J'Nai Bridges is enjoying an active career, in which the versatile singer performs repertoire ranging from Saint-Saëns, Bizet, and Brahms to John Adams. New Yorkers may recall her Metropolitan Opera debut as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten in 2019. About this versatility, she said in a recent conversation, “I think audiences are now used to me expressing myself fully, but I’m sure there will be people who are absolutely surprised. And that’s okay. I don’t want to be put in a box. I like singing all music."
This month, November 22–25, the mezzo-soprano makes her first New York Philharmonic appearance in the Orchestra’s hometown singing Julia Perry’s Stabat mater, which she has performed only once before, a work that brings her new challenges. “I want to be very intentional with the piece; it definitely feels in alignment with my artistry—my calling. I’m grateful to the New York Philharmonic and other institutions for being intentional about it, because that’s what it takes.”
Intentionality has marked many of Bridges’s actions over the past few years, particularly her artistic and civic response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 protests demanding social justice, which included leading a panel on race and equity in opera with the Los Angeles Opera after the murder of George Floyd.
And Bridges’s versatility has been part of her character from the beginning: the native of Tacoma, Washington, initially harbored plans for a basketball career before pivoting to opera, attending the Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music, winning the Marian Anderson Award in 2012, and receiving a Richard Tucker Career Grant in 2016. She has since performed in groundbreaking works, such as Adams’s Girls of the Golden West, as well as canonical standards, recitals, and performances of spirituals. In this, she echoes singers she cites as inspiration—Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, to name two—inspirations you can hear in her interpretations as well as the way she talks about her work as an artist.
When discussing what draws her to Perry and the Stabat mater, she conveys an interconnected spirit of performance and purpose: “Perry has such an interesting musical language, but I think that she’s more. First of all, there’s her depth of knowledge of the African American music tradition, which really resonates with me. She also has very complex textures that make so much sense to me. It’s almost spiritual, in a way."
Perry’s Stabat mater, a setting of a 13th-century poem evoking the crucifixion of Jesus from the viewpoint of Mary, was a turning point in the composer’s career, signaling a shift in her compositional language toward serialism. But for Bridges, that technique does not obscure the deep and resonant feelings the work evokes: “I can really imagine this pain, this weeping. She has such a human way of capturing that."
Perry’s 1951 setting of medieval source material reflects both the spiritual and human suffering that the poem describes, and also positions the story in a contemporary light, reflecting the pain of those witnessing the lynching of Black Americans. While Bridges recognizes that the piece is not meant to explicitly depict those events, she affirms its overall power: “There are so many mothers who have lost their children, their Black children … my lens is a bit different. I’m definitely pulling from that, but trying not to go too far onstage. I have to transport myself in a way in which I can go there, but within reason so the audience can go there with me and know it’s somewhere deep.”