J’Nai Bridges: A mezzo connecting with the moment

By Dorothy Andries

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, who will be the soloist in Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony at Ravinia on Sunday, August 19, “discovered” her exceptional voice when, in her senior year, she auditioned for the high school choir near her home in Lakewood, WA. When the choir director heard her, Bridges was immediately urged to begin studying professionally.

“My family enjoyed music, all kinds,” Bridges explained during a telephone interview with Ravinia Magazine in late June. “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 audaciously 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 bold move from the Pacific Northwest to the sidewalks of 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 tuition-free institution in Philadelphia, where she studied with mezzo-soprano Patricia McCaffrey, an acclaimed teacher of vocal technique who also has a studio in New York City. “I commuted back and forth,” Bridges said, “and 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 upward of 400 singers who apply for the apprentice program, only four to six are accepted each year. Dan Novak, who has been 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.” Bridges also shared that calling with Ravinia during her first year at the Ryan Opera Center. On the Fourth of July 2013, she and five other singers from the program joined Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente to give the world premiere of a chamber version of Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest in the Martin Theatre led by the arranger, Alexander Platt.

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, The Passion of Yeshua by American composer Richard Danielpour and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

Contemporary classical works form a critical part of Bridges’s repertoire. Perhaps one of her most successful credits was her large role as the female guerrilla fighter Carmen in the 2015 premiere of Jimmy López’s Bel Canto by the Lyric Opera of Chicago [with direction by Kevin Newbury, who helmed the staging of Bernstein’s Mass at Ravinia on July 28]. She also created the role of Josefa Segovia in John Adams’s Girls of the Golden West at the San Francisco Opera last November and December, and she is slated to reprise the performance with the Dutch National Opera in February and March. Additionally, Bridges has a turn as Kasturbai in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha with Los Angeles Opera in October and November, and she has previously portrayed Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking with Vancouver Opera. [Heggie’s music has been a regular feature at Ravinia for the past two decades, including commissions for Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute in 2005 and 2007, as well as for Kiri Te Kanawa in 2014.]

Of particular interest to our present time was Bridges’ performance in Washington, DC, with soprano Susanna Phillips on June 22 of The Long View: A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs, composed by soprano Patrice Michaels, who is Ginsburg’s daughter-in-law. The songs honor the Supreme Court Justice’s 80th birthday as well as mark the 25th anniversary of her appointment to the bench by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Michaels herself recorded the songs on the Chicago-based Cedille label, founded in 1989 by her husband, James Ginsburg. (They recently hosted a launch party for the disc at the Poetry Foundation, titling the event “Notorious RBG in Song” and featuring selections from the CD sung by Michael and other guests.)

Bridges’s performance in Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” at Ravinia caps off the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s involvement in the festival’s celebrations of the multi-hyphenate’s centennial this year, but audiences can look forward to several more events through September, as well as many more to be announced for future seasons. Bridges also sang the “Jeremiah” with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra on an all-Bernstein program this April. “I love singing in Hebrew,” she explained, adding, “This piece is so beautifully written for the voice.” The 25-minute work is Bernstein’s first symphony—its first two movements (Prophecy and Profanation) are instrumental, and the third (Lamentation) introduces the mezzo-soprano. “I feel very connected with the content of the Lamentation,” Bridges revealed. “[We are] asking God to heal us. We really need that message right now.”  ▪

Dorothy Andries is a freelance writer specializing in the performing arts and classical music.