J’Nai Bridges never aspired to be a professional singer in her early years, which makes her Met Opera debut and the 2022 Grammy for “Best Opera Recording” that followed, all the more impressive.
A gifted basketball player, she was co-captain of her high school varsity team and was considering whether to pursue scholarships for basketball or concert piano.
But through a twist of fate and decision of a coach, she would build a career as a vocalist, and on Feb. 9-10, the mezzo-soprano will perform two Cliburn Concerts alongside pianist Mark Markham.
“J’Nai is one of the “it” artists in opera today; at the time we booked her, she had just had her Met debut, where her introduction of Nerfititi in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten won her her first Grammy in 2022,” Sandra Doan, the Cliburn’s director of artistic planning, said. “She has a gorgeous mezzo-soprano, a commanding stage presence, and a vast range in repertoire. She is a powerful and important voice in classical music. It’s our honor to host her at two intimate Fort Worth venues and to introduce her to our audiences.”
The concerts will be the first recitals she’s performed in Texas.
The first evening will feature a more traditional repertoire, including pieces from Brahms and Ravel. The second night will have a more laid-back and will feature familiar American show tunes, to be announced from the stage.
“I’m just really excited to come and sing for a new audience… My hope is that they’re going to be also just some younger people in the audience on the first or and or second night just because I’m a huge advocate for the next generation,” Bridges said. “As a Black woman opera singer, I want to expose as many aspiring opera singers or young people that don’t know about this art form (to it). I’m just excited for this moment.”
If you go
Event: Cliburn at the Kimbell with mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Date: Feb. 9
Location: Kimbell Art Museum
3333 Camp Bowie Blvd
Fort Worth, TX 76107
Event: The Post at River East Cliburn Sessions with mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges
Time: 8 p.m.
Date: Feb. 10
Location: The Post at River East – Trinity Room
2925 Race St.
Fort Worth, TX 76111
For years, Bridges sang in her church’s gospel choir, but it wasn’t until the end of her junior year that she joined the choir at her school.
The decision was a pragmatic one. She needed the arts credit in order to graduate, but it also was fortuitous. A teacher recognized her natural talent and encouraged her to hone her skills and take in private lessons.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t really have time for this.’ I was so busy between school, piano and I played basketball as well,” she recalled. “But I said, ‘Why not?’ I’ll just try to fit it in, so I started to study privately and I just fell in love with it.”
She continued to juggle basketball and music for as long as she was able, but one day she ran into a scheduling conflict. She had choir practice and an away game on the same day.
Bridges recalled telling her coach and getting permission to have her family drive her the two hours to the game after choir practice.
Even though she rushed from practice to the game, making it in time for warm-ups, he sat her on the bench.
She remembers being in tears when the first two quarters went by and she wasn’t allowed to play. In front of the team, her coach told her she was being punished for letting her team down by choosing music over them, she said.
J’Nai, then 17, was devastated, but 20 years later she is happy where she landed.
“I like to say this career chose me, and I chose it back,” she said. “I really love it and enjoy it and am grateful for that really awful coach.”
The resilience that she developed as an athlete has served her well throughout her musical career. She takes the same approach to rejection after an audition that she did to losing a game.
“You don’t have time to sulk. It’s like, ‘OK, I lost this one. How can I do better next time?’ ” she said. “That mentality of always being a student of your craft has stayed with me.”
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.