“I always like to say this career really chose me,” says opera phenomenon J’Nai Bridges backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. “I never [imagined] in a million years that I’d be singing on the world’s biggest stages,” the 31-year-old continues.
Like most students on the verge of adulthood, Bridges was faced with a dilemma her senior year of high school. As the captain of her school’s basketball team, the future opera star had her heart set on sports. But as fate would have it, she joined the choir to fulfill a requirement for a mandatory art elective. It felt like a natural fit for Bridges at the time, as she had grown up singing in church. Soon, her instructor noticed she had a natural talent for classical voice, and recommended she take private vocal lessons.
Bridges took instantly to opera and landed her first performance in famed composer Giacomo’s Puccini’s "Tosca" at a local theater. One fateful evening, a rehearsal fell on the same night as a major playoff game. Ever the overachiever, Bridges figured she could make it to both if her mom drove her to the game two hours north of Tacoma, Washington, her hometown. Miraculously, Bridges arrived on time, only for her coach to bench her because he felt the singer-athlete didn’t show enough dedication to the basketball team.
“That was actually the last day of my competitive basketball career. It was very dramatic and traumatic,” Bridges reminisces. Had it not been for a falling out with her coach, the now world-famous performer would’ve gone to college on an athletic scholarship. Instead, she faced the music, and courted her second love.
“I definitely loved basketball, but it did not conjure up the same feelings as the music did,” Bridges explains, having gone on to lead an award-winning international career in opera.
This past Friday (Nov. 8), J’Nai Bridges made her Met debut in the role of Nefertiti in the Philip Glass-composed Akhnaten. Ahead of her debut performance, BET caught up with the woman who’s often referred to as “the Beyoncé of the opera world.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
BET: What are some challenges you’ve faced as an opera singer?
Bridges: If it were true, I would say racism. But for me, it honestly hasn't been. And I think one of the reasons why it hasn’t been is because I don’t approach it that way. We manifest our destinies. Obviously, there is racism in every field. I like to approach it in a way that I become so good at what I do that my color is not a barrier at all. The opera field is becoming much more conscious and much more active about diversifying their stages, which in turn diversifies the audience, which is what we really need.
The biggest challenge bringing [opera] to the masses is it just not really popular outside of the people that have been going for however many years. And it has been targeted and directed to pretty much one demographic. But, it’s happening.
BET: Last month, the Met announced it would be staging its first opera from a Black composer, Terence Blanchard. Can you expound on the significance of that?
Bridges: [Terence] is just everything, and it is beyond time. This should have [already] happened. It’s really telling of the times that we are in. I feel like everyone in opera is making major leaps and it’s really wonderful. It just gave me hope and it really inspired me. I found out on the first day of my rehearsal at the Met. It just made me so much more excited to walk through that backstage door. Hopefully, it’s the first of many. It’s just time that we represent what the United States of America is supposed to [be].
BET: What are you most looking forward to as you step into this role of Nefertiti, considering this will also mark your debut at the Met Opera?
Bridges: I have been raised with the idea that I am a queen and I come from queens. I feel so fortunate to be able to step out on that stage for the first time as [Nefertiti], who I have admired so greatly and tried to model, actually.
I would like for every woman that sees me in this role to envision themselves as royalty. Especially Black women. For so many centuries, we’ve been told we’re not, and we just are. We literally come from kings and queens. I would love for people to be inspired by simply seeing me on stage. And hearing me, also. I would love for young aspiring singers to be inspired by me musically and emotionally, and just know that anything and everything is possible.
BET: What are some similarities you see between yourself and Nefertiti?
Bridges: She was clearly a strong woman, [as] the wife of King Akhenaten. She was a queen in every sense of the word. She reigned, she ruled and she also was a wife to her husband, which I think is often the reason why men are successful. Not always. But she was a strong woman who definitely helped.
I like to see myself as — and I am — a very strong woman. I would say the number-one similarity is strength and dignity. I like to be as dignified as possible. And honest with people, and with myself. I feel like I am a queen. It’s been a journey. I haven’t always felt like that. But icons like her have definitely inspired me to know that I am.
BET: You’re very outspoken about social justice issues, and you don’t ever dilute your Blackness. What’s that like in the opera world?
Bridges: I think at first it was a challenge just because I was thinking a bit differently. I felt like a minority. Obviously I am, especially in this art form. But it doesn’t define who you are. I am an opera singer but I am J’Nai Bridges underneath all of that. Being a Black person is so different for everybody, and that’s something I think is super special because we all have that one common denominator of what we’ve gone through to get to where we are [now]. But for me, it’s more of a place of pride. I’ve spoken about it because people tend to see us in one light, and as an opera singer, it just trips people up. But I’m here to say that Black people do everything really well. I find that often times, people are intimidated when you’re proud of who you are. It’s like, “Oh, well you love Black people, that means you hate white people.” No it does not, actually. We just want an equal playing ground. I will always be outspoken, because [even though] opera is a European tradition, there have always been Black opera singers.
BET: Do you ever plan on transitioning into on-screen acting?
Bridges: I do. [As an opera singer], we are actors and actresses. We [just] don’t have cameras in our face so we have to emote to a huge hall. I would love to be in film, specifically.
I just feel Beyoncé and I are destined to collaborate. I was nicknamed “the Beyoncé of opera.” I will never be her, because she is like a goddess unto herself. But I take that when people say it, and fashion it to my strengths.
In fact, I used to want to be a pop star, but I just was not led in that direction. The opera thing took over. I can sing R&B and hip-hop, but my voice shines more brilliantly when I sing opera. One of my biggest goals is to fuse the two and bring [the different genres] more closely together.
BET: You’re obviously a huge fan of Beyoncé. When I saw you played Carmen, my mind went to the movie she did, and I saw on Instagram you thought the same thing. Tell me a little about the connection you have with her as a fan.
Bridges: I think I was in fourth grade when her “No, No, No” song with Destiny’s Child came out and I would imitate her all the time. What I admire about Beyoncé is her work ethic. I remember eyeing that as a young girl. I was just so fascinated by how hard she worked and just being so good at what she does. Vocally, she’s so precise. I remember thinking whatever I end up doing, I want to be that good.
I remember being so in awe of this woman, and watching her in all of her phases reinvent herself. She has managed to do that for 20 years, and it’s not easy. She has reinvented herself and people are just glued to her.
What I appreciate is the quality is high. It’s not reinventing for the sake of reinventing. It seems like who she is and she’s brought us on her life journey, which is super vulnerable. You have to be very vulnerable to do that. Those are the reasons why I admire her. Some would say she’s a perfectionist, and maybe she is. But maybe that’s why I gravitate towards her. Everything she does just seems so perfected in a good way. That’s just something I model myself after. I love quality over quantity. I feel like she would love the opera. I feel like she’s been to an opera. She should come see me. [Laughs]
(Photo: Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera)