. So that’s where I would have been.
TB: So in thinking towards the future, how do you think that this pandemic is going to change our musical landscape going forward?
JB: That’s a great question. Well, I think that music will probably be more inclusive. And what I mean by that is—in many ways, but musically speaking— there will be a lot more cross-genre collaborations. This has been in some of the conversations that I’ve had with companies because they realize the necessity of accessing different demographics. People don’t always feel like opera and classical music is accessible. So that might be something that’s a bit different. That’s not to say that we’re not going to have the classics. And I don’t think that it will actually compromise the integrity of classical music. I think there’s a way to do it, but I think that the music might change a little bit.
I think that there will be many new operas and new works that spawn from this; telling new stories and highlighting new people and new audiences, which is great. I think that this whole digital curve that we’re on, there will be a lot of virtual elements that are now applied somehow, which will be interesting. At first I was like, “Oh, this isn’t cool. It’s not the same as sitting in an actual theater. You don’t get the acoustics and it’s not the same.” But that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its place. People often fear that we’re going to only be able to sing through a computer or a microphone, but I don’t believe that’s the case. I think that it will be an addition for sure. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing because people are tuning in from all over the world; people that would normally not be able to either afford an opera or a classical concert, or even know about it. So I think that we’re reaching so many new audiences because of the virtual world.
TB: This reminds me of the early release when you were singing, was it Oklahoma with Ryan McKinny?
TB: Yes, for the Artist Relief Tree. But that’s something that seems to be the norm: we’re all diversifying. Because you’re not just a classical singer. You’re not just a jazz singer. You’re a wonderful singer, who likes to use her voice in many different ways.
JB: I think that a true artist doesn’t put themselves in a box. I grew up singing gospel and jazz. But of course, I think that my voice actually lends itself best to singing classically. However, I love music and I love to explore all of the different ways that I can use my voice. So that’s what I’m doing. I think people will really start to access all of their gifts and maybe even find out what those are.
TB: So turning to the young artists, what would be some advice to get through this pandemic?
JB: Yeah, it’s a tricky time. First of all, my advice would be for them to tell themselves that it’s going to be okay. Don’t panic. But secondly, to use this time to really hone in on your craft; studying languages, taking private lessons. You can do all of that virtually. You can take vocal lessons virtually. Just really hone in on your craft. This is the time to do it. I know that a lot of them in training programs are doing that anyways. But they have to spread themselves so thin at times and I know that because I was a young artist. Sometimes I felt like, “Oh I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I’m in a good vocal space to do this, because we’re just doing so many different things.” But I think now that they have the time, just really focus on your technique, on your languages, on your musicality, and learn roles. I’m actually going to learn some music that I’ve always wanted to learn just because I have the time. And be ready when the call comes.
TB: Because the calls are starting to come.
JB: Exactly. That’s more than half the battle, I would say. Because opportunities, if they come and you’re not ready, then they will pass you by. So, be ready is what I would tell them.
TB: So, in closing up the interview, is there anything else that you would like to add on to our discussion before I ask you my last question?
JB: Well, we didn’t touch on education that much, but I wanted to say that I am collaborating and joining different organizations to expose underserved communities to classical music and opera. I feel like a lot of companies have outreach programs, but I don’t know if I believe in outreach. You know, it’s one thing to go in and sing a role, or sing an opera, or sing an excerpt for something and say, “Well, this is what we do.” But it’s another thing to educate and really try to bring these young people up with the knowledge that this is a possibility for them and that they are welcome in this classical music world, especially young people of color and disadvantaged communities.
That’s something that I’m very passionate about and I’m on the board of an organization out of DC called CAAPA—Coalition of African Americans in the Performing Arts—where we just bring awareness to African American classical artists and nurture them. It’s a really amazing organization. And there are a lot of grassroots organizations in this country that just don’t have the funding. It’s not like there aren’t talented young people out there, and especially young people of color. They’re just not given the opportunity or the resources. So I’m just trying to use my platform and resources to help diversify and spread the love and spread our beautiful art form. Because it’s for everybody.
TB: So, in getting us through the pandemic, what would be your recommendation for a video binge?
JB: A video binge? Well, it’s an old series, but Outlander. In my opinion, it’s very binge worthy. I think the acting is incredible and also, I just didn’t really know the history of Scotland. That’s actually what I’ve been bingeing.
TB: We’ll take that, for sure! Thank you so much for your time and thoughtful answers.
J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano
Maestro Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Los Angeles Philharmonic and YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles)
About J'Nai Bridges
J’Nai Bridges, known for her “plush-voiced mezzo-soprano” (The New York Times), has been heralded as “a rising star” (Los Angeles Times), gracing the world's top stages in repertoire ranging from traditional favorites to world premieres to spirituals and standards. Her 2019-20 season includes seven house debuts and two role debuts, including her much-anticipated house debut at The Metropolitan Opera.
Bridges has received critical acclaim for her “lush mezzo and a defiant ferocity” (The Wall Street Journal), her “calmly commanding stage presence” (The New Yorker), her “tone full of burnished amber and smoldering heat” (San Francisco Chronicle), her “alluringly dusky voice and fiery temperament” (Chicago Tribune), and her “rich, dark, exciting sound” (Opera News).
Operatic engagements in the U.S. this season include her debut at The Metropolitan Opera, singing the role of Nefertiti in Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten,and her house and role debut at Washington National Opera performing Dalila in Samson et Dalila. Bridges will sing the title role of Carmen for the first time in Europe at the Dutch National Opera, and will make her house and role debut with the Festival d’Aix-en-provence singing Margret in a new production of Wozzeck, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
Bridges opens her season with her Tanglewood Festival debut, performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She continues to showcase her concert repertoire by making her debut with San Antonio Symphony in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, and then performing with the New Jersey Symphony in Handel’s Messiah. Bridges closes her season by making her debut at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with Chineke! Orchestra and Friends.
Recent opera performance highlights include San Francisco Opera for her house role debut in the title role of Carmen, LA Opera for her role debut as Kasturbai in Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, creating the role of Josefa Segovia in the world premiere of John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West at San Francisco Opera and again at The Dutch National Opera, a house and role debut at Gran Teatre del Liceu as Federica in Verdi’s Luisa Miller, her debut as Preziosilla in La Forza del Destino with Opernhaus Zürich, a debut at Bavarian State Opera as Bersi in Andrea Chénier; at Los Angeles Opera as Nefertiti in Akhnaten; and at Vancouver Opera as Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking; and performances as Carmen in the world premiere of Bel Canto, an opera by Jimmy Lopez, based on the novel by Ann Patchett at the Lyric Opera of Chicago; the title role in The Rape of Lucretia at Wolf Trap Opera; Suzuki in Madama Butterfly at San Diego Opera and Wolf Trap Opera; and Adalgisa in Norma at Knoxville Opera.
Highlights as a soloist include her sold-out Carnegie Hall Solo Recital debut alongside pianist Mark Markham, performances of the mezzo-soprano solo in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the L.A. Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, Bernstein centennial celebrations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, in Gershwin selections with the New York Philharmonic at the Bravo! Vail Festival led by Bramwell Tovey, at the Farewell to Christoph Eschenbach concert with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, and with The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center; Ravel’s Shéhérezade with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, with whom she also was featured in Gershwin works in the orchestra’s inaugural week at the Elbphilharmonie, as well as chamber works with the NDR Symphony cellists; Ravel’s Chansons Medécasses with Yo-Yo Ma and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and chamber works with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Art Institute of Chicago. J’Nai was also a featured soloist in the Marilyn Horne Song Celebration at Carnegie Hall, at the Festival de Torroella de Montgrí, and the GRAMMY Salute to Music Legends tribute concert at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
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.
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.