If you’re an opera lover in Chicago, you are getting pretty used to seeing emerging soprano Janai Brugger on stage. From Lyric Opera to Grant Park Orchestra to Harris Theater for Music and Dance, in the past couple of seasons, she has made Chicago a regular stop on her seemingly non-stop schedule. Her roles and concert performances have dazzled audiences with her warm, luxuriant tone and a stage presence whose magnetism could pull the Earth out of its axis if she’s not careful.
She’s the 2012 winner of Placido Domingo’s prestigious Operalia competition and of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She earned the 2012 Marian Anderson Vocal Award and was named by Opera News as one of the 25 “brilliant young artists” in 2015, so it’s no wonder she’s taking the world’s most prestigious stages like Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden by storm. However, there’s something special about a hometown artist who grew up in the Windy City dreaming of the career Brugger now has. She’ll return next to a Chicago stage when she performs with pianist Martin Katz in recital for the art song progenitor Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago this spring. I had a chance to pose a few questions to the busy soprano, and for someone whose career is soaring, I found her as grounded as they come.
With such a busy career, you have made many exciting debut appearances around the world. This season you make your Salzburg Festival debut with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. What will you remember most from that experience?
What I remember most about my experience at the Salzburg Festival was the sheer beauty of the city! It is absolutely one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever visited, very vibrant and full of life. It was neat to be a part of such a well known and well attended festival of this caliber, everyone knows about it and comes from all over the world to attend. I enjoyed very much working with the people there who run the festival and of course performing with Teodor Curentzis and Music Aeterna on such an iconic piece such as the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. It was overall just an incredible experience and a place I’d love to visit and perform in again in the near future!
Being a Chicago area native, it’s always very special when an artist debuts in some of their hometown’s most venerated venues. How special was it for you to sing for the first time on the Lyric Opera stage?
Oh gosh there aren’t enough words to really describe what it was like to finally sing onstage at the Lyric Opera Chicago for the first time! It was literally a dream come true and very emotional for me and for my family. I grew up going to operas and concerts there with my mother, so to actually get to step out there and sing was unforgettable and incredible experience I will treasure forever.
One aspect of having such a busy singing schedule is managing practice. How does one manage the commitment to practice with such a growing career?
Practice is something you just have to do and make time for. I don’t do it everyday, but if I’m learning new roles then I’m pretty good at setting aside time to study and then coach and go over with my voice teacher. It’s not always easy, because sometimes I’m on the road or in a different production and having to learn something new for the next gig at the same time. So it can be tricky and stressful, but I try hard to use my time wisely and as best as I can so that I can get things learned in a timely fashion.
Speaking of practice, how do you manage to balance such a prolific repertoire. Just this season’s performances alone attest to the diversity of your repertoire. Tell me how you navigate integrating new works, both new music and new to your repertoire, into your schedule?
Usually opera singers get booked years in advance for different gigs, so I try to leave space in my schedule for time with my family but also to learn new pieces/roles, so that I don’t get stuck singing the same repertoire for too long. There are some roles that I’ll never get tired of though and will sing until someone tells me I can’t anymore (laughs). But, keeping my mind fresh and challenging myself technically comes from learning new songs, oratorio works and different roles. You just have to make the time for it, even when busy and even if it’s only for a short amount of time everyday. If it’s important to you, then you find the time to incorporate the practice and focus.
You sing Susanna in the Marriage of Figaro this season. It is such an iconic role, one that is deceptively difficult. What are some of the biggest challenges in approaching a role that is packed with the most wonderful melodies and yet is surrounded by such high level of farce?
Singing Susanna is challenging for many reasons, one being because it is such a well known piece and done all over the world, people have high expectations and get accustomed to seeing it done a certain way. For me, it’s remembering all the words! Also, I had to learn very early how to pace myself throughout so that I’m not exhausted by the time I get to sing Deh vieni, non tardar in the fourth act. The seriousness in the role along with the comedy I believe is perfectly shaped in the way Mozart composed the music. There are little subtleties that are in there to let you know exactly how this character is feeling about the situation that they’re in, which is one of the things I love about Mozart!
What do you think it is about Mozart's vocal repertoire that has maintained its popularity over the centuries with powerhouses like Verdi and Puccini to compete with on the operatic stage?
Mozart repertoire is so relatable, I feel, to most people. We can all identify in some way with the characters. I feel there’s always a message in his operas that makes us think. I find his melodies to be profound and beautiful without going over the top. I feel there’s an arc for each his characters, which makes for great story telling. One of things that I love most about Mozart’s music is that it leaves us so exposed musically and technically! It’s nerve wracking of course, but it’s such an incredible way of expression!
You’ll sing this spring in the Collaborative Artist Institute of Chicago’s Spring Concert Series. How important is it for an artist like yourself with so many rich opportunities on operatic and symphonic stages to maintain a commitment to chamber song repertoire in terms of their own development as an artist of range?
At DePaul, my teacher at the time felt it really important that I learn my technique by singing art songs instead of arias. So, I didn’t really sing my first aria until my junior year in undergrad. I value that lesson so much, especially now as my career has grown. Art songs really make you have to be the story teller in such an intimate setting. You’re not hiding behind costumes, props, and scenery. It’s just you and your pianist working together to tell the story and takes a different kind of focus to maintain. It’s such a special way of connecting and communicating even more with your audience and introducing important composers that many people may not know of. Art songs will always be of importance to me and for my career and something that I hope to do more of as my career expands.
Tell me about the emotional arc of your program for CAIC this spring. Do the works relate in any way?
My program is mainly just songs that I love to sing, songs whose poetry I connect to or was moved by, and the common denominator is stunning music throughout. I didn’t go for a theme this time around but instead we put together music that an audience can connect to and relax and enjoy listening to.
With such a busy schedule, what do you do to relax away from the concert stage and the practice studio?
I love to read, go to the library, get lunch with friends and catch up and binge watch my favorite shows on Netflix, like Game of Thrones.
How do you cope with the difficulties of constant travel?
Traveling is obviously a huge part of an operatic career, and I love to travel and explore other cities and countries. I try to always leave some space in between my gigs so that I can be with my family and also to reboot.
What’s your favorite part of coming back home to the Chicago area?
My favorite part about coming home is being with my family and sleeping in my own bed.
Your artistic home, Los Angeles Opera, is a far cry from the cold winters of Chicago. Tell me, which climate do you prefer?
I love the seasons Chicago offers but the winter lasts way too long for me, so I’d have to say I prefer the LA climate for sure (laughs).
And what is your favorite guilty passion?
Watching CSI or other crime TV shows, I’ve always been fascinated by that stuff.
Who were your earliest inspirations as a young music student music considering a path in the field?
My earliest inspirations as a young music student was Kathleen Battle, Placido Domingo, Leontyne Price, Jesse Norman, Marion Anderson, Kiri Te Kanawa, Audrey McDonald and Pavarotti.
Typically artists carry in their own performances elements/traits of those who inspired them early on. What trait(s) of the artist(s) that inspired you early on do you see in your own music today?
I had the pleasure of having Shirley Verrett as my voice teacher in grad school for two years and I’d say it is (her) traits I admire and what inspires my artistry today. She had a way of commanding the stage before even opening her mouth to sing and that was something I appreciated and was moved by. She was a phenomenal actress as well and I try to always dive deeper into my characters like she did and bring them to life onstage.
You can hear Janai Brugger when she performs a diverse program on May 8 at Gannon Concert Hall for the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago. Visit CAIChicago.org for tickets or more information.
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LUMINARY: Q&A with Acclaimed Soprano Janai Brugger
Chicago native to perform recital under auspices of Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago this spring.
Rising soprano Janai Brugger (photo by Dario Acosta).