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

By Richard Sylvester Oliver

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

After a string of pandemic delays, 2022 looks like a breakout year for American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges.

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

Having sung the role of the Romani temptress twice before professionally, Bridges holds the opera and its central figure close to her heart. In an exclusive SFCR interview, she says Carmen “has really informed my everyday life to discover, ’Who is J’Nai Bridges?’”

For starters, she’s a rapidly rising opera star whose propitious career trajectory was deferred by Covid-induced cancellations just as she was preparing for her Metropolitan Opera debut—also in the role of Carmen.

The Tacoma, Washington native—daughter of an educator mother and career military father—demonstrated a propensity for music at an early age. She was also a standout in high school basketball, where, as she told the Classical Post in 2020, she developed habits of mind and body “that directly correlate to being a successful opera singer.”

Bizet’s four-act opera comique, written in 1874 and based on Prosper Mérimée’s namesake novella from 30 years prior, tackles themes of love, jealousy and class with the capricious, sex-positive Carmen at the plot’s center. Since the work’s Paris premiere, Carmen has often been regarded as a wild, immoral and manipulative archetype.

But not to Bridges.

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

To Bridges’ point, many music scholars agree that Carmen, especially in the novella, is a study in dualism. 

“She is love-struck and she’s femme fatale. She’s both!” says Bridges. “I actually identify with her a lot because I’ve never liked the idea of being boxed in. I don’t think she is evil at all; she’s just brutally honest, and she’s the freest character in all of opera. I greatly admire her.”

Preparing for Carmen has taken Bridges, 34, on a continual journey of discovery and development. With help from her support team—one voice teacher for operatic technique, another for interpretation and style, and a French diction coach—Bridges has approached the character with the intensity of a method actor. Her acquired skill set now includes dancing flamenco and playing castanets (though the latter will not be employed in Palm Beach’s production).

“I have lived with Carmen for over ten years,” says Bridges. “The process is really never-ending, but living life has informed how I play the role, especially with Carmen. She has lived life. 

“But I’m not a Spanish Romani, so I studied them. If I can, I will truly delve into whatever world I’m entering,” she continues. “I went to Spain and studied the movements—looked into the eyes of these nomadic people that have been around for centuries. 

“I’ve yet to go to a bullfight, though,” she adds. 

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

“I really was able to dig deeper into my artistry and creativity because I had the time,” she says. “Also, I’ve just learned when to say no and give myself some rest. Once we were all forced with this pause, I realized that I actually needed the break, and now I have this renewed energy and a better sense of boundaries.”

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

“It was a really scary thing for me to do,” she says, “for fear of retribution, and because there’s never been anything done like that before. So, I’m thankful to my friends and colleagues that agreed to be vulnerable in that moment of need.”

She said she has emerged from the experience as a leading voice for greater racial inclusion in classical music. With prominent opera companies promising to do better, advocates including Bridges and the newly formed Black Opera Alliance plan to hold them to their word and keep pushing for change.

“I’ve seen somewhat of a reckoning,” says Bridges. “That conversation was a release that I didn’t even know I needed. I just knew that I couldn’t stay silent. Since that panel, I feel empowered and emboldened. This is a part of my calling, I believe. I can’t sit back and not use my platform to continue to break down barriers.”

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

“I feel like I’ve learned so much from this role,” says Bridges. “I’ve become more confident through her and more assured of who I am. From the very beginning of the opera, in the ‘Habanera,’ she says, ‘This is who I am.’ She owns that, and this production is beautiful because I’ve been given the space to go there.”

Led by director Garnett Bruce, the PBO production of Carmen is presented with two casts as is the company’s tradition due to jamming a three-performance run into a single weekend. Bridges alternates the title role with former Met Opera Lindemann Young Artist Rihab Chaieb, and the Armenian tenor Migran Agadzhanyan is the besotted Don José. 

Bridges says the music direction is particularly lovely and top-notch with coonductor Antonello Allemandi leading the orchestra. 

“It is a classic production, which I personally love when it comes to Carmen,” says Bridges. “Solid, beautifully curated, and the singing is fantastic.”

Palm Beach Opera presents Bizet’s 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 Saturday night.)

Richard Sylvester Oliver is a vocalist, music educator, and artistic consultant based in Dallas, Texas. His 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 Classical Review.

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