Written by Joanna Manning
By the time J’Nai Bridges ’05 held her Metropolitan Opera “mainstage artist” ID badge in her hands, she had already graced some of the world’s top stages. She brought “a tone full of burnished amber and smoldering heat” (San Francisco Chronicle) to her portrayal of Carmen at the San Francisco Opera, and her “lush mezzo and defiant ferocity” (Wall Street Journal) had been lauded again and again, from Carnegie Hall to the Dutch National Opera, marking her as a rising star in the opera world. This past November, J’Nai made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. Her star power had reached opera’s biggest stage.
“When I walked through the backstage door as a principal artist for the first time, I kind of lost my breath a little bit because it was just such a surreal moment,” Bridges said of her first rehearsal for Akhnaten . “I definitely shed a tear. It just felt like all of my hard work had paid off.”
Charles Wright Academy’s 2020 Alumna of the Year is no stranger to hard work, as her season performance schedule can attest. In the spring, she will make her Washington National Opera debut as Dalila in Samson et Dalila before returning to the Dutch National Opera to reprise her role of Carmen for the first time on a European stage. J’Nai will make debuts with the San Antonio Symphony, New Jersey Symphony, and Philadelphia Chamber Music Society before concluding the season with her debut at BBC Proms. It is a dizzying series of engagements.
This past November, J’Nai Bridges made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. Photo by Karen Almond.
Anyone who has watched J’Nai’s career unfold over the past few years might be surprised to learn that a singing career was not foremost on her mind growing up. Though she sang in the Tacoma Youth Chorus in middle school, she was more committed to sports at the time.
“I wasn’t at every rehearsal or even every performance,” she said, “but I just remember being introduced to this communal choral world, and being part of that community piqued my interest.”
It wasn’t until she was a senior and needed to fulfill a performing arts requirement to graduate that she was even introduced to the possibility of a career in opera. She auditioned for the small vocal ensemble, which was led at the time by Julie Kangas, who immediately noticed J’Nai’s gift.
“J’Nai exhibited a great deal of natural ability,” Ms. Kangas said. “She had lovely tone and pitch sense, and she also enjoyed composing and playing for herself. I remember talking with her about her gift and the potential I saw at that point, which was great. As she was getting ready to make decisions for college, I suggested taking private lessons to continue to work on her craft.”
J’Nai credits her choir director with guiding her onto her current path.
“Mrs. Kangas really believed in me. Her choir is really where I became kind of hyper focused on singing. I have Charles Wright to thank for that.”
But with this new focus came new challenges. Bridge’s burgeoning interest in singing began to clash with her basketball commitments. By her senior year, she was captain of a state championship-bound team with college basketball scholarship offers in hand. However, when she landed a role in a local production of Puccini’s Tosca and rehearsals began to interfere with her basketball schedule, her coach asked her to choose between the two activities. Bridges chose singing and hasn’t looked back.
“I didn’t completely know that singing would be the love of my life in the way that it is,” she said. “But I gave it a chance because it was a feeling that I’d never felt before. I wanted to feel more of that.
With only a few months of formal vocal training under her belt, she auditioned for and earned a spot at the Manhattan School of Music
in New York City, where she completed a Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance. She went on to earn a Master of Music degree from the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia before completing a three-year residency with the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
It was as a student that J’Nai caught the eye of Francesca Zambello, who would go on to cast her in the title role of the San Francisco Opera’s production of Carmen.
“Her singing was already memorable, as were her animal stage instincts,” Zambello was quoted as saying in an AP interview from early 2019. “I remember I was drawn to watching her always, and one could see she was a young singer with vast potential.”
J’Nai’s memorable stage presence—and the confidence required to demonstrate it to audiences and critics the world over—developed in part from her experiences at Charles Wright.
“I give a lot of credit to the school because it was not easy,” J’Nai said. “I was challenged in every way. I was not the best student, but it’s not because I wasn’t smart. It’s just because my gifts were in other fields. I feel like I was challenged at Charles Wright to just broaden my imagination and my thinking. And I was also challenged by my classmates because everyone was so smart. At the same time, we had so much fun. It was really like a big family.”
This is not unlike the operatic world, where her colleagues become like a second family during a show’s production, pushing each other to achieve their personal and collective best.
“What I learned at Charles Wright directly applies to what I do today. I have to work with people. And what we do is so specialized that if you don’t put your best foot forward, it shows, and that’s not necessarily going to be conducive to good art making. So for me, even though I wasn’t the strongest academically, I always did my best, and I was challenged by my classmates because everyone did their best. And just to have that closeness and unity of the community gave me a grounding and a confidence to do what I’m doing today.”
Julie Kangas, J’Nai’s CWA choral music teacher, and David Kangas, CWA chemistry teacher, flew out to NYC in November to watch J’Nai perform on the Metropolitan Opera stage and surprised her with her CWA Alum of the Year certificate.
As she reflected on her time at Charles Wright, it seemed that the travel, long hours, and demands of her work almost pale in comparison to some of her outdoor education experiences.
“I’ll never forget the eighth-grade beach hike,” she said, growing more animated. “It was just insane. And it was amazing. I remember like it was yesterday because it was so challenging. It was raining the whole time. And I got hit in the eye with a bucket, and we had to go to the bathroom outside,” she laughed. “So I just feel like experiences like that at Charles Wright really set me up to be able to get through anything.”
In addition to the mental and physical challenges the school provided to prepare her for life beyond the classroom, the richness and breadth of the curriculum itself were some of her most valued experiences at the school. Bridges recalls being both “challenged and frustrated” by her humanities teacher, feeling enlightened by Chaplain LaMotte’s chapel program, and falling in love with ceramics.
“I had no idea that [ceramics] was a thing, but Charles Wright really exposed me to so much that’s just been helpful for my life. I feel cultured. I felt cultured even coming to New York before I got to college,” she said. “I felt like I was steps ahead of people in terms of just how I thought because Charles Wright stretched us in that way. And I wasn’t afraid to go for things and I think it just really has helped me with my career because you have to be courageous and kind of fearless in a way, and Charles Wright definitely gave me the ability to be that way.”
These days, J’Nai has embraced her role as an ambassador for the arts, sharing her experiences with school children and offering master classes in voice.
“I like to go out to schools and just share my gifts and talk about being an opera singer, to let them know that is possible. Most of them have no idea that that is a possibility.”
It’s a role she takes very seriously, particularly as a person of color who has an earnest interest in making opera more accessible to everyone.
“I would be regretful if I didn’t pick up on that part because had it not been for my forefathers and mothers, I probably would not be on stage today.”