Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges “discovered” her exceptional voice when as a senior, she auditioned for the high school choir near her home in Lakewood, Wash. After the choir director heard Bridges, she was immediately urged to begin studying professionally.
“My family enjoyed music, all kinds,” said Bridges, who will be the soloist in Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop on Aug. 19. “My dad has a beautiful voice, and he sang with the Sons of Thunder choir at the Allen A.M.E. Church in Tacoma. I began taking piano lessons when I was 5, but no one [in the family] was a professional.”
The new adventure of voice lessons became a revelation. “I just loved singing so much,” she said. Even though Bridges was captain of her high school basketball team and had college sports scholarships on the horizon, she auditioned at top American conservatories and music schools.
“When I auditioned for the Manhattan School of Music, I sang four songs, one each in English, Italian, French and German,” Bridges recalled, with obvious pride. Her move from the Pacific Northwest to New York was a success. She completed a bachelor’s degree there and then pursued a master’s at the Curtis Institute of Music, the prestigious institution in Philadelphia, where she studied with mezzo-soprano Patricia McCaffrey, an acclaimed teacher of vocal technique. “I was learning so many roles at Curtis. It really set me up for success.” (McCaffrey has also been on the voice faculty of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute since 2013.)
After Curtis, Bridges auditioned for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, which has a fiercely competitive admission process. Of the approximately 400 singers who apply annually, only four to six are accepted each year. Dan Novak, director of the program since 2000, recalled her audition vividly. “Her talent was obvious,” he said. “She was a terrific artist and a compelling stage presence. It was her calling, what she was meant to do.”
Over her three seasons as a Lyric apprentice (2012-15), Bridges was onstage at the Civic Opera House several times, including as Inez in Il trovatore, Vlasta in The Passenger and Flora in La traviata. Her career has since taken her to opera houses throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in England, France, Germany, Mexico and Spain. In late June, she made her house and role debuts as Preziosilla in nine performances of La forza del destino with Zurich Opera, and her July dates included two performances at the Oregon Bach Festival in The Passion of Yeshua by American composer Richard Danielpour and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
Bridges’ performance in Jeremiah at Ravinia caps off the CSO’s involvement in the festival’s celebration of the Bernstein centennial this year, but audiences can look forward to several more events through September, as well as more to be announced for future seasons.
Bridges also sang this work with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra on an all-Bernstein program in April. “I love singing in Hebrew,” she said. “This piece is so beautifully written for the voice.” The first two movements (Prophecy and Profanation) of this 25-minute work are instrumental, and the third (Lamentation) introduces the mezzo-soprano. “I feel very connected with the content of the Lamentation,” Bridges said. “[We are] asking God to heal us. We really need that message right now.”
Dorothy Andries is a free-lance writer specializing in the performing arts and classical music.
This is an excerpt from Ravinia magazine; to read the full article, click here.