J’Nai Bridges will be performing as part of Washington Performing Arts Home Delivery Plus Series March 26- April 1. (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges had just begun her Washington National Opera debut as Deliliah in {Samson and Delilah}, a run that would quickly end with most of live theatre as establishments shut down and quarantine began.  However, quarantine didn’t prevent Bridges from sharing her talent with audiences across the nation and globe, but it’s not just her singing voice that’s she using her platform for people to hear. She combines art and activism to serve as an “artivist.” With her beautiful singing voice and powerful “artivism” Bridges, who will be performing as part of Washington Performing Arts’ Home Delivery Plus Series March 26- April 1, is raising awareness about diversity in opera and working to make classical music more accessible for all people.

“It’s so important for me to help make Opera accessible, because traditionally it’s just not. I’m grateful because of the virtual world right now.  My base has expanded more than I could have imagined and hopefully when we do get back into the theatres I’ll see more people who look like me, more young people, different productions that actually reflect who we are today,” Bridges told the AFRO in a Facebook Live interview.  “Opera is beautiful, it’s a beautiful artform, it’s steeped in tradition, in European tradition, and so while I truly adore it, it’s sometimes very difficult for an American especially, to relate to.  So I truly feel that things are changing for the better.”

As COVID-19 hit, the country and world became more aware about the ever present pandemic that has sickened the United States for centuries- racism.  When George Foloyd was seen murdered in broad daylight by a Minneapolis police officer, much of the United States, stuck in the house due to coronavirus, took to the streets, masked, frustrated, and ready for change.  Around that time, Bridges was asked to perform, but the challenges facing the nation outweighed her love of singing.

“ asked me to sing a digital recital and I just couldn’t, I was not in the place.  I was upset and I was angry, so I said, I can’t do that, but I would love to host a panel and have a conversation, so we did that,” Bridges said.

“I hosted a panel with the LA Opera and it was about racism, inequality and equity in the opera field and there’s never been anything like that before.  It was very scary, but I got some of my closest friends, all African American, and I just said, ‘Let’s talk.  We talk about racism, we talke about the disparities amongst ourselves.  Now is the time, if we’re going to talk, let’s just go for it so everyone can hear and be uncomfortable, just as we are.’  So that took place in June, right after George Floyd was murdered and it kind of really sparked a reckoning in the classical music world,” the opera singer explained.  “Since that moment, I didn’t know if there was going to be backlash, if there was going to be retribution. But thankfully, it really did spark a reckoning and I’m in contact with many major opera houses about how to actually take action.”

While Bridges found a way to serve as an “artivist” in important conversations around casting, productions and diversity, she also has been able to educate and enlighten through art.  One way she is serving as an artivist is through her upcoming performance with Washington Performing Arts (WPA), “Rising Together.”

“I am really, really excited to present my next project with them which is called, ‘Rising Together,’ and it encompasses many different songs that, for me, encompass this idea of togetherness, because I feel, at this point, this is how we are really, truly, going to move forward in so many ways, and I feel so incredibly blessed that I can help facilitate that through song.  So I’m actually highlighting many new and up and coming African American composers that happen to be my friends and they are living- I say living because it’s so rare to be able to work side-by-side with a composer- so I’m super excited to feature composers Dave Ragland, who’s based in Nashville, Carlos Simon, who’s actually based in Maryland, and we have many projects coming together, Shawn Okepbholo, he’s actually of Nigerian American descent, and Richard Danielpour, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds and also a composition of my own,” Bridges said. “Lester Lynch is playing the piano, and he’s a very gifted pianist based in the Maryland area.”  

On top of the excitement surrounding the piece itself, Bridges said she is incredibly inspired by the historic Sixth & I synagogue, where the performances are taking place.

“It’s an incredible synagogue.  The acoustics are a singer’s dream,” she said.

Beyond the location and eagerness to showcase “Rising Together,” is Bridges’ hope to bring healing to audiences.

“I just feel this program right now will bring people healing and I feel like we all need that right now- and always- but I truly feel that people will walk away feeling a bit more grounded and whole,” the mezzo-soprano told the AFRO.  “So I’m grateful to be a vessel and I hope people tune in.”

 

Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor