Transcript:

Speaker My name is Jenny Bridges and I am an international opera singer, mezzo soprano, one more.

Speaker Yes, yes, yes.

Speaker My name is Jenny Bridges and I'm a mezzo soprano. Opera singer.

Speaker So why did you pursue a career?

Speaker I pursued opera, actually, because I had a teacher who recognized my gift in high school. She thought I was in high school when I realized that opera was an option for me. I had a teacher that recognized my gift. And, you know, I'd never actually studied classical voice before, but she noticed that I had a natural talent and so suggested that I start studying privately. I started studying privately and I absolutely fell in love with this newfound thing called opera. Yeah. Had you always liked to sing? I've always loved to sing. I grew up in the black church, the gospel church. So I've always loved to sing. I grew up in the AME Church actually. So from a very young age, I would say five or so. I grew up singing gospel and hymns and spirituals. So I've always loved to sing. Singing has always been a part of my life and a part of my household. Actually, my dad is also in the church choir and he's definitely, I would say, where I get my musical gifts from.

Speaker Yeah, that's another parallel actually with Jones. He also started singing and her father was a minister. Her father was a minister and wasn't her mother and her mother sang in the choir. Yeah. Yes. Wow. Yeah, that's true. Parallel. That's true. So true.

Speaker So when you got introduced to classical opera, what inspired you about that? You know, like moving from gospel? Mm hmm.

Speaker Well, when I was introduced to classical voice, I, of course, knew nothing about it. But I knew that my vocal chords really love this new style of singing. I grew up singing gospel and jazz and spirituals, and I love that it was something that I could immediately identify with. But when I sing classically, it was almost as if someone was saying, here, your vocal chords are actually meant to produce this way unamplified. And the first time that my family heard me sing classical, we all just cried, including myself, because it was it was something that we just knew I had I had to pursue. And it's because my voice lended itself to this new style. And it's hard to explain why it's, you know, why why are people good at certain things and bad at other things? It's it's not something that we can necessarily explain. But we know when it's right. It's right. And this is the case for me in classical music. I don't really have to fight or try to sound in a certain way. It's my it's my voice and it's what I am purposed to do.

Speaker You a little story, right?

Speaker So tell me about the process. What study? You know, from from high school.

Speaker So do you want to hear, like, a general process or my process? Because it's so different for everybody? I think yours OK. Yes. So my process to singing opera has been kind of unique. I started when I was 18, so it's a little bit late for a musician, but I was a basketball player actually in high school. And long story short, I turned down all of my basketball scholarships to pursue this newfound interest in singing.

Speaker So I auditioned for conservatories all around the country and local ones in my hometown of Tacoma, Washington, and I was admitted to most of them.

Speaker So I ended up going to Manhattan School of Music in New York. And I've always loved New York. I thought, hmm, why not go to New York, the Big Apple, and see what this whole singing thing is about. So the beginnings of my my career started at Manhattan School of Music. I really knew nothing. I was very amateur and I worked extremely hard. I was at the Met every chance I could. I could be there, you know, scrambling my my my pennies and my money to sit in the nosebleed section and just to expose myself and saturate myself with with classical music. So, yeah, Manhattan School of Music is really where it started for me. I worked really hard and I ended up graduating with the highest honors and.

Speaker Then being accepted to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which is an extremely difficult conservatory to be admitted to, and once I got into Curtis, I thought, OK, I'm on to something someone more than one person believes in me and that this is not just something that I'm doing for fun. So my process has been I mean, I was in school for a while. I did four years of undergrad, three years at the Curtis Institute. And then I was accepted into the Ryan Opera Center in Chicago. And that is a young artist program. And young artist programs are all around the country and they're basically internships for opera singers, where you understudy big roles, you sing smaller roles on stage, you take language classes and you coach the styles of the different operas that the companies are producing. So really, you're just being saturated and exposed to to opera at a very high level and. That was a time where I learned so much, not only about the opera field, but about myself and about really it's solidified for me that this was something that I wanted to pursue forever and that I was called to actually do it. It was kind of I like to say it chose me. I really chose me because it came out of nowhere, to be honest. But I just listened to my heart and I'm I'm religious. So I listened to God. And, yeah, it really is something that I. I didn't choose it chose me, and I'm just I'm I'm going with it. There's there's a lot more details of being an opera singer.

Speaker I mean.

Speaker I like to make a lot of parallels to opera singing in sports, having been an athlete, there are just so many similarities, the dedication that it takes, the persistence, the hard work and the extreme focus. They're so connected, so very much connected. And I I truly think that everything happens for a reason. I wasn't meant to go to the NBA. I could have perhaps. But I was taught so many life lessons through my athletic career and life that just transferred so directly and immediately to singing opera, sports, sportsman, sportswoman ship. It is so important in the opera field you have to work with. It's not just me that's putting on the production. You have the orchestra, the conductor, my colleagues, costuming, makeup. It takes behind the scenes set designers, stagehand's soopers. It's it's really a a production that involves so many people and it couldn't happen without without many different.

Speaker Sorry to.

Speaker Yeah, opera couldn't happen without so many people coming together and working together and really coming to to one accord, so I would say that basketball and sports taught me that gave me the ability to be able to to have this idea of teamwork and that nobody is more important than the other. And I think sometimes being an opera singer or someone that's just in the spotlight, you can get you can get lost in thinking that it's all about me. And a big part of it is about me. I'm not going to, you know, deny that. But I realize that that this is a.

Speaker And.

Speaker It's it's a machine that it's impossible to to be successful and function without so many different. Talented people.

Speaker Yeah, I feel like I can go into more detail about how wonderful son.

Speaker So grateful for it.

Speaker Thank you. I am, and it's I mean, there are a lot of people that aren't and I just that was something actually I learned as a young artist. I saw. Kind of shadowing the stars, I saw stars and people, you know, in these high positions act and all sorts of ways, ways that resonated with me in a positive way, in a negative way. And I I kept note, you know, I thought, hmm, that person person is is saying this and doing that. And I actually don't think that's very nice or I don't approve of that. I don't ever want to be like that. And then I saw, you know, stars of the highest degree just be so gracious and so humble and modest that it really, you know, it resonated with me in a way that sticks with me today, you know, and it's I think it's important to keep that grounding because I definitely want to excel in my career. And that's going to come with adoration and praise. But I think it's important to to not let that be the reason why I do what I do. It's absolutely not. It's it's exciting and it's definitely welcomed. But at the end of the day, it's it's. The music, it's not serving the music I want to sing because it serves a higher purpose. And I'm happy that it touches so many people and makes people feel and. Yeah, opens their hearts in their minds. I think that's for me the most important, but to never lose sight of that in the name of fame.

Speaker So tell me about the criticism earlier you were talking about.

Speaker Yes. Like running a marathon. Singing an opera is extremely athletic. I often feel the next day after singing a big role, like I sang, like I ran a race or like I played a basketball game. Oh, my body just needs a day or two to recover. And that's because opera is very physical. Actually, we are. I like to call myself an opera athlete and I'm always hashtag opera athlete on my social media. But it's true. We are our instruments as a singer, as an opera singer, we're unamplified. And so singing for these 4000 and 5000 seat opera houses, you have to literally sing from your toes to your head and it takes great strength. So I like to be consistent in the gym just to keep my, my my physical strength up because. It's almost like it's such an interesting it's kind of hard to articulate what it feels like, but it's at times it's like you're you're feeling like you're going to explode because of all of the resonances that you're producing in your whole body, not just in your your your face. Your mask is what we like to call it or you're your throat. But it's really a full body function. And so it takes years to really even access some parts of your body because it's it's kind of this mysterious.

Speaker How do I want to say this?

Speaker Hmm, singing can feel very mysterious at times because we can't see our insides. You know, I wish I could I wish I could actually see when I'm producing these big sounds like what is actually happening in my body. It's mostly off of sensation. So I do a lot of Mirah work. I do. I make a lot of strange sounds to just just feel, oh, OK, that's what that feels like. It's wrong. But I need to feel what's wrong so that I'm able to produce what's right. And so. Yeah, I mean, I think that it correlates again into being an athlete, a sports athlete, because you're using your whole body and you're having to figure out a technique in which to to use your voice in the most conducive way so that it produces the sound without straining and that it's clear for people to hear in the house. Yet you are preserving your body at the same time because we all want to sing for as long as possible. And there is such thing as as singing poorly and ending a career earlier than it should have because of wrong technique. So it takes years of figuring out how to. Of figuring out a good technique for you and everybody's technique is slightly different because our bodies are different, our makeup is different, just like shooting a basketball, not everybody shoots the same because we literally have different sized hands, different size arms, different backs. So it's figuring out what the best technique is for your body. And that takes years of of. Practicing and unlearning certain habits that we have just as humans, I take Feldenkrais and Alexander technique, and that's just literally to help with my posture so that my sound production is like the most pure babies actually have the best sound production because it's uninhibited. They don't sit all day or slouch or I mean, they're they're so open to the world. And so when they are crying, it's so loud because there's no restraint. There's no. Inhibitions or life that has closed their sound off, so as an opera singer, it's it's almost like we have to deprogram ourselves so that we can come to this free sound that will fill an opera house. And it's I feel like it's with anything specialized, you have to study so hard and maybe even kind of deprogram yourself in certain ways, whether it be physically or mentally. Emotionally, I would say singing you have to deprogram in all ways so that you are vulnerable.

Speaker And that's not easy to do, especially in front of people to be vulnerable. But it's it's a very freeing feeling once you can get to that place.

Speaker But going back to the physicality of it, it it takes great strength to be an opera singer. We I admire everyone that gets on the stage, but especially opera singers, because I know how difficult it is. It's not just getting up stage in and opening your mouth, getting on stage and opening your mouth. It's years of preparation and dedication to this art form and to yourself, really. And, you know, people often ask me, so you're so thin for an opera singer. How does that work? Because I found opera singers were bigger people like the Fat Lady sings. And I think that, you know, while there is some.

Speaker Frankly, I don't know if I would say that. Yeah, I think there is a misconception of of having to be of a certain size to sing opera, you can actually be any size. It's a matter of knowing how to use your body. So I. I am not a particularly large person, but I know how to use my ribcage, expand my ribs and find my resonances in my face to produce a rather large sound. And I also attribute that to my my basketbrawl playing I as a basketball basketball. You're running up and down the court for two hours. So it's like you have to know how to breathe and control your breathing and breathe deeply. So for me, I came into opera with already having that kind of that luxury of knowing how to breathe because breathing is half of the battle with singing opera. Actually more than half. So, yeah, I would say that that weight is is kind of irrelevant with being an opera singer. It's more of knowing how to use your body and your stature and your your instrument figuring that out.

Speaker I feel like I was rambling. I know it's great to tell me almost in like bullet point form about the high points of your career. OK, let me think about this.

Speaker You know, with some dates, like kind of a timeline.

Speaker OK.

Speaker OK, there have been so many exciting moments in my career up until now, if I had to name a few, I would say I won the Sphinx Award, which is a very high honor. The Sphinx Foundation highlights classical musicians of African-American and Latino descent, and it it really propels artists to take it to the next level.

Speaker So once I was awarded that, actually. Sorry. Now let me back up because I got the Marian Anderson Award, which is. Yeah, that was a turning point. So I received the Marion Anderson Award in 2012, and it was the year that I graduated the Curtis Institute of Music. And Marian Anderson is is someone that has just opened up so many doors for so many people, even beyond singing opera. So getting that receiving that honor was a turning point for me. It was a time where I realized, wow, I am really called to do this. And the fact that she was from Philadelphia and I went to Curtis in Philadelphia and I was awarded with this high honor, I just thought to myself during that time, there is no way that I'm turning back from this. And I almost felt like she was giving me her blessing, which is the most that I could ever ask for. So receiving the Marian Anderson Award was a pivotal moment in my life and career. Also recently I've had some pretty major debuts. I made my Carnegie Hall debut and a solo recital debut at Carnegie Hall is is something that I think. Most people that are in the arts strive for and it's it's almost like a pinnacle moment, not just for opera singers, but for all artists. And so when I was invited to sing at Carnegie Hall, I it's kind of hard to say how I to put into words, but it was it was a moment in which I just felt extreme gratitude. And I thought of all those that came before me. African-Americans and great artists all together have graced that stage. So and an extreme honor, to say the least, of making my Carnegie Hall debut. And I had so many friends and family. I mean, it was a sold out house. I still have the poster in my house that's a sold out. But it was a huge deal for me, especially because Madame Sestriere Jones was the first African-American to grace Carnegie Hall stage. And again, it was a moment that I felt, oh, wow, I am here for a reason. And I feel also that she has blessed me.

Speaker Do you mind seeing the sentence about her being the first stage because they're adorable?

Speaker Oh, sure. Great. When you said.

Speaker Wow, yeah.

Speaker Um, the whole thing or. No, just just the part about how when you had your debut, OK, you don't mind folding it maybe the year you sure you were.

Speaker Yeah. Aware of that. Yeah. Mm hmm.

Speaker One of the highest honors I've received is being invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in twenty eighteen. I made my solo recital debut and I couldn't help but to think that. People that came before me, Madam Secretary Jones was the first African-American to grace Carnegie Hall stage and to know that she had stood on that stage in the hardest of times in America, really kind of brought it full circle to me. And it almost felt like she gave me her blessing as well. So that was a pivotal moment in my career and life to sing at Carnegie Hall. Yeah, and what about those 19 oh, yes, yes, twenty nineteen has been a huge year for me. I've made so many roll and house debuts, one of them being Carmen at San Francisco Opera. It was my role debut, not house debut, but it was my my debut of the role. And it was a huge deal. I think I had over probably about 500 people in total fly from Europe and all around the country. My family and my village come to support me. So that was definitely a highlight that I'm still coming down from. And most recently, I made my Metropolitan Opera debut in New York City singing Queen Nefertiti in Akhenaten by Philip Glass. And this, I would have to say, has been the most exciting moment in my career on an opera stage to to sing at the Met, the world's largest opera house. And and one would argue the greatest opera house is. It's for lack of a better word, it's a dream come true and to grace the stage in the footsteps of some of. The most esteemed artists that I admire, the late Jesse Norman, was a mentor of mine and actually the first day of rehearsal, I glanced at my phone and I I always, you know, skim the news to see just the latest updates. And I walked into the stage door and I looked at my phone and I got a notice that Jesse Norman had passed. And my first thought was devastation. And I wanted to cry and I did actually cry, but I had to I had a rehearsal to do so. My second thought was. Thank you, thank you to her, because I really felt like in that moment she was passing the torch. It was my first day at the Met. She sang for many years and many lead roles at the Met and for her to to pass on that day. I mean, I don't really believe that it was a coincidence. I really felt in that moment that she was she was giving me her blessing. I felt that many of of of my. Ancestors have given me their blessing and I ride that and I honor them and I carry them with me everywhere I go. But the Metropolitan Opera House is it's a dream and I hope to sing there for many years and make. Madam Sestriere Jones, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price, Shirley Barrett, so many of my queens proud, I hope that very much because I am I am there. I believe because of them, I've worked very hard. I'm not denying that. And opportunities have come. And and and I I'm supposed to be there, but I believe that they open so many doors and they made it possible for women that look like me to continue to follow into their in their footsteps.

Speaker What else has happened? Yeah, so many other things have happened, describe the first moment of walking on to the Metropolitan Opera stage in.

Speaker There's room for him.

Speaker Walking onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, my first day, so the first time that I walked onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, I think my heart skipped a beat, maybe three. But it really felt like. I was home and it felt like I I arrived. But honestly, it felt like I should I am supposed to be there and debuting at the Met in the role of Queen Nefertiti, I couldn't imagine a better way to debut. I actually grew up with the idea that Queen Nefertiti is the essence of. Of beauty, of dignity, of pride, and I think having grown up in Tacoma, Washington, we didn't have a lot of African-American and black and African. Exposure. So my parents made a very strong effort to expose us to our history because it wasn't taught in schools, I really didn't learn black history in schools, and I desperately hope that that has changed and is changing and will continue to be better because it's not just black history is American history and it's world history. So growing up, though, in Washington, my parents, they they kind of saturated us with with our history. And Queen Nefertiti was in the mix very highly. My my my parents. There were pictures and statues that we had. And so she was always a part of my life and kind of the essence of of beauty and physical and. Inner beauty. So when I was asked to sing, we never talked at the Met. I thought, oh my gosh, this is it. Like this is what I've been waiting for. And I can't imagine a better way to enter, you know, than singing an African queen and hopefully inspiring not just black people, but all people to to. Access their inner royalty, and I really, truly believe that if we do that as a human race, this hate thing will just stop. It'll stop if we realize that we come from kings and queens and that we are to be treated and to treat others with a sense of royalty and respect. Yeah, the world would just be a much better place. So I hope that in my portrayal of Queen Nefertiti, that's what people see is dignity, confidence, beauty personified.

Speaker Recommend you. Yeah, but not a little bit. Yeah.

Speaker You describe how you feel when you're performing. Both maybe the nerves, stage fright before and then once you're on stage.

Speaker Mm hmm.

Speaker Let me think about this.

Speaker Huh, huh, yeah.

Speaker It's an interesting feeling when I'm performing because it's almost as if I'm out of body, it's kind of an out of body experience. We train so much and we rehearse so much so that once we hit the stage, it's second nature and we not we don't go on autopilot, but it's almost as if we don't have to think much. It's just there. The sound is there. The words are there, the staging is there. And of course, we are thinking. But it's it's almost like. We're more of rioting, the thought and.

Speaker Like Beyonce calls herself Sasha Fierce. I, I, I need to actually come up with an alter ego because I completely turn into another being and whatever character I'm portraying, I like to completely embody that, whatever that is for me at the moment. And so it's it's funny because I have people come up to me afterwards and say, wow, you're so different, you're so quiet, you look completely different. And that's a compliment for me because that means that I have transformed into this character, into this story. And so oftentimes I, I remember certain things, but often I don't even remember what I did because it's. Once I leave the stage, it's like, oh, I've I've turned that off, so it's it's like an out of body experience and it's almost like. I like to say windows and mirrors while I am. In tune with myself, you know, that's the mirror side, I'm looking at myself internally and knowing the sound that I'm producing in the words that I'm saying, we have to be almost like a window as well. So that.

Speaker People are able to. See, through us, it's it's kind of a strange thing to say, but it's it's true we have to be in such a state that we know exactly what we're doing, but we have to let go so that people can receive and and feel and really delve into to the story in which we're trying to tell. So the nerves, I, I have worked. To.

Speaker Nerves are always there, and it's for me, it's it's been a matter of working with my nerves because they're not going to go away and in fact, having adrenaline and nerves is a good thing. So I've learned to kind of cope with them. They're going to be there and it's not a bad thing. I used to think, oh, gosh, I'm nervous. This is bad. My voice isn't going to work, but it's not true. Actually, the human body and voice is so powerful and strong, we can we can do anything I like. I feel like we're superheroes. And so going back to my athletic career, yes, I was nervous every time, you know, that buzzard hit or the game started. But you learn to work with your nerves and breathe deeply and sing through them. And oftentimes they help the energy from the nerves, helps the sound to propel and carry. So it would be naive of me and wrong and false for me to say I don't get nervous because I do. But I've accepted that.

Speaker And I'm I'm glad because I think when the nerves aren't there, it's maybe. I think if the nerves are no longer there than that, that may be a bad sign, it may say. I don't actually honor this music or this. Position that I'm in right now, because for me, the nerves are like, I want to be really good. You know, I want to be good at everything that I do. Of course, nobody's perfect. I'm not ever going to be perfect, but I want to be as close to that as I can be. And I think for me, nerves are also kind of intertwined with wanting. To portray myself in the best way that I can and and and give dignity and. Yeah, some of my nerves come because I know that I want to be the best that I can be, but also to give dignity to this art form and that comes with some pressure, you know, so the higher up you go, I think it's like, hmm, maybe more nerves will come. But again, you adjust and you learn to work with them. And I can safely say and proudly say that. I'm not wanting to please anybody, I really want to serve the music and I, I really want people to. To feel and come out of an opera being better. So those nerves, I have definitely erased the nerves that are like, oh, I have to please people, I want the best reviews because that will drive someone crazy. And I realized that early on and I'm thankful for that because it's it's just toxic if, you know, if you think that way. But a lot of people do have nerves because they're wanting they're thinking of everything else but the music. So I'm happy to say that I have overcome that. And for me, the nerves are just a matter of. Serving the music and serving myself in a way that is is honest and vulnerable and. Yeah, that that really just makes. Whatever composer that wrote the music, proud to give me a call and making sure I was not OK.

Speaker I'm good at making sense. Absolutely. OK, just.

Speaker Every time as it gets closer to its 12th sorry, 11, 30, up to 30 zero.

Speaker We'll have you up for that. OK, I get.

Speaker What happens when you make a mistake? We're human. Yeah, just move on. You just move on.

Speaker Yeah. And there's another way you can take it back. Yeah. And you hope people didn't notice or, you know, because they'll notice. I mean, not everybody will notice, but you literally have to train yourself. And it's been for me hard, but. You have to move on because the opera is going on. Yeah, you have to immediately forgive yourself. And I think that I've learned so many life lessons from singing opera forgiveness, and it starts with yourself. But, yeah, you make a mistake. I mean, and you just have to move on because that if you if you don't, then.

Speaker People see that right? And you're not in the middle of that table for me. Yes, I think you can. Got great expectations. Yes, do you want to ask that or no?

Speaker I think so. I was just curious. Yeah, you just have to move on. What are some of the challenges that you faced in your career as a woman and. Hmm, yeah, that question I read in its.

Speaker Or if there are any and now, yeah. I do want to make an assumption that there have been.

Speaker I know there are in general, there are for sure.

Speaker I can imagine, yeah, it's funny because I feel like we as women have been like.

Speaker Not desensitized, but we've been conditioned to accept certain behaviours, so sorry. I'm actually really happy to say that as a woman and as an African-American woman, I. I haven't. Felt many direct challenges. They are there, that is yeah, that's not to say that they are not there because they definitely are. And I almost think to myself, I probably have encountered so many challenges, but we as women have been conditioned to accept certain things and not fight things that. Probably I've I've experienced challenges that I don't even I'm not even aware of, but if I can maybe pinpoint on something, there was a time where I felt, hmmm. I think this is because I am African-American and it was a production. Of Madame Butterfly, and I was the clear choice, vocal choice for the role of Suzuki and I wasn't cast, but someone else was cast and they were. Six foot and and white, and I thought, hmm, and not particularly the right voice type, so I thought. That's really strange because. You wouldn't necessarily find a Japanese woman that six one, so I felt that in that case it was my race or it was my ethnicity.

Speaker Excuse me.

Speaker There have been moments, though, as a woman, I feel that I have been subjected to to ignorance and it kind of I would say it often happens.

Speaker Oh, that was a particularly loud. Oh, stop. Lot of us from.

Speaker Yeah, I think I can talk about, like the general dynamic of. Of like hierarchy in the opera world. So there's the conductor, there's the director, and the singers are kind of like.

Speaker But like women in.

Speaker Fascinating, even though you are people, I mean, they didn't used to be like that back in like the golden age of opera singers demanded and and ran the show and conductors, but.

Speaker So, yeah, as a woman, it's interesting because. There is an unsaid hierarch that there is an unsaid hierarchy of of in the opera world, there is an unsaid hierarchy in the opera world and there's many pieces to the puzzle. You have the conductor, the director, the singers and many more people. But I would say that I have definitely noticed. Mostly with male conductors, that there is often a treatment and negative treatment with women, and it's clear that women are treated as often treated as kind of less than and it's not something that I would say is is a a regular occurrence, but it's something that I have noticed. And for me, I don't tolerate that. I don't. And I'm I'm young. So it's you know, it's kind of challenging to assert myself. And in that way, but. I respect everybody, I respect the conductor, the director, my colleagues, and I think at the end of the day, if you have that respect, it's not what you say, it's how you say it. So if I'm having a different thought than what the conductor is having, then I simply say. I appreciate your your take on that. What do you think of this or that? And it's not to say that my idea is better, but it's to say that it's worth listening to. And it's also, you know, it's to say that I know my instrument and I know that what you're asking might not work. So let's come to a compromise. So I do find myself, you know, having to. Stand up for myself, and I'm not sure if it's because I'm a woman or I'm African-American, I think it's just because I'm an artist and I want the music to be of its highest quality. So we have to come to an agreement. And sometimes it's actually OK to disagree, but it has to happen like we have the show has to go on. The show has to go on. So I think compromise is extremely important. And the moment that I see that someone is is. Attempting to use their power or their their sex or my voice is breaking the moment that I see that someone is attempting to use their their sex or their. Their status to to demean me or someone I am thankful that I have the ability to to confront that in a respectful way, because it's certainly it certainly happens. It doesn't I'm happy to say that it hasn't happened so much with me, but I do see it happening with my colleagues. And I have seen, you know. People look down on or think less of African-Americans in this field because they might think that this isn't our art form and it's just not true. Opera is for everybody. It really is. It's art. And in fact, in the US, during the time of Leontyne Price and Shirley Verrett, Simon Estos, Jessye Norman Opera was almost pop music. It was so popular. And and Madame Substrata Jones, I mean, pop opera propre now opera was an art form that people ran to. So it's not something that. Black people have to justify. And if we want to go back to the history of opera, it's not an American art form, it's European in its tradition. So for someone to assume that an African-American is not qualified to sing opera is just absurd. It's absolutely absurd. And I've I have heard this before. And I you know, I do experience OK, now things are starting to come. I but I've just been conditioned to. Not think about it. But yeah, I would say that actually mostly the prejudice comes from. From operagoers, unfortunately. Opera houses for the longest time have pretty much look like one thing, and that is older white people. And that is changing, it's it's changing rapidly, actually, and it's a good thing because opera is for everybody and it should represent our community, it should represent America and we are everybody where every religion, every ethnicity, every sex. And that's what our stages should look like. Representation absolutely matters. And I would say that I have experienced ignorance coming from from operagoers. And I truly don't believe that they mean harm. It's just something that they're not necessarily used to. So, for instance, questions like, well, how did someone like you get into opera? And I immediately think, well, what do you mean someone like you? And so I've actually started to say, what do you mean someone like you? And and that catches them off guard. And I think that instead of getting upset, although it may be the first inclination, it's it's not my problem. Clearly, this person has. Some baggage and hasn't been exposed or educated or open minded. Enough to to realize that this is for everybody and that art has no color, that art has no no race, no color. No sex or sexual orientation, so I've actually just started to confront those situations with kindness and I have never I've never received any ugliness or backlash in return. It's a it can be exhausting at times to have to.

Speaker It can be exhausting at times to have to help people be better. You know, it's not it's not necessarily my job.

Speaker However, as an artist, I'm grateful that that my art can it can overcome anything and it can change people and it does change people. I sing once at a church and a man came up to me and said he hadn't cried for 40 years and he cried and he said he felt free. So that's the power of of my voice in the power of song. The power of art. The power of opera. Yeah, but ignorance is everywhere. And if I were to get upset every time there is. Every time ignorance arises, I would be a very miserable person and I wouldn't be able to sing because I would be so clogged and blocked, I think and as an artist, you just have to find extreme vulnerability so that you can express and transfer this beautiful art form. I hope and pray that opera houses will continue to hire people of of African descent, of Asian Latino descent, everybody, because it's it's there's so much talent out there. People are so gifted and we're singing opera where it's different, actually, than than making a film. I can put makeup on and transform into Queen Elizabeth Persay, but at the end of the day, it's really about the voice. It's about singing and the music. So that definitely should and in my opinion, has to, uh. What's the word?

Speaker Uh, not dispell, but it has to.

Speaker What is the word like music has to override? I guess, yeah, the music has to override.

Speaker Any.

Speaker The music is just the music is the most important aspect of opera, and it has to override any preconceived notions about how one should look, whether it be this the color of their skin or their size music. And the voice is the number one. Think it is the most important Inotera, in my opinion. Yeah.

Speaker As you know, this project's name is unladylike because women, Lysistrata Jones were really the. Was to be a lady at the turn of the 20th century. What does this word mean to you? What does it convey?

Speaker Unladylike, that's that's an interesting term, what is being lady like and who defines what being ladylike is? I'm pretty sure man has defined this. And so for me, I love this unlikely lady because it dispels. Any, any. I love the term unladylike because. Throws in the garbage, whatever people think a lady must be, and for me. A lady is whatever you want, it is whomever and whatever you want that to be, sometimes I don't feel like a lady, whatever that is. Sometimes I, I want to wear no makeup and shave my head. I haven't shaved my head yet, but I love this term because it dispels all of the the myths that that we we think are attributed to being a lady. And I think that for me. I just want to be. Confident, powerful, respectful, dignified, that is being a lady it's being.

Speaker A human. Hmmm, sorry, I should have thought out this morning.

Speaker That was perfect. What do you think? I'm going to skip to the historical context, because we're running out of time.

Speaker OK, so much to go home to go over.

Speaker So what do you think life was like for African-American performers like Substrata Jones in the late 19th and early 20th century and.

Speaker In the late 19th, early 20th, in the late 19th, early 20th century, for African-Americans, a hard, hard, treacherous time, I think, for for people like Madame Caesura Jones for her to have reached.

Speaker Did we get, like, the beginning of anything like.

Speaker From Adam, Substrata, Jones and black people in the 19th, late 19th and early 20th century, I just can't imagine. What they went through and for her to overcome such ignorance and such demeaning and treacherous, treacherous times. She is the ultimate pioneer, you know, and. To be graceful in those times, I can imagine it was extremely difficult, but when I think of her, I think of Grace and I think of of God because she had to have had some sort of inner peace to overcome those struggles and.

Speaker Being compared to having a what was she called the black patty like Patty? Yeah, yeah. Because of Adelina Telemachus. Yeah, she she hated, of course. And yeah. I don't have a choice. Yeah.

Speaker She didn't have a choice. And so many things, I'm sorry. To be so gifted and and and so talented in these times as a black person, I can imagine was one of the most frustrating things because you didn't have the support or the platforms to showcase these gifts. And even when you did like Madam Sestriere Jones, you still had to deal with with so much hate. And she couldn't just be caesura. Jones She had to be the black Patti, which was demeaning. She had her own voice, her own gift, her own look. She was her own person. And yet she was the only way that she could be regarded highly was to be compared to a white person. And I wouldn't say that that's completely gone. You know, from today in 2019, I've been compared to actually have been compared to other black singers, which I, I don't mind. But also at the same time, it's. It's it's not the most congratulatory feeling because I still am my own person and I'm thankful for these women that have come before me and paved the ways, but I think that we have to start seeing each other for who we are. Why do we need to compare? I completely believe in giving thanks and honor and recognition, but. We our we are our own people in our own gifts, and we bring those to the table, so. I just can't imagine what she went through and having to sing in concert venues and halls, looking up at your people in the back. Meanwhile, sometimes the orchestra as the orchestra level was completely empty, but it's because they had to sit in the back. It was completely horrifying, I'm sure, and demeaning. And it's like, how do you how do you sing through that? She was extremely powerful and extremely strong. And, you know, I'm completely convinced that if she had not done that, there would be no Marian Anderson, there would be no Simon SS. There would be no Leontyne Price. There would be no me.

Speaker And.

Speaker Yeah, so she she not only changed the the. The opera world, but she changed history. She was a part of of history, and I, I although she wasn't a lot of her, her life wasn't documented. There are no recordings of her. Unfortunately, there is documentation, thankfully, of her life and and what she had to overcome. And without that documentation, I'm not sure. How far we would have come, you know, so it's because of her and. And people like her and also allies that we are able to speak today, that I am here today.

Speaker Could you tell me what you know about her life story?

Speaker Um.

Speaker I know there isn't a ton of information about Suzerainty Jones, but I do know that she was born in Virginia and they migrated. Her parents and her family migrated up north to Rhode Island because they wanted a freer life. Her father was born a slave. So. That of. Yeah, I think it was during the time of like a lot of blacks migrating in the Great Migration.

Speaker Yeah, yeah, yeah. Um.

Speaker Yes, her father was born a slave, so. The Great Migration played heavily into their lives and they migrated to Rhode Island. I do know that she she was able to study classically, which was pretty unheard of during those times for African-Americans. So she definitely had the luxury of studying. And her mother was also a singer. So music was in her her bones. Why did she go to school? Not that I need to say this, but I think GCM maybe. No, I don't. Oh, Boston Conservatory. Yeah, um. Yeah, so I know that she studied classically and she oh, sorry, my mind is kind of going blank.

Speaker Yeah, you.

Speaker Oh, yes, she started with the she went on tour with, like the troubadours, the black jurors, but they the same as the Tuskegee are the Glee Club, the Jubilee Singers.

Speaker So it was called the Tennessee Jubilee Singers, but it's different than the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Speaker But are they related?

Speaker No. Oh, no.

Speaker The manager chose a name that was similar to help promote the marketing because the Fisk Jubilee Singers were becoming famous. Yeah. So it was a reference to the Fisk but. But a completely different. Oh, OK.

Speaker So I especially love for you to comment on all her medals. Oh yes. How. Like Grand Rand. Yeah. She looked OK.

Speaker Yeah. So I know that she, she had amazing training. She went to conservatory and she later joined the tennis. She later joined the Tennessee Jubilee Singers and she was kind of the main attraction to that. And they sing all types of music. I think they also sing minstrel songs, which were, I'm sure, not preferred for them, but it was a part of the times. She I do know I've read that she only saying she particularly only sang classical songs and she had medals. She received medals from everywhere, Europe and South America and the Caribbean. And she often wore them, I believe, when she performed. So to picture that, it makes my heart shine because, you know, this woman who was often denied in her own country could go around the world being praised for this beautiful gift that she had. And even though she was still called the black patte, she she she I know that she made a name for herself and. I think that she also spoke up. Well, no, I probably making that she probably wasn't able to speak up about issues, but I think I did read that she on occasion.

Speaker Yeah, she would get turned away from. Yes. A segregated space. Yeah. We're told to at some point she was actually it was recommended to her that she go in white face that she'd have more opportunities. And she said, yeah, race never. I have. Yeah, she definitely. And that's why the segregation is why she ended up getting her own rental car so that when she was on the road traveling around the country and her getting turned away from hotels, she would sleep on her real car.

Speaker Yes, really? The Plessy versus Ferguson, where did I leave off? Yeah. So she she wore all of her medals often. And that that really I picture that and I just think what a queen. I also know that she often faced. Extreme discrimination where the Jubilee Singers were unable to stay in hotels because of the Plessy vs. Ferguson case, so they had to eventually get their own train, train, car out. They eventually had to had to get their own train car so she would sleep in in her train car.

Speaker And I can just imagine that that was it was really difficult having to be separate but equal. There's nothing equal about that. And I know that she was outspoken at times when, you know, blacks weren't allowed to come into the the the. The audience, she was not happy with that, and she I think she probably didn't accept those engagements, some of those engagements also she was asked to sing in whiteface and she said absolutely not. Why would I not want to show who I am and slap my people in the face by doing that? And I just think. Wow, what a strong woman during those times, I mean, that could have actually been a life or death situation for her, but she risked her life. For her for her people and her dignity and pride.

Speaker What else do I know about her? Um.

Speaker I know that she also. Died without having much money because she she stopped singing to take care of her mother, and this is something actually in the in the black community family is very important because at one point that's all we had. And even that was, you know, wasn't guaranteed often not family. Families were separated. But I believe that that's why we are so connected to our family, because it's. It's a matter of survival, and so she went home, she stopped singing to take care of her mother, which I can actually imagine doing myself, and she ran through her savings and she died with no money. And that's actually really sad. It's not it's not hard to believe, though, if I, you know, had to run through my money to support my family, I probably would do the same thing. So it's kind of a sad ending. But the legacy that she has left behind, I think, you know, elevates her beyond any money and any any sad ending to any story.

Speaker How would you describe her legacy?

Speaker Yeah, that's a good question, and Mark greasier, if you want to play, I feel like I need to just a few minutes I from.

Speaker Yes. How would you describe the scene or summarize? Her greatest achievements.

Speaker I would describe her legacy.

Speaker Oh, maybe that's.

Speaker Madame Sestriere Jones has has left the world. With so much hope, I feel like her legacy is. Is extreme strength. Pride, Grace. And hope in the face of so much devastation and discrimination, she was able to overcome, even if.

Speaker I don't want to wear this.

Speaker She left us with so much hope to to to sing through and make art through, so much discrimination and and people against her. It leaves me with. Extreme pride in who she was and. Sorry, my brain is like fading now, but this is I need to get it together.

Speaker Yeah. Oh, no, but I want to, um.

Speaker Well, how about this? Could could you summarise, like, you know, in one sentence who she was, what she did, you know, the way that you introduced yourself.

Speaker OK, sure.

Speaker Like what she's remembered for. Yeah. And what maybe reflect on why that.

Speaker Is is still, you know, still resonates today. Yeah.

Speaker Madame Substrata Jones. Open so many Madam Substratum, Madam Sestriere Jones was the first African-American to grace a major concert hall stage. Carnegie Hall, and for this, I mean, it not only changed the course for African-Americans in opera, but it changed the course. Of how Americans think it just takes one step and she was a major step in this change, and I think that she left us with so much hope and so much to look forward to because it really just takes courage. And she had that. She had courage, because I can imagine that it was extremely frightening to to to do what she did. But she did it in the face of. Love so much hate, and I thank her for leaving us with that legacy and that opportunity to just be better. So I would say that her legacy is. Is that there is nothing too much for us and there's nothing impossible that we can't do, doesn't matter if someone doesn't like you for whatever reason. If you are are confident and know what you are purposed to do, then nothing can stop you. And that's exactly what what she did. She she was unstoppable.

Speaker And I have you briefly.

Speaker Talk more in depth, you touched earlier on sort of the role of classical music in popular culture, essentially. Sure, yeah. Can you sort of reflect just on, you know, very briefly the history of classical music and this classical concert halls and opera halls around the time that she was like. Just this context, sure, backdrop, yeah.

Speaker During this time, classical music was regarded as a very high art form, and I would say that it still is today. But it was. It was. Directed mostly to the wealthy and the wealthy at this time were white people, so the audiences were definitely not diverse. And this is really Jones, although the best opera singer during that time, she was regarded as entertainment. I mean, she she was entertainment.

Speaker And so in that case, I think that it was easier to see a black person on stage because people were being entertained and. Oh, sorry, I just lost train of thought.

Speaker What was the question? And just the role of classical music and opera. Oh, yeah.

Speaker Yeah, it's a popular form of entertainment, and yet so going to the opera was a social gathering and it was. It was. And it still is actually a who's who let's see who's wearing what. Oh, how. I'll see this person today. But it was a form of entertainment that was very popular during the late 19th and early 20th century. Unfortunately, it it really only was targeted to white people and white people of a certain class upper class. So, yeah, that was that was Opper during that time, and it has actually been that for a while and it has started to change slowly. It's been a slow but steady change. And I actually think that now it's picking up pace because I go to the Opera House sometimes as an audience member and I see so many different colors and ages. And it's it's wonderful because it that's what it should be. It should be like going to, I don't know, a Billy Joel concert or something or a Michael Jackson concert. It should reflect our our country and our times. And art is crosses all barriers, so.

Speaker Yeah, I didn't really answer. That was great. OK, that's great.

Speaker Let me just quickly go back and see if there's any really major. That was beautiful. Is there anything else you want to add that we.

Speaker Um, maybe just like just like this, Jones has inspired me, I hope to inspire the next generation. Beautiful. Yeah. So just as Misratah Jones has inspired me, I hope to inspire the next generation of little brown and black girls and boys, but also all children, because they need to just see what is possible. And I can't think of a better way, you know, of of letting them know that than sharing my gifts.

J'Nai Bridges
Interview Date:
2019-12-05
Runtime:
1:21:32
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
N/A
MLA CITATIONS:
"J'Nai Bridges, Unladylike2020: The Changemakers." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 05 Dec. 2019, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1034
APA CITATIONS:
(2019, December 05). J'Nai Bridges, Unladylike2020: The Changemakers. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1034
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"J'Nai Bridges, Unladylike2020: The Changemakers." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). December 05, 2019. Accessed December 08, 2021 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1034

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