When J’Nai Bridges made her triumphant debut in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah Sunday night, it was the fulfillment of a dream. The young mezzo-soprano’s star has been rapidly rising — this season she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten — but Delilah is special.
“Every mezzo-soprano wants to sing this role. It’s like the crème de la crème of roles,” she explains. “I love the theatrical character of Delilah,” whom she describes as both “evil” and “a heroine.” Besides, “the music is just so gorgeous. Some of my favorite music in all of opera is in Samson and Delilah.”
Yet when the Washington National Opera first asked her to sing that dream role, she hesitated. “I didn’t actually think that it would come this early in my career,” she says, ”because it’s quite demanding.” But “Washington National Opera seemed to have a lot of belief in my abilities, even when I didn’t.”
As well, she adds, “I had people in my corner that know my voice very well and tell me the truth, and they said, ‘You know, I think that you are ready for this.’” She’s glad she trusted them. “I took on the challenge and it really suits me very well. I’m very happy that I stretched myself… It’s made me a better musician.” She’s glad, too, to be singing it with the Washington National Opera. “I couldn’t have imagined a better way to debut this role.”
It was Bridges’ first time singing in the Kennedy Center Opera House, but not her first time at the Kennedy Center. She had previously sung at the Terrace Theater, including the concert she gave there after receiving the 2012 Marian Anderson Award. As a fan of “intimate spaces” to perform in, she’s enjoyed what the Kennedy Center has to offer. Of the Opera House, she enthuses, “It’s, to me, the perfect size. It’s just like a jewel box to sing in . . . and it’s gorgeous.”
Asked which other Delilahs have inspired her, Bridges immediately names DC native Denyce Graves, whose “voice just fits this role so beautifully,” and who has been a mentor to her. Shirley Verrett is another favorite, “my go-to Delilah. I’ve studied her a lot… I listen to her for everything.”
Other inspirations and guides include Renée Fleming, who spent time with Bridges when the latter was in the young artists’ program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and has stayed in touch with her, and Kathleen Battle. Bridges recently sang at the funeral and also at the Met Opera memorial service of Jessye Norman, who “told me to learn my languages and sing from the depths of my soul.” Even singers she’s never met have guided and influenced her, like Leontyne Price, who “has mentored me in more ways than she’ll ever know.”
Singers like these, she says, “taught me so much just simply by being who they are.”
Bridges’ biggest support system, however, is her family. She has roots in Baltimore, and more than a hundred relatives and friends turned up Sunday night to cheer for her. “My parents try to catch everything — the big debuts, anyway. My siblings do too,” she says. “They come to just about everything. Knowing I always have my family, no matter what, is invaluable. It keeps me very grounded and in a healthy place.” From the beginning, they’ve supported her—when she was a 3-year-old banging on a piano that had been left in their apartment and somehow making it sound like “beautiful music,” and again much later when she had to make a tough choice between singing and basketball.
“Singing, it took over,” she says of the time after a high school choir teacher recognized her talent, and her love of music and sports came into conflict. “It was something I needed to do and was called to do. Everybody thought it was a little bit crazy, but nevertheless they supported me” — through her time at the Manhattan School of Music and then at the Curtis Institute of Music, which has “the lowest rate of acceptance in the country.” Getting into such a prestigious program made her realize, “This is for real. Somebody believes in me. I think I can do this.” She never looked back.
But Bridges still loves basketball and plays when she can. In fact, she will sing the National Anthem at a Wizards game while she’s in town. She even sings while she’s working out. “I actually learned that from Beyoncé,” she recalls. “Destiny’s Child used to run and sing at the same time to get their cardio up so they would be able to dance.”
Next up for Bridges is “a lot of Carmens,” including a production at the Metropolitan Opera in October. She’ll be back in the Washington area next season, singing classical/jazz/gospel concerts with a friend, jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. And now that she’s sung one dream role, she has more in mind that she’d love to sing in the future, including Amneris in Aida and Eboli in Don Carlo.
But these aren’t J’Nai Bridges’ only dreams. She wants to help open up the world of opera to other young people, as it was once opened up for her. She’s trying to find ways to make tickets less expensive for those who can’t afford them, and, along with many of her colleagues and opera companies, she’s also working directly with the students she wants to reach.
“I go out to underserved communities and schools,” she says, “and I let them know what opera is. I sing to them and talk to them and let them know the importance of it. They believe it’s for older people, or even white people only. It’s just not true. When someone like me is offered to them, they immediately connect in a way they wouldn’t if someone else that didn’t look like me or wasn’t my age were offered to them.”
For J’Nai Bridges, music isn’t just a private dream to be cherished, but one to be shared as widely and generously as possible.
Samson and Delilah plays through March 21, 2020, in the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or go online.
[Related: Washington National Opera stages a vocally stirring, visually arresting ‘Samson and Delilah’ at the Kennedy Center (review)]