J’Nai Bridges and Drogen the horse rehearse for San Francisco Opera’s “Carmen.” (Courtesy J’Nai Bridges)

Mezzo J’Nai Bridges prepares to score in ‘Carmen’

Singer uses basketball training to ready for role debut with S.F. Opera

When J’Nai Bridges makes her role debut as Carmen in San Francisco Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s opera this week, her years of voice lessons will have been only part of the essential preparation.

Bridges, 32, has a skyrocketing career in opera, but she started off as a promising basketball player in Washington. She rejected scholarships from several universities, choosing singing instead. She attended the Manhattan School of Music, the Curtis Institute of Music and had a three-year residency in Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center.

She says she’s been looking forward to “Carmen” for more than the obvious reasons, and ones related to the NBA: “I knew the chances of the Warriors making the finals was quite high and being in a playoff basketball atmosphere is something that I love.”

Her favorite was her hometown team Seattle SuperSonics, but when they moved to Oklahoma and became the Oklahoma City Thunder, her loyalty remained only with Kevin Durant, who conveniently now plays with the Warriors.

Through the years, Bridges has maintained an intense physical regimen, which is paying off as she portrays an explosive opera heroine: “I knew that this role was a vocal marathon, but I did not quite anticipate how much of a physical marathon it is as well,” Bridges said during rehearsals in the Opera House.

“I am thankful for my athletic background and consistent activity in the gym because it is certainly assisting me and to a large degree saving me,” she says, adding, “I call this the Beyoncé role of opera because one must be able to sing and dance at the same time, which is much harder than it looks.”

Add to that riding a horse onstage. In Francesca Zambello’s production, the bullfighter Escamillo (bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen) rides the horse, which Carmen gets to pet; but she graduates to side-saddle in Act 4, as well as displays the fruits of instruction in French, flamenco and castanet playing.

Bridges, known to San Francisco audiences from acclaimed performances as Bersi in Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier” and Josefa Segovia in John Adams’ “Girls of the Golden West,” has always been fascinated by the opera and the character.

“Carmen has been in my life since I first started to sing classically. My very first voice teacher, Jill Goodman, introduced to me to the Habanera when I was 16. I was much too young to sing the aria, but Jill was wisely putting it into my mind and body. She knew I would one day sing the role and I am eternally grateful to her. She will be in the War Memorial for my debut,” she says.

Bridges is also impressed by the significance of the irrepressible heroine in the age of #MeToo; she says Carmen is someone “many women strive to be more like, and is now being seen as a symbol of universal womanhood.”

Bridges isn’t the only singer making a role debut in Zambello’s production, which also has been mounted by Opera Australia, Royal Opera Covent Garden and Norwegian National Opera. Tenor Matthew Polenzani makes his first appearance as Don José and Romanian soprano Anita Hartig is making her San Francisco Opera debut as Micaëla.

Former San Francisco Symphony resident conductor James Gaffigan leads the orchestra for most performances, except on June 20, when Michelle Merrill takes the podium in her SFO debut.

IF YOU GO

Carmen

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. June 5, June 11, June 14, June 20, June 26, June 29; 2 p.m. June 23

Tickets: $26 to $418

Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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