When the mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges shows up at the Civic Opera House for our interview, she’s lugging a huge empty duffel bag to clean out her stuff. She has just completed her third of three years at The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, Lyric Opera’s training program for young singers. And one place she’ll soon pack for (probably in a different bag) is Wales, where she’ll compete as one of 20 semifinalists in the BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition.
Bridges, 28, came to Chicago in May of 2012 to join the Ryan Center, immediately jumping aboard a speeding train of vocal coaching and repertoire drilling. By early September, she was on stage at Millennium Park singing Carmen in Carmen, as Lyric mounted the opera’s complete Act Four for its annual Stars of Lyric Opera free concert. A whirlwind opera life: Just over three months in, and already dying on stage. “That set the tone of my whole time here,” Bridges says, “a really high tone.”
Ryan Center singers butter their bread singing down-the-card roles and understudying the big roles in Lyric’s mainstage productions. Bridges started right off with one of the small roles, singing the Second Maid (of five) in Richard Strauss’s Elektra to open Lyric’s 2012–13 season. Lyric works the Ryan Center singers hard in filling their heads with parts. “My repertoire is huge now,” Bridges says. “I’ve learned 15 roles. I’ve performed 10.”
During the season, the young singers rub elbows with the crème de la crème of the opera world, attending master classes with the likes of Renée Fleming, Ana María Martínez, and Lyric’s music director, Sir Andrew Davis. “I worked with Anne Sofie von Otter,” Bridges says, referring to the legendary mezzo-soprano she understudied for in Capriccio, in what Lyric calls a buddy coaching. “It’s so invaluable.” She also mentions getting German and French diction help from the baritone Bo Skovhus, a world-class singer with several Lyric productions on his resumé who shared the Pritzker Pavilion stage with her for a Beyond the Aria show.
The schedule allows the singers few breaks, but Bridges managed to sneak in a starring role in Norma at Knoxville Opera this past April and Carmen—the whole thing—in Finger Lakes Opera’s debut show, in upstate New York. She also snuck in enough auditioning to line up a performance of Ravel’s Chansons madécasses with Yo-Yo Ma and the CSO, a Beethoven 9 in Los Angeles, and Madama Butterfly’s attendant Suzuki twice, at Wolf Trap and in San Diego.
Not to mention the Cardiff Singer of the World in June. She and 19 other aspirants will be winnowed to five for the finals in both the main prize and the song prize, awards won in the past by big names such as Karita Mattila and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Bridges has gotten the lowdown on the competition from Jamie Barton, who won both prizes in 2013 and whom Bridges understudied at Lyric in both Anna Bolena and Die Meistersinger. “I’d call her a mentor,” she says. “She’s helping me with the inside of what [Cardiff] is actually like.”
After that, it's the great unknown, untethered to programs and institutions. “I’m a little nervous, not gonna lie,” she says. Maybe nervous, but packed and ready to go.