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The rising opera star who traded layups for librettos

Most opera singers start training seriously when they’re still in pigtails and knee socks. But one rising star in the classical singing world got a late start because she was headed for a career as a professional basketball player.

When J’Nai Bridges’ pro sports ambitions suddenly fell apart following a disagreement with her team’s coach, the high school senior started focusing intently on developing her voice.

“I like to say that opera chose me,” Bridges said with a laugh, “because I didn’t grow up listening to or going to the opera.”

Now, at the age of 29, the American mezzo-soprano is performing major roles for some of the world’s most renowned companies including the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Los Angeles Opera and the Bavarian State Opera.

This season, she made her San Francisco Opera debut as the maid Bersi in “Andrea Chenier,” a tale about a poet who was killed in the French Revolution. Next year, she will debut at Vancouver Opera as Sister Helen Prejean in “Dead Man Walking.”

Bridges has been hailed as one of the rising stars in the opera world. She has won numerous prizes and awards including the 2016 Richard Tucker Career Grant, first prize at the Francisco Vinjas Competition and a Marian Anderson award. A native of Lakewood, Washington, Bridges earned her master’s degree in music from the Curtis Institute of Music and her bachelor’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music.

“I love the fact that I’ve been given this gift to sing and touch people,” she said.

This report originally appeared on PBS member station KQED. Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.

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