The Classical Review » » After two years, J’Nai Bridges returns to the stage, making her Florida debut as Carmen

Opera singer
J’Nai Bridges will make his Palm Beach Opera debut this weekend in the title role of Bizet Carmen. Photo: Dario Acosta

After a series of pandemic delays, 2022 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges.

The February issue of Opera News magazine, titled “J’Nai Bridges: Living Her Truth”, is the first cover of her career. And when the Palm Beach Opera staged Georges Bizet’s beloved Carmen On Friday night, she can tick “South Florida debut” off her to-do list. This weekend’s scheduled performances will mark Bridges’ first stage production since March 2020.

Having sung the role of the Romani temptress twice before, Bridges holds the opera and its central figure close to his heart. In an exclusive SFCR interview, she says Carmen “really informed my daily life to find out, ‘Who is J’Nai Bridges?'”

For starters, she’s a rising opera star whose auspicious career trajectory was postponed by Covid-induced cancellations just as she was preparing for her Metropolitan Opera debut, also as Carmen. .

The Tacoma, Washington native — daughter of an educational mother and a career military father — demonstrated a musical propensity from an early age. She was also a star basketball player in high school, where, as she told the Classic position in 2020, she has developed habits of mind and body “that directly relate to being a successful opera singer“.

The four acts of Bizet comical opera, written in 1874 and based on Prosper Mérimée’s short story of the same name from 30 years earlier, tackles themes of love, jealousy and class with the temperamental and sexually positive Carmen at the center of the plot. Ever since the work’s Paris premiere, Carmen has often been seen as a wild, immoral and manipulative archetype.

But not at bridges.

“She’s a heroine for me,” says the singer. “I’ve even heard her described as a man-killer or evil. I do not believe that. I think she just wants what every man does, and that’s really hard to deal with. But that’s what fills the seats — what people come to see — because that’s still not the norm.

According to Bridges, many musical scholars agree that Carmen, especially in the short story, is a study in dualism.

“She’s in love and she’s fatal Woman. She is both! Bridges said. “Actually, I identify with her a lot because I never liked the idea of ​​being locked up. I don’t think she’s mean at all; she’s just brutally honest, and she’s the freest character in the whole opera. I greatly admire.

Prepare for Carmen took Bridges, 34, on an ongoing journey of discovery and development. With the help of his support team – a singing teacher for lyrical technique, another for interpretation and style, and a French diction coach – Bridges approached the character with the intensity of an actor. method. His acquired skills now include flamenco dancing and playing castanets (although the latter were not employed in the Palm Beach production).

“I lived with Carmen for over ten years,” Bridges says. “The process really is endless, but living the life influenced the way I play the role, especially with Carmen. She lived the life.

“But I’m not Spanish Romani, so I studied them. If I can, I’m really going to immerse myself in the world I’m entering,” she continues. “I went to Spain and studied the movements – I looked into the eyes of these nomads who have been around for centuries.

“I have not yet attended a bullfight,” she adds.

As with many artists, the pandemic presented both challenges and opportunities for Bridges as she worked on a demanding role with no clear timeline for a return to the stage. The change to coaching sessions and online singing lessons made it more difficult to practice, and identifying what she could do with her voice as she gained in range and richness became more of a personal project.

“I was really able to deepen my artistic talent and my creativity because I had the time,” she says. “Besides, I just learned to say no and rest a bit. Once we were all forced to take that break, I realized I really needed that break, and now I have that renewed energy and a better sense of boundaries.

The pandemic has also seen other avenues of self-development, with the same self-care practices firmly enforced. Amid a wave of protests in 2020 sparked by the murder of George Floyd, Bridges turned down a recital with the Los Angeles Opera and proposed that the organization instead host a discussion with prominent singers from black opera. The subject of the online panel in June 2020 was race and inequality in the field. As moderator, Bridges facilitated a poignant exchange featuring Lawrence Brownlee, Karen Slack, Morris Robinson and others.

“It was a really scary thing for me to do,” she says, “for fear of retaliation, and because there’s never been anything like this before. I am therefore grateful to my friends and colleagues who have accepted to be vulnerable in this moment of need.

She said she came out of the experience as a leading voice for greater racial inclusion in classical music. As prominent opera companies promise to do better, advocates including Bridges and the new Black Opera Alliance plan to keep their word and continue to push for change.

“I saw some sort of calculation,” Bridges says. “That conversation was a release that I didn’t even know I needed. I just knew that I couldn’t stay silent. Since this panel, I feel empowered and emboldened. It’s part of my calling, I think. I can’t sit back and not use my platform to keep breaking down barriers.

In her Opera News profile, Bridges said self-confidence is a must for the mental and emotional stamina an artist requires. It’s arguably the same inner confidence that Carmen has in abundance.

“I feel like I learned a lot from this role,” Bridges says. “I have become more confident thanks to her and more sure of who I am. From the beginning of the opera, in the ‘Habanera’, she says: ‘This is who I am’. She owns it, and this production is wonderful because I was given the space to go.

Led by director Garnett Bruce, the PBO production of Carmen is presented with two casts, as is the tradition of the company due to the jamming of a series of three performances in a single weekend. Bridges alternates the title role with former Met Opera young artist Rihab Chaieb Lindemann, and Armenian tenor Migran Agadzhanyan is the madman Don José.

Bridges says the musical direction is particularly enjoyable and top-notch with co-conductor Antonello Allemandi leading the orchestra.

“It’s a classic production, which I personally love when it comes to Carmen,says Bridges. “Solid, beautifully organized and the vocals are fantastic.”

Palm Beach Opera presents Bizet Carmen 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. (Rihab Chaieb sings the title role on Saturday night.) pbopera.org

Richard Sylvester Oliver is a singer, music teacher and artistic consultant based in Dallas, Texas. Her work with performing arts organizations in North Texas includes creative direction, community engagement strategy, and DEIB implementation. As a member of the American Theater Critics Association and the Music Critics Association of North America, Richard has been reporting on the Dallas-Fort Worth performing arts scene since 2018. He is a regular contributor to Texas Classic Review.

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