Mezzo J’Nai Bridges rising fast in opera world

NEW YORK (AP) — J’Nai Bridges was just 24 and still in school when she sang her first “Carmen” as a young artist at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2011.

“I was, oh, way too young,” she recalls with a laugh. “It felt good back then, but it just fits like a glove now.”

Bridges will be trying on that glove again, headlining a production of Bizet’s masterpiece at the San Francisco Opera in June. It’s her biggest step to date in a career that has taken the African-American mezzo-soprano to major houses in the United States and Europe — that will lead to her Metropolitan Opera debut next season as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten.”

Young as she was in that Glimmerglass performance, she impressed Francesca Zambello, who had just become director of the summer festival in Cooperstown, New York.

“Her singing was already memorable, as were her animal stage instincts,” Zambello said in an email. “I remember I was drawn to watching her always, and one could see she was a young singer with vast potential.”

Zambello will be directing her in San Francisco, and Bridges, just turning 32, thinks she now has the “life experience and vocal maturity” to do justice to the role of the free-spirited gypsy who refuses to flinch even at the prospect of death.

“The tunes are so popular, but it’s actually quite difficult to sing,” Bridges said in an interview last month in her New York apartment. “The tessitura (prevailing vocal range) sits quite low and middle-y. ... And to sing over an orchestra in your lower register, it just doesn’t project as much, so you really have to have that grounding and maturity in your voice.”

Said Bridges: “She takes advantage of people for sure, but she’s a strong woman who says what she wants and gets what she wants.”

“She’s also extremely fearless,” Bridges said. “She brings on her own death and she knows it. I can’t quite relate to that yet ... but I had a fearlessness about me at a young age. I came all the way across the country when I was 18, having never done that. This career, it’s not easy at times, and it takes a bit of that same strength that I think Carmen has.”

Bridges had been studying voice while growing up in Washington state but also was a star shooting guard on her high school basketball team. Had it not been for a falling out with her coach, she might well have pursued sports rather than singing.

Instead, she left home to attend the Manhattan School of Music in New York, continued her studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and then did a three-year residency at the Ryan Opera Center, the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s artist development program, finishing in 2015.

“As a performer, J’Nai really has everything,” said soprano Renee Fleming, who got to know Bridges as adviser to the Ryan Center. “She is exciting onstage, a compelling actress, with a gorgeous presence. But most important of all, J’Nai’s voice has a beautiful, distinctive timbre. ... I don’t see any limits to how far she could go.”

Up to now, many of Bridges’ roles have been in contemporary opera, starting with her professional debut in 2015 in the Lyric Opera’s “Bel Canto,” an adaptation of the Ann Patchett novel with music by Jimmy Lopez. She’s also been featured in two Philip Glass operas and sang in the San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of John Adams’ “Girls of the Golden West,” a role she’s repeating in Amsterdam this season.

She jokes that she started getting offers for modern opera “when people found out that I could count. ... These different time signatures that change every measure, it doesn’t faze me. I actually like the challenge.”

In December, Bridges gave a recital at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, and after ending her program with a group of spirituals and an encore of the Habanera from “Carmen,” she did something unusual: Addressing her audience directly, she linked the message of spirituals to the need for social change.

“I debated saying anything,” she recalled. “But as Americans, we’ve gone through a lot. ... I feel we’re in a really trying time. As an artist, as a singer, not only do I have this gift and calling, but I feel like an ambassador for change through my gift.

“And I feel that way because being an African-American opera singer, it’s not something you see every day,” she added, "... and so I know a lot about our history, that it’s taken a lot of trials and tribulations for me even to be able to sing at Carnegie Hall.

“I sing spirituals in almost every concert that I do,” she said. “There is a struggle and a forgiveness and a strength and a love in these songs that people are missing,” she said. “And they have the ability to make someone walk out thinking about something, maybe think outside of yourself.”