Tuesday, May 24, 2022


Photo by Todd Rosenberg
J’Nai Bridges is among the world’s leading mezzo-sopranos performing today. She has been heralded and praised by critics at The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, to name only a few. J’Nai is a principal cast member of the 2022 Grammy Award-winning recording of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten produced by The Metropolitan Opera. In this conversation with Seattle Opera, J’Nai talks about growing up in Lakewood, WA, a suburb of Tacoma; her love of basketball; and returning home to perform in our concert production of Samson and Delilah.

Seattle Opera: Please, tell us about your childhood growing up in Lakewood, Washington.

J’Nai Bridges: That’s right, I grew up in Lakewood, a community near Tacoma, with three siblings, two brothers and a sister. Our home was a very loving household. My father’s from Georgia, my mother’s from Baltimore, Maryland. They met in Germany while he was in the US Army and she was teaching English over there. They met at a disco and the rest is kind of history. They still live in Lakewood.

Seattle Opera: What else can you share about that time?

J’Nai Bridges: We had a very well-rounded childhood. All of us children played sports and took music lessons. I went to Charles Wright Academy. The family traveled to Japan. And in fifth grade I got to place a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I will never forget those experiences.

Like many Black children growing up in primarily white spaces, I experienced issues of identity. But my parents are very pro-Black, so I always knew who I was. And even when I had those bouts of confusion, they helped bring me back to my roots.

J’Nai Bridges as a child growing up in Lakewood, WA.

Seattle Opera: What role did church play in your life?

J’Nai Bridges: The church was a big part of my life and still is. We attended Allen AME (African Methodist Episcopal) and the church community played a huge part in my upbringing. My first exposure to music was singing in the children's choir at Allen. Recently, my choir director from when I was five years old wrote my mom to say, ‘she always knew that I was something special.’ And now that the word is out that I’m performing in Seattle, my phone is blowing up with calls and texts from my church family.

Seattle Opera: How did your childhood shape your career?

J’Nai Bridges: My upbringing is really where my musical gifts were identified. My childhood, I feel, equipped not just me for my career in opera, but my entire family. My manager said that about my family not long ago. And it’s true. Today, I can call my parents and my siblings and say, ‘Hey, I need you to jump on a plane because I’m performing in this city or this concert hall.’ And they can. My brother works for Delta Airlines. My nephew works for a national rental car company. My career is really a family affair. My family has always been supportive. Of course, we all have our own lives now, but we are very, very connected and try to be together for special occasions and holidays.

Seattle Opera: That's wonderful. What do you like to do when you are home?

J’Nai Bridges: It’s so beautiful in Lakewood. I always make a point to go to Chambers Bay. The beauty restores me. There I can meditate and give thanks. The bay is near where I went to school. So, I try to visit. I also really love Ruston Way at the Tacoma waterfront. The park overlooks Puget Sound. I try to get home two times a year, especially during July and August.

When I’m home, I always make time to see close friends. It lifts my spirits to see people who have played integral parts in my life, like Dr. Maxine Mimms. Dr. Mimms is a retired educator who helped establish the Tacoma campus of Evergreen State College. She’s in her 90s now. She introduced me to Maya Angelou. They were very good friends. Another dear family friend I make a point to see is Dr. Joye Hardiman. Of course, I visit church, where I’m always invited and love to sing during service.

Seattle Opera: Are there other places you love to visit?

J’Nai Bridges: Yes. Yes. Yes. Southern Kitchen in Tacoma. It is a staple in Tacoma. Oh, it’s just so good. The restaurant was featured on Food Network! A meal at Southern Kitchen feeds my soul. When we were children, the Spaghetti Factory in Tacoma is where we celebrated birthdays growing up. Sometimes we still go there when I’m home.

Seattle Opera: In high school you were a competitive basketball player. What position did you play?

J’Nai Bridges: I was a shooting guard.

Seattle Opera: Did Charles Wright Academy have a rivalry opponent?

J’Nai Bridges: That's a good question. I think it was Seattle Prep.

Seattle Opera: What was your go-to shot?

J’Nai Bridges: I like the mid-range jump shot. Yeah, usually from the 45-degree angle. I was at the gym just the other day playing a pickup game. I still enjoy playing. You know, there are several parallels between basketball and singing. Dedication, practicing the fundamentals, and teamwork are skills I learned playing competitive sports. These are skills that I use every day in my career.

J’Nai Bridges (far right) with her high school basketball team, the Charles Wright Academy Tarriers.

Seattle Opera: When did you start singing outside of church?

J’Nai Bridges: I was a member of the Tacoma Youth Chorus. The founder of the chorus was also my choir teacher at Charles Wright Academy. I remember the audition was a big deal. I was young—maybe sixth grade—and very nervous. So, I started singing seriously in middle school. I learned so much about singing in that group. We sang in different languages and performed throughout the city. It was an exciting time.

Then in high school I was a member of the advanced chorus. It was my high school music teacher who encouraged me to study privately when I was a junior. She recognized my talents well before I realized that I loved singing as much as I did. She was the person who pointed me towards conservatories in my senior year.

Seattle Opera: How did your parents feel about your studying voice in college?

J’Nai Bridges: Like I said at the beginning, my parents have always been very supportive. From piano lessons starting at five years old to classical music playing on the radio to paying for private lessons, they were always encouraging. So, auditioning for a conservatory was not completely out of the blue. However, there was a conflict between basketball and singing that all came to a head.

Seattle Opera: Would you share that story?

J’Nai Bridges: Around that time, I was co-captain of my high school team. I was very competitive and thinking about playing in college. The team was in the district finals. We had a game on the same day that I had a rehearsal at Tacoma Opera, where I was singing in the chorus. It was my first opera and a very important rehearsal that I could not miss. The game was at night after rehearsal. My mom was going to drive me to the game in Enumclaw. The coach agreed with the plan. I arrived before the game, just as the team was warming up. But the coach made me sit on the bench. He did not let me warm up.

One quarter went by, two quarters went by, then it was halftime. He wasn’t going to play me. I was in tears. I was upset and my mom was equally upset. The situation blew up. He yelled at me in front of the team and the entire crowd. He kind of poisoned the team into thinking that I wasn't a good teammate, because I decided to forgo riding up on the bus with them. And he called it teaching me a lesson about sportswomanship. I stormed out of the gym with my mom. That was my last high school game and it pointed me towards singing.

Seattle Opera: That must have been tough?

J’Nai Bridges: I’ll never forget him. But it’s okay, because everything happens for a reason. I know that I made the right decision. I became a serious singer from that experience.

Photo by Dario Acosta.
Seattle Opera: How do you feel about making your Seattle Opera debut?

J’Nai Bridges: It’s truly a special thing for me to come home to my village. There are so many people from Seattle, Tacoma, and Lakewood that have poured so much love into me that it really feels that this performance in McCaw Hall is a gift. This is my gift and I’m sharing it with them and everyone. It will be the highlight, I know, of my career so far. This performance means more than any award or any accolade. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for years. I’m so grateful because I’m in a place vocally, musically, and artistically where I can feel so proud of my talents. So, I’m happy to bring my talents home and show my hometown the best of me.

Seattle Opera: On behalf of Seattle Opera, let me say ‘Welcome home, J’Nai.’

J’Nai Bridges: Thank you. This has been fun.

Samson and Delilah in Concert plays January 20 & 22, 2023 at McCaw Hall. For tickets and information, see https://www.seattleopera.org/samson.

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