J’Nai Bridges: New Star of ‘Samson and Delilah’

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J'Nai Bridges as Delilah. Photo by Cade Martin. Courtesy Washington National Opera.

Sometimes, things just come together. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges. Delilah of “Samson and Delilah.” The haircut. Basketball. Finding your own strength and style.

Put these elements together and you’ve got one of the keys to the current Washington National Opera production of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’s spectacular but not often seen “Samson and Delilah,” the familiar biblical tale of the Hebrew hero Samson and the Philistine seductress.

People of a certain age (or Turner Classic Movies fans) may remember Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 film spectacle with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr — all hunk and bunk, with a cast of thousands.

Peter Kazaras directed the WNO “Samson and Delilah,” which is conducted by John Fiore with Roberto Aronica as Samson. Remaining performances in the Kennedy Center Opera House are Friday, March 13; Monday, March 16; and Saturday, March 21.

“At first,” Bridges said, “I thought maybe I wasn’t ready for the part yet. But people who know me, know my voice, encouraged me. They said it was a perfect time, and the perfect role.

“Part of it is the music,” she explained. “It’s just the most astonishingly beautiful music. It’s a real challenge. But, as a mezzo, especially, it’s an opportunity to stretch yourself.” That’s particularly true for the famed aria “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” — “My heart opens itself to your voice” (sounds better in French).

Speaking with Bridges on the phone, you can hear more than one note in her pack of gifts. “I don’t see Delilah as just a villain or a seductress. She is that, for sure, but she’s smart, she’s strong, she knows her powers and how to use them. So you can relate to her as a modern character, not just a character from antiquity. And there’s all that spectacle, the dancing, so it’s a very rich production.”

Years ago, when Bridges was a senior in high school, she already had more than a nodding acquaintance with music — gospel, for one, but also opera and classical music. But she was a star player on her high school basketball team, good enough to go professional.

“Life is full of choices,” she said. “I tried to do both things, because I love basketball and still do. But my coach essentially said I had to choose, and it was painful for me. But music was so different, a whole different world, so rich. I loved singing German lieder, still do. It’s in some ways the best language for certain kinds of music.”

“Samson and Delilah” is her first WNO production. While in Washington, some of that world she brought with her meshed with her Kennedy Center gig. “I was asked to sing the national anthem at a Wizards game, which I thought was really cool. I still love the game.

“An opera, a production, is a little like a game,” she said. “It’s a team effort, for one thing. You have to be aware of what everyone is doing — the chorus, the conductor, the other character, where they are and what they’re going to do. Opera requires dedication, practice, constant practice.  At times, you have to let go of your ego. And there will be nights when things don’t quite work right, and you to go to your strengths.”

She’s done all right by her strengths. Already, she’s starred in “Carmen” with San Francisco Opera. She says she was inspired by Denyce Graves, “who’s been a mentor.” Graves has also done pretty well by “Carmen” at WNO.

How did Bridges first connect with music? She remembers that, when her family moved to a new apartment, there was an old piano that had been left behind and she began playing. But, most of all, she sings — not just on the opera stage and in recitals, but in choirs.

The late Jessye Norman, who passed away last year, was one of her heroines; Bridges sang at her funeral.

There’s a certain exuberance in her voice, speaking or singing. On YouTube, that great reservoir of just about everything, you can listen to her chat with interviewers and wow admiring swains in “Carmen,” with lightness and high energy but also warmth and irresistibility. She is, as been said about many originals, “the real deal.”

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