Western Washington Gets Real: Pacific Northwest native wowing the opera world

Lakewood native J’Nai Bridges is a rising star in the world of opera. But she had never performed at the Seattle Opera until last week. And Bridges showed her hometown what the buzz is all about.

Hers is a voice that is drawing raves across the opera world. So, it is hard to imagine that being an acclaimed mezzo-soprano wasn’t the performing life Bridges had imagined.

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She was asked when she heard her first opera.

“Oh, my goodness, it was quite late for a musician,” she said. “I think I was a junior, a junior in high school.”

She was introduced to this art form born in 16th-century Italy by her beloved godfather.

“I just remember being really intrigued by this sound,” she recalled. “I’d never, I didn’t grow up on opera. I did grow up singing, I grew up singing in the church, Allen AME in Tacoma, Washington. And I was in the children’s choir, gospel choir all the way through high school and singing in gospel choir. And I also studied piano from the age of 5. So, music has always been in my life and in my ear, and in my body. But classical voice came a bit later.”

Still, music wasn’t her only interest. Bridges grew up playing basketball at the academically rigorous Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma, and eventually became team captain. Discovering at 17 that she had a gift for opera meant adding private singing lessons to an already full plate.

“And so, I said,’ I don’t know how I’m going to fit another extracurricular activity in’,” she said. “But I did because I am the daughter Of Pamela Marie Lewis Bridges and Edward Paris Bridges. And so, I decided to start studying privately. And it just grasped me in a way that nothing else really had.”

Her parents still figure prominently in her life. The third of four children, she brought them to the interview. She credits them, and her birthplace, with helping prepare her to navigate the mostly white world of opera.

“Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was kind of always the one, the one Black person you know, in my schooling,” she said. “And I’m grateful for my parents. They’re transplants. So, they’re not originally from here. So, they grew up in very predominantly Black circles and neighborhoods and school systems. So, they had kind of a different bringing up. And they knew that as a Black person in a predominantly white environment, you know, they wanted to also surround me with people that looked like me.”

It has, she says, allowed her to feel comfortable in any room, wherever in the world she is.

“I walk in and I say, ‘I’m here to sing and to move you and to make beautiful art.’”

And oh how beautiful it is!

Fifteen years after she graduated, Bridges was named the 2020 Alum of the Year by Charles Wright Academy.

You can also add “Grammy-award winning” to her resume. She has won two.

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