Branding and visibility is a matter of being true to yourself – as much so in the art world as it is in the business world. For rising opera star J’nai Bridges, being true to herself means breaking through the stereotypes that pit her race and her craft against each other. J’nai is an American opera singer who is known for her plush-voice mezzo-soprano and has sung in major mezzo-soprano roles, such as Dalila in Samson et Dalila, Carmen and Nefertiti of Akhnaten. Elizabeth Bachman proudly presents her in this episode of The Relationship between Business and Art. Ever wondered what it’s like to be a black opera singer in an industry that is so traditional, it just recently realizing the racism that is embedded in some of its practices? Being a black opera singer itself breaks so many stereotypes and J’nai is certainly a disruptor in that regard.
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Visibility, Branding And Breaking Stereotypes With Rising Opera Star, J’nai Bridges
Part Of “The Relationship Between Business And Art”
This is The Relationship Between Business and Art. This is our special series. I’m so happy to have my guest, J’Nai Bridges, here. She was the first person I thought of interviewing. You were the seed for this whole series. I’m happy to have you here. A little thing about Speakers Who Get Results, this is a show where we talk about how to use presentation skills to get the results you need and to move people to take action. For singers, which J’Nai is doing and what I did for 30 years, the result you need is when you’re doing an audition, it’s to help people get the job. J’Nai, let me quickly ask you before I go into the official intro, what results do you want the audience to have when you’re performing?
If I had to answer that in one answer, it would be beyond me. It would be for them to be transported to another place so that they are able to let go of the current bad feelings. I want them to walk out differently from when they walked in the theater. That’s the result that I’m going for. That could be under the umbrella of more of an open mind or a feeling less weight. It could mean many things, but leaving the theater in some way feeling differently.
The arts can be such a catharsis and it takes us out of the every day, “I got to get this done,” worrying about this or that. It allows you to go to a different place, which can be so healing. I often say and my little pat answer is when you’re performing, it’s to make the audience cry, or laugh, which is harder. This is a very short version of J’Nai’s official biography. Go to JNaiBridgesMezzo.com, you can see the full biography, which is quite long and extensive, but she has been known for her plush-voice mezzo-soprano. That’s what The New York Times said. She has been heralded as a real rising star by The Los Angeles Times. She’s graced the world’s top stages. That’s all around the world. This last season, her engagements included her Metropolitan Opera debut in Akhnaten as Nefertiti, which got a lot of publicity and a lot of press. It was a fabulous success.
Who knew that a Philip Glass opera would be a raving hit? You were amazing. She also is Dalila in Samson et Dalila, and Carmen, our friend Carmen. She’s sung many of the major mezzo-soprano roles. I’ve never forgotten seeing a picture of you on Facebook singing at the brand-new symphony building in Hamburg, which is an architectural marvel. Shortly after you had sung there, I went there. I was visiting cousins in Hamburg and went there and I said, “I know somebody who sang here.” I’ve known J’Nai since quite early on in her career where we all met in Knoxville, Tennessee to test out Norma by Bellini, which is one of those put on your big girl pants operas. I have been following her and delighted ever since.
Thank you so much.
I want to ask you about if you had your dream interview, if you were to share the stage with somebody from history, who would it be? What would you ask them and who ought to be in the audience?
Elizabeth, it’s difficult to choose one person.
You can have more than one. For you, you get a panel.
Thank you. For now, I’ll go with two. Those two people would be Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
For our international readers, tell us who they were.
Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were born into slavery in America and they were abolitionists. They became free. They freed themselves by going north. Harriet Tubman is amazing because she freed over 300 slaves through the Underground Railroad, which was of course a huge risk. For me, it would be interesting to have a conversation with her and ask first of all, “Were you afraid?” I know the answer. Of course, she was afraid, but something in her rose above the fear. To me, every time I perform, I think of her because it’s like this woman had such strength. I feel like, honestly, I ride the shoulders of her and so many other powerful African-American women, especially in America.I know who I am and that's all that I can control. I can't control what other people think, nor do I want to. Click To Tweet
Frederick Douglass was an extraordinary abolitionist, also an author and an orator. He was extremely articulate and gave speeches. He freed many slaves as well. He led them to freedom, but also led many white people at the time to mental and emotional freedom, which then in turn resulted in the end of slavery. I would be so fascinated to pick their brains. The audience members should include everybody. Every race, every age to become aware of their stories and the history of black people in America, but also the history of America. Much of it has been hidden from us. We’ve been in this disillusioned slumber for so long. Having a conversation with them and asking them important questions would be beneficial to everybody. It would also bring light to a lot of questions that I have that are pretty unanswered, I think. It’s difficult to find in history books.
I want to quickly ask you, did they know each other? We hear about Frederick Douglass on this side and Harriet Tubman on that because they’re two separate stories, but they must have been contemporaries.
I think they were in temporaries because they lived during the same period. I wondered the same thing myself. I would also be interested to know the dynamic just concerning a man and a woman at that time because there was also that dynamic in that competition, frankly. I don’t know the answer to that question. I would assume that they did, but it was a different time.
They certainly knew of each other.
Those would be two of many that I would love to interview and have a conversation with.
I wanted to ask you particularly to talk about branding and visibility. The brilliant work that you have done around all of this can be an example for anybody, no matter what their business. Our regular readers will know that we talk a lot about perception and how you are perceived and then managing how you are perceived so that people will get in the door and they can hear you. It’s a challenge for women. It’s even more of a challenge for women of color. Can you talk a little bit about how that works in the opera business and your perception of the business of how one is perceived?
It’s been a journey for me. I’m still figuring out ways in which I want to be perceived. The first steps for me is that I need to know who I am because I find it very easy to detect when someone is not being honest. As an artist, it’s all about transparency. That includes your branding. I’ve learned so much. I have a public relations team and we’ve learned from each other. A story is always nice to have and to tell. I have a pretty fascinating story with how I got into opera and music in general. I didn’t plan on telling that story much, but it has garnered a lot of attention. With the advice and suggestions of my PR team, we’ve been telling that story to create an attraction that you don’t hear when I’m performing.
Is this the basketball story?
Yes, it’s one of them.
I knew this was going to come up. Tell us the basketball story because you are also an athlete.
Once an athlete, always an athlete I feel. I was a basketball player. I played very intensely from a very young age and I was on my way to play basketball in college. I had one more elective to take in high school, an arts elective to take in order to graduate. I decided, “I’ll join the choir. I will audition and see if I get in.” I auditioned. I got into the choir and my voice teacher immediately noticed a natural gift that I had. She suggested that I hone in on it and maybe start studying privately. I said, “I’m super busy, but why not add one more to the schedule.” It was my senior year, my final year in high school. I started studying privately and I fell in love with this newfound world of classical voice.
I was still playing basketball. I was a captain of my basketball team and my coach said that I could do both. As long as I fulfilled my duties as a basketball captain, the singing thing would be no problem. I was doing both. I was very busy, but one major incident happened where I ended up having to choose. That was my very first opera. I was in the course of Tosca at Tacoma Opera. We had a basketball game the same day. It’s a very important game. My coach agreed that I could sing the rehearsal, have my mom drive me up two hours north for this game.
We did that. I got to the game, I suited up into my gear and he sat me on the bench and I said, “Coach, what are you doing? I need to go warm-up.” The game started. I was on the bench. One quarter went by, two quarters went by, it was halftime. I was in tears because I was not playing. He told me that I basically chose this singing thing over my team. He was testing me and I failed the test. That was the last day of my competitive basketball career. I made the right decision. It was a very traumatic experience at the time. From that moment I said, “My ego is hurt.” I’m going to focus on the singing thing and see where it takes me.
I auditioned for conservatories and I ended up going to Manhattan School of Music in New York. Basketball is something that I still love. I’m very passionate about it. In fact, I still play for fun. It’s a great workout. Singing is what chose me. I like to say opera chose me. I’m grateful that I went with my gut feeling because it has opened up so much opportunity for me and it doesn’t feel like a job. It is a real joy for me to use my musical gifts and many things that have opened up that I could have never imagined. That’s the basketball story.
It’s one of those things that PR people are always happy about because it gives you a way to say you’re a human being. It’s not tiaras and diamonds and so forth and so on.
It’s a story that I never thought that I would tell, but it is a part of my life and it’s my story. It happens to now be a part of my brand a bit. I have gone as far as to try and collaborate with different sports sectors. I have been able to do things intertwining the two, music and sports. There’s a lot of connectivity and parallels between the two. It’s all lined up and I’m grateful for that.
Going back to perception one more time, I’ve heard you tell this story. I’ve known you for a while now. What do you think was going through your coach’s head and would it have been different if you’d been male or if you’d been white? You were a high school senior.
I can’t say for sure, but I would venture to say yes, it would have been different. He may not have tested me. He may have been more upfront and said, “No, you can’t do this.” You never know and that’s the tricky thing about microaggression. I experienced that a lot as a black woman, but I do remember feeling very strange about it and also the parents of the team members seem to attack me. I thought that was very unfair. If it was perhaps a white woman or a white male, I don’t know if the reaction would have been the same. I’m almost certain that I wouldn’t have because it was pretty vicious and I was already the only black girl on the team. I can’t say for sure, but it possibly would have been different.
Expectations are different. At least, I perceived them differently as a black woman. I am starting to not feed into what people perceive me or they expect me to be because that’s a big part of the whole issue of perception. It’s feeding into what people perceive you to be. Going into a situation knowing who you are is half the battle. Going back to the whole idea of perception, everyone will have ideas of who you are or who they want you to be, but if you know who you are then they can think all they want. Leave that to them. I know who I am and that’s all that I can control. I can’t control what other people think, nor do I want to. Once people have a grasp on that, I would say that it’s conducive to telling your story in the most transparent way. That way, people are more receptive.
Of course, you have to be good at what you do, which you are. You can do all sorts of things to get yourself in the door, but to keep yourself visible. There are a million mezzo-sopranos out there who can sing Carmen. This was part of the branding and the visibility piece that made me start to think about this. One of the things that you do is you have all these high fashion shoots and you have a lot of magazine appearances. You’ve been in the New York Times several times. Here we are, the theaters are all shut down, which is an incredibly sad place to be. NBC did a worldwide concert for the Global Goal Concert and there was one classical musician, you. The New York Times did a big piece about somebody who was going to be showing up as Carmen. We were all set to write about her debut as Carmen, and now everything’s stopped. They put this big piece about you. I was like, “You’re doing something right.” Can you talk a little bit about that visibility and the decisions and the choices that have gotten us there?
I’m very grateful for these opportunities that have come my way. I’ve been very intentional about what I present to the world. I’ve said no a lot. Before I sang Carmen at San Francisco Opera, which I consider my big debut, my big outing to the world, I said no a lot to Carmens because I didn’t feel ready. I didn’t feel vocally ready. I didn’t feel emotionally ready. That took great honesty with myself. When I did finally say yes to Carmen, I knew that opportunities would soon arise from that. With my Met debut at Carmen, I also said no before to potential engagements. I have to say that I was a bit strategic in what I was to debut there as well. Had I sung Carmen for my first role at the Met, I feel honestly like I would have been perceived differently because Carmen has been done for so many years. There are many preconceived notions. With Akhnaten, it had never been done at the Met, so people were ready to receive it in a different way.
For those of you who haven’t paid attention, go look it up. Akhnaten is a Philip Glass opera that breaks all the stereotypes and boundaries. Philip Glass has very much his own musical language. It is a stunningly beautiful production and you are stunningly beautiful in it. You’re very much not in the traditional role of a “traditional opera.” It’s a great place to make a very visible debut.There are limitless ways to promote yourself while staying true to who you are. Click To Tweet
Thank you. Yes. I’m very fortunate. I’ve been very intentional about my decisions about how I want to present myself. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. I’ve also been ready. In the singer world, the opera world, the musical world, we talk about being ready because opportunities, they can come, but they can also pass you by if you’re not ready. I’ve spent a lot of time doing the nitty-gritty grinding work, practicing a lot, voice lessons, coaching, languages, and all in the hopes that I’m ready for when the opportunities come. I have to say that I have been ready and I never imagined that so many grand opportunities would come my way. That’s why I say opera chose me because I’ve literally been doing what I feel and what my gut has been leading me to do. I’m grateful that I have a manager that has been in the business for many years and my publicity team. That’s something that I’ve been taught early on by some mentors of mine. Mentorship is very important.
I was going to say mentors are huge.
I come from a family that we’re a very close family, but my parents taught me early on that mentorship is the key to succeeding. I’ve had mentors from very early on and I’ve listened to them. That’s been very helpful. One of my mentors said, “You need a team. You need management, you need a voice teacher that you can trust. You need vocal coaches and eventually a publicity team.”
Just as if you’re running a business, you need to have your staff and the people you are working with, but also your unofficial board of advisors. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot on this program. How do you find your unofficial advisory team and finding the allies growing to help you out?
It’s the same with being a performer. I feel like that has greatly helped and propelled me. I’ve been called ambitious before. I don’t know if that’s negative or positive thing, but I would say that I definitely am a go-getter and not afraid to ask questions. When you mentioned my fashion take that I’ve been going for, that’s very much a part of who I am. For most opera singers, and I would say most classical musicians, are stuck in a box. This is what has been done for the past couple of hundred years. This is the way that it is, but I never thought that way.
I believe that as an artist, we should explore every angle. For me, I want to see an audience filled with every demographic, every ethnicity. In order for that to happen, you have to reach different audiences in different ways. Not everyone can relate to me standing up and singing an Aria. For some people, it doesn’t mean much, unfortunately, or they don’t know how to feel. Making the art form accessible is important. I’m figuring out ways in which I can do that authentically. That’s fashion, that’s sports. It’s engaging young people, even with different genres of music combining and cross collaborating.
I don’t think that means that the integrity of classical music has to be lost. There are ways in which you can definitely infuse the two. That’s how I’ve garnered the attention of different outlets, like the NBC special, which featured many mainstream artists. Ultimately being who I am and not cutting off any part of myself. I grew up singing in the gospel church and playing the piano. That’s a part of who I am and why not use those attributes and gifts? There are limitless ways to promote yourself while staying true to who you are. That’s what it’s all about.
One of the things that I’ve loved happily following you on social media is the fashion shoots that you do. If you’re going to do a fashion shoot, it gets you into magazines and newspapers that wouldn’t normally do a story about an opera singer. You do it posing on the steps of The Metropolitan Opera. That’s not too shabby. A quick question. I know people often think of opera as elitist and it’s all tiaras and diamonds and so forth. Yet here we are, we’re talking and you’re in your childhood bedroom. This is J’Nai, no tiaras. There’s an enormous amount of work that goes into an opera career. The tiara is most of the time, if you’re going to wear it, it’s because it’s on stage and it belongs to somebody else. When you do the gala appearances, do you ever worry that you’re perpetuating a stereotype?
No, I don’t ever worry that. When I enter into a gala to perform or that type of setting, one thing that I’m thinking about is transporting people into another world. I fully embrace some of the stereotypes of an opera singer because I don’t think that they’re all bad. I love the grandness of opera, but also simply by being who I am and doing what I do, a black woman singing opera, it automatically breaks down so many barriers. It dismantles any stereotypes that people might have.
Also, you’re gorgeous, so you can pull it off. That helps. What can you tell us about the challenges? There are obvious challenges around getting yourself dressed up to walk in. We were talking about the hair problem. Let’s talk about the hair issue because this is something most people don’t think about, and we’ll give some people something that most people do not hear about.
I’ll say that black people in America often alter their appearance to cater to non-black people to either come across as less threatening. As an opera singer, I feel like people often have preconceived notions of what someone should look like. For me, in the beginning of my career, I straightened my hair a lot because I felt that it made me more beautiful. It made people less judgmental. This is a thought pattern that I would say most African-Americans have, the thought of how can I alter my being to accommodate a Caucasian person and to help them to feel less threatened “to pass.” It’s a sad thing and it’s very destructive, but it’s a reality.
I am now at a level where that is not something that I do. I’m at a level of consciousness and security, I think. Racism is so ugly and it does render these types of situations. I’ve spoken with colleagues and they shaved their hair off like men because they feel like their hair is an assault. It makes people feel uncomfortable. They feel that way because it’s like they go in to a production and the director says, “Maybe you should wear like a straight-haired wig or something.” It’s like, “Why? That’s not my hair.” There’s a reason as to why people feel this way, but it’s time that this is dismantled. I’m happy to say that many opera companies are now aware and conscious that it’s oppression and it’s a form of racism.
I wear my hair natural and curly right now. Sometimes I do straighten it, but it’s a preference that I have. It’s not because I feel like I have to accommodate anyone. I’m accommodating myself. It’s something that’s not spoken about, but as a black opera singer, there are many things that unfortunately, we feel we have to alter about ourselves to simply be accepted. In 2020, we’re dismantling these falsities. I’m happy that many people of all races are now aware of the racism that has embedded many things in the way that we live.
It’s interesting to talk about these things because I never do. I started to speak about all of the details and the not so nice details that come with not only being a black woman in America, but also a black opera singer. Opera is such a traditional art form. If we’re going to perform opera in America and around the world, we need to represent the world and America. I would like to see audiences that looked like me, that looked like you. It’s only fair and it only makes sense to have people that look like me and people that look like you. We need a diverse stage to have a diverse audience. Representation matters greatly.
The more that young people can see people like you out there on stage and in a centerfold and people like you in The New York Times with a giant picture in The New York Times, all of that makes the young ones think, “There’s still hope. I could do this.”
It gives them infinite possibilities. It also broadens the minds of everybody. There exist stereotypes that black people are only successful in sports and music, at rap and hip hop. While there are incredible artists and athletes, we also sing opera. I have literally been in situations where I’ve seen the light bulb go off in in children’s minds and that’s such a beautiful thing. To break down these stereotypes is beneficial. It’s a special thing. It’s part of why I do what I do.
J’Nai Bridges, this has been such a delight. I encourage everybody to go check out her website. This has been Speakers Who Get Results, The Relationship Between Business and Art. We’ve learned a lot about branding and visibility from J’Nai. I’m so glad we managed to make this work because you were the beginning of this idea to do this special series in my show. I’m happy to make this happen.
Thank you for what you do as well.
If you have questions, please go to our YouTube channel. Please like us. Tell your friends. Subscribe on YouTube. We have links to all of our social media sites and to J’Nai’s social media sites. I’ll see you on the next one.
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About J’nai Bridges
J’Nai Bridges, known for her “plush-voiced mezzo-soprano” (The New York Times), has been heralded as “a rising star” (Los Angeles Times), gracing the world’s top stages. Her 2019-2020 operatic engagements in the U.S. this season include her debut at The Metropolitan Opera, singing the role of Nefertiti in Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten, and her house and role debut at Washington National Opera performing Dalila in Samson et Dalila. Bridges will sing the title role of Carmen for the first time in Europe at the Dutch National Opera and will make her debut with the Festival d’Aix-en-provence singing Margret in a new production of Wozzeck, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.