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J'Nai Bridges will be making her Canadian Opera Company debut as Carmen, running Oct. 14-Nov. 4.Dario Acosta/Handout

When American opera singer J’Nai Bridges talks about the genesis of her musical career, there’s one story she tells and re-tells about the day she chose between two wildly different worlds.

In high school, basketball was Bridges’ main extracurricular. But even as captain of the varsity basketball team, she needed an arts credit to graduate, so she auditioned for Advanced Placement choir. When the teacher told her she had a natural ability, she decided to start taking private lessons. Then, the dramatic conflict: Her very first audition for a role in an opera (it was Tosca) fell on the same day as an important basketball game.

Young J’Nai thought she had it figured out. She’d ask her coach if she could skip that afternoon’s practice so she could go to the audition, then she’d get her mom to drive her two hours to the rival school in time for the start of the game. But when she arrived, the coach had changed his mind. He benched her, and told her it was because she had displayed poor sportsmanship.

“That was the last day of my competitive basketball career,” Bridges says.

Within a couple of months, she’d told her private instructor – and her parents – that she wanted to audition for music conservatories instead of heading to university, turned down all of her basketball scholarships and shifted her focus to singing.

“Basketball was always something that I loved! I still love it. I still play and I go to games any chance I get,” she says. “But singing grasped me in a different way and I just felt, ‘Wow, this is something that I want to explore.’”

This story helps explains who Bridges is: a one-time basketball hopeful turned bonafide opera star. This month, Bridges, 35, will make her Canadian Opera Company debut with the titular role in Carmen.

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Her road to this milestone is dotted with other career highlights: Bridges attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York, earned a master’s degree at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and participated in artist training at Lyric Opera of Chicago. She won her first Grammy for her New York’s Metropolitan Opera debut playing Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten last year, and recently she became one of just a handful of classical singers to perform a NPR Tiny Desk concert

But her story doesn’t quite get at the “why” of her artistry, or her purpose, as a doer who set a goal in what is widely perceived as a white and elitist industry and pursued it. For that, you have to understand where she comes from.

Raised near Seattle, alongside two brothers and a sister, Bridges remembers a home filled with music, though it wasn’t necessarily classical.

“I was always drawn to music,” she says, recalling her parents’ strategy to get their kids out of bed on grey mornings. “It was hard to wake up for school, so my parents would blast music and that would get us going. It was mostly Motown, jazz, R&B – a lot of Black American music.”

That’s not to say she had no exposure to classical music; she grew up singing in the choir at her church, and all the siblings took music lessons, which for Bridges meant classical piano. But it wasn’t until that AP choir class that she realized she loved this style, that she was good at this type of performance – and perhaps most importantly, that she belonged in this space, too.

J'nai Bridges performs at Carnegie Hall in 2018.The Canadian Press

That was not a foregone conclusion. Onstage, principal opera roles are most often filled by white performers, and the works that are performed most frequently are overwhelmingly by white, male composers. Blackface is still acceptable at some companies – Paris Opera only banned the practice in 2021, following staff outcry, and in July, soprano Angel Blue pulled out of a performance of La Traviata at Arena di Verona after learning that the theatre had recently mounted a performance of Aida that included blackface.

The trend continues backstage; according to a 2022 study by Opera America, only about 20 per cent of employees and board members at opera companies in the United States and Canada identify as BIPOC. And of course, audiences reflect this dynamic. So, the implicit message is often: this is not a space for young, racialized people.

But Bridges says this has not always necessarily been true.

“We’ve always been here – always. In the 60s and 70s, opera in America was actually much more popular. And there was a time where so many Black opera divas, women and men, were singing all around the country. There was real diversity on the opera stages. Of course, probably not enough,” she says, adding that there was a time when she didn’t know this history. It was only when she began researching the Black opera singers who came before her that she found Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Shirley Verrett, divas whom she counts as influences.

And now, she’s aware of the space she occupies, too. She has always spoken up about the lack of diversity in the field, even organizing a panel discussion about racism and inequality in opera for the Los Angeles Opera in May, 2020, not long after George Floyd’s murder. She knows what it means for her to be visible in this industry.

“I think people feel most welcome when they see themselves on stage – representation really does matter,” she says. “So it’s a win-win situation for everybody. It’s a win for me to feel like I can breathe a little deeper on stage knowing that I am supported by people that have actually helped me to get to this point. But it’s also that opera and classical music is for everybody.”

That’s one reason she loves the lead role in Carmen, which she has performed six times. She relishes the technical challenges of the part, which she says is “tricky” to perform because the music is quite low for a mezzo-soprano, and she’s a fan of the character herself, citing her strength and independence. Bridges also appreciates the familiarity of this opera – many people will recognize The Habanera, the aria Carmen sings the first time she appears on stage, even if they didn’t know where it was originally from.

But beyond all that, Bridges sees Carmen as still deeply relevant to what’s happening in today’s world. She ties the opera’s themes of power, autonomy, race, class and love to the ways women in today’s society are oppressed.

She hopes she can play a role in helping others make that connection, too.

“I want to be a link in making this art form more accessible,” she says. “I would love to come back in 30 years and see the audiences so diverse, and with age too, because right now it’s mostly older people. I think I would want people to say ‘Yeah, I didn’t know about opera until J’Nai Bridges exposed me to it.’”

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Carmen opens Oct. 14 and runs until Nov. 4 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.