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This Mezzo Soprano Makes Watching An Opera All In Sanskrit Completely Worth It

J'Nai Bridges performs in the L.A. Opera production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha.
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By Jonathan Shifflett & Steven Cuevas with Marialexa Kavanaugh

J'Nai Bridges was a star athlete with multiple basketball scholarship offers -- but she was feeling a pull toward music.

Bridges is gifted with a rich, powerful singing voice -- a mezzo soprano, ideal for opera. Now 31, she's already appeared in opera houses across the U.S. and Europe.

"[Her voice is] incredibly colorful and she's got an enormous range," L.A. Opera resident conductor Grant Gershon said. "It's the reason why every opera company and every orchestra around wants to have her."

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The L.A. Opera has her in a production of Satyagraha, the 1979 Philip Glass opera, sung entirely in Sanskrit. Gershon directs the show.

"Once you kind of let go of the idea that this is not a traditional opera, that you're not going to have subtitles, that you're not going to understand Sanskrit -- maybe someone will, but most people won't -- and you kind of just let the music take over you, it's really just a big meditation" Bridges said before an afternoon Satyagraha rehearsal.

The similarities between her musical career and her athletic background are shocking, according to Bridges.

"I always say that I still am an athlete, because sometimes after having sung a big role on stage, I feel like 'Wow, I just ran a 5K,'" Bridges said. "I mean the discipline is exactly the same. I used to get up before school at 5 a.m., practice, go to school, then practice afterwards."

The opera tells the story of Mahatma Gandhi's early years as he developed his philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience, which he dubbed "Satyagraha," or "truth force." Bridges portrays Kasturba, Gandhi's wife and political partner.

The marriage was arranged during their early adolescence, and though it took a backseat to Gandhi's spiritual practice, they remained together for more than 60 years. This unfaltering loyalty at times made the role challenging for Bridges.

"My character, I'm supposed to be in the background. I wouldn't say that I typically embody that in real life," Bridges said. "But while she is submissive, she has this great strength to her, which influences I think everybody on stage -- especially Gandhi. He feels, and I think in real life, that he felt he always had this rock."

Critics of Philip Glass's compositions often comment on their repetitiveness. For Bridges, this was a strength.

"You have to be so aware of where you are at all times -- otherwise, you really can get lost," she said. "It might not seem difficult to the listener's ears because the repetition kind of puts you in this meditative state and it seems like it's just flowing and easy. That's a great thing, if we can make that come across -- but it's demanding."

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That same discipline that made her a success as an athlete has brought her where she is as a singer, according to Bridges.

"You have to be able to work with people, and you know it's easy to get into your own world and become a little bit selfish," Bridges said. "In fact, I think you do have to be a bit selfish in this career. But at the same time, you have to be able to work with people and be empathetic and open, and you have to really take care of yourself."

The L.A. Opera's production of Satyagraha is now playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

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