J'Nai Bridges at rehearsal Carmen
J'Nai Bridges at a rehearsal for Carmen | Photo: Milagro Elstak

From dream role to signature role: J’Nai Bridges sings Carmen

21 September 2022

She’s praised for her warm, rich and engaging voice and she’s well on her way to becoming one of the most in-demand singers of her generation. American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges has been referred to as ‘the Beyoncé of Opera’. In September, she will sing Carmen in Georges Bizet’s opera of the same name with Dutch National Opera. This has become her signature role, even though she had completely different plans for her life when she was younger.

Author: Naomi Teekens

“Until I was 17, I was a competitive basketball player. Because I showed promise, I was offered a number of university basketball scholarships. But then I became interested in singing after taking choir as an elective in my senior year. I was following my roots; I grew up with gospel music and the hymns of the Afro-American Methodist Church. Classical music is a totally different idiom, of course, but I turned out to have a certain affinity with classical singing and Romance languages.” The choirmaster recognised the mezzo-soprano’s talent right away. He urged her to take private singing lessons and the rest is history: “I loved basketball, but when my coach made me choose, I realised that singing gave me a sense of fulfilment that I didn’t get from basketball. Deep down, I felt that I needed to follow my heart. So I said no to all my scholarships and started auditioning at a number of music academies. To my great surprise, I got in without any experience and with only the slightest amount of training.”



When J’Nai started her private singing lessons, Carmen was the first opera she came across. Actually, the ‘Habanera’ was the very first classical aria she sunk her teeth into: “I was completely mesmerised by the opera and its heroine. I remember that I couldn’t stop humming the aria while I walked from class to class at my high school. The aria was obviously beyond my technical and emotional capabilities at the time. I still had to learn how to use my newly discovered voice and I was too young to relate to the character. Things have changed, both in terms of vocal requirements and emotional range. I have a much better grasp of Carmen now and that informs my interpretation of her. When I review the material, I ask myself constantly why she is how she is and what’s behind it all.”



The mezzo-soprano feels that Carmen is often misunderstood and reduced to a stereotype: the sensual and fickle femme fatale. Personally, she also saw Carmen in that light for a long time: “While I was at the Manhattan School of Music, I started to take deep-dives into the material of the opera. I slowly started adding different arias from Carmen to my repertoire. And, despite my interest, at that time I basically saw her as a woman who didn’t care about others and lived life only for herself. I thought she was just heartless. But now that I have more life experience, I find that I recognise more and more aspects of her in myself. I can see that there are more sides to her free-spirited nature. I’ve hit upon my own interpretation: her true strength lies in her graceful self-assuredness. And she uses this to effortlessly win people over, but also to set clear boundaries.”

‘Of course Carmen could have done some things differently, but it’s mostly Don José who’s in the wrong here.’


As a mezzo-soprano, you don’t always get to sing the best-known melodies. Carmen is the clear exception: the heroine sings one of the more recognisable melodies of the Western opera repertoire. Of course, J’Nai loves Bizet’s famous music, but for her, it’s mostly about getting across Carmen’s strong but tragic story: “We know that Carmen’s sensuality and free spirit will eventually lead to her demise; that’s no secret. But she’s definitely not to blame for her death and the situation she finds herself in at the end of the opera. She’s clear to Don José about her intentions from the very start. She knows what she wants and tells him in no uncertain terms. He simply can’t deal with the fact that she doesn’t want to be tied down. Of course, Carmen could have done some things differently, but it’s mostly Don José who’s in the wrong here. To me, the relationship between Carmen and Don José is illustrative of one of the growing problems in society today. I hope that this staging by Robert Carsen will make people stop and think and that, after seeing the performance, they will reflect on the dynamics of toxic relationships and domestic violence.” 



J’Nai says that the role of Carmen not only helped her grow up, but Carmen also became a role model that gave her the confidence to grow more self-assured in life: “Carmen has taught me a lot over the years. With Carmen, I took my first steps onto the opera scene. She literally showed me the world and helped me find, shape and understand my voice. But most of all she taught me what it’s like to live for your ideals. To me, she’s truly one of the strongest protagonists in opera. Carmen was obviously written from a male perspective. That’s obvious from a lot of passages and sometimes this can feel very uncomfortable. That said, I admire Bizet and his librettists a lot for the strong female character they created in Carmen – despite all the influential people around them who wanted to reduce her and censure her for who she is: vive la liberté, vive Carmen!”