"Knowing how the system works behind the scenes is just as important as knowing and focusing on your craft, in my opinion."
Janai Brugger is an outstanding soprano, identified by Opera News as one of their top 25 “brilliant young artists.” She’s worked with opera companies such as Washington National Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas, Metropolitan Opera, Palm Beach Opera, Los Angeles Opera, and Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London.
These audiences were all fortunate to hear such a stunning voice and performance (and given the chance you should not miss one!) -- and today our Women’s ALI community is equally fortunate to hear her valuable opinion on important career questions and some of her defining experiences.
Which artistic-specific skills have you found to be most valuable professionally?
Patience, hard work, and vulnerability are some of the skills I’ve found to be most valuable to me professionally but in life in general! Patience with myself is truly crucial because it’s a journey that I’m on in my career. Learning to love that journey and to not compare myself to others has helped me focus on what matters. I’m right where I need to be at this stage and will get to the next one when I’m ready!
Hard work is always important. I can’t expect to get where I want to go if I don’t put in the work to get there! As an opera singer, it’s important to really prepare your roles that you’re performing or covering. Doing the research to understand what was happening during the time period the opera is set in, what happened to your character and what is their arc in the opera, sometimes that means you may have to create a subtext or story if it’s not clear in the libretto.
Coaching your role, studying the orchestration that’s under you, looking at the composer’s markings and trying to understand why they wrote it like they did and how you can best interpret that to give your most authentic portrayal. I love doing this kind of work and the beautiful thing is that there’s always something new to discover even when it’s the 100th time you’re singing a role, there’s always something new.
Being vulnerable as a performer I feel has truly helped me in my career. Learning to let go, give into the character and the moment. That’s the beauty of live theatre, it changes every night and you don’t know what your colleagues are going to give you in each scene you share, or how you’re going to be feeling. So, it keeps you on your toes, keeps the energy up and I feel makes for better storytelling when you just allow yourself to be open.
How do you feel your education prepared you for a career in the arts?
I’ve been blessed to have amazing teachers and coaches during my years as a student and as a young artist that’s helped shaped me into the artist that I am today. Very early in my education I was taught discipline, time management, being a team player, and also learning about the business and management of my industry, what happens behind the scenes and how that affects what I’m doing. These are important skills to have, especially when trying to navigate a career that has you traveling many months in the year, not as much time to prepare roles and being expected to give your best each time. It’s all a balancing act, one I’m still trying to master but it has gotten easier!
What experiences have helped you gain business and leadership skills? And which do you feel are most valuable for young artists to learn?
Every opportunity and gig thus far in my career has helped me grow as an artist and be able to take on more responsibilities in regard to the business and leadership. I have a great relationship with my manager and we talk about every role or opportunity that comes up to make sure it’s the right fit for me and works well with my schedule. It becomes a balancing act really and although I’m still learning how to manage all of that, I’ve learned a great deal and am able to make clearer choices for myself. I think both skills are very important for young singers to have as they begin their journeys. Knowing how the system works behind the scenes is just as important in knowing and focusing on your craft, in my opinion. it just makes you more well-rounded and confident when it comes to having to navigate your career.
In what ways has mentoring others or being mentored yourself helped you as an artist?
I love that I had mentors throughout the early years of my career. As a young singer it’s daunting sometimes thinking about if this is the true path for oneself and all the responsibilities that come with it. Being able to ask questions from those who were already well into their own careers, some were mothers even, and how they managed to balance a family and operatic career was invaluable to me as I now find myself a mother and operatic singer! So to be able to give back in any way that I can for young singers means a lot to me. I love to answer questions, share my experiences and journey thus far, and hope to inspire and encourage them.
What has been one of your most rewarding artistic experiences?
There have been so many rewarding experiences I’ve gotten so far in my career but one of the most recent ones actually happened during this pandemic. I was asked by a dear friend of mine, who is an amazing composer, to sing for the penultimate episode of HBO’s "Lovecraft Country." The poem is by Sonya Sanchez called "Catch the Fire" and Laura Karpman set it to music for that episode. It was such a unique experience - I had to record my part in my makeshift recording booth in my basement since we aren’t allowed to gather. So, sitting in front of a mic and using my laptop to navigate Logic Pro and having my husband help me produce it and send it to her was something I’ve never done before! I loved the whole experience of it! The way Laura was able to put everything together with us being apart, was truly amazing and it was such a powerful episode and scene that it was used for.
What female artist or leader has had the greatest influence on you?
I have two female artists who’ve had the greatest influence on me. Elsa Charleston and Shirley Verrett. Elsa was my first voice teacher as an undergrad student at DePaul University. She didn’t let me sing an aria until my junior year of college because she felt it important that I learn and perfect my singing and breathing technique through Art Songs. She taught me the importance of really breaking down a poem and speaking the text. She was tough but loving, provided a safe environment to learn and always had the best constructive criticisms that helped me grow as an artist. She is someone whom I can turn to anytime and she’s one of my biggest cheerleaders and supports me.
Shirley Verrett was an African American international opera star who I had the honor to study with for two years during my Masters program at University of Michigan. Being a woman of color in this industry she was an invaluable mentor and someone I truly respected and admired for all that she went through during her years as a singer. She shared her experiences with me and taught me so much about the business side of the industry. She was an incredible actress as well as a singer. She had the unique ability to own the stage and have the audience in the palm of her hand before she even opened her mouth! Truly spectacular to watch and learn from and I admire and love her so much. She’s no longer with us but she’s always in my heart and I always try to channel her energy when I go onstage, because she had that confidence and ownership of herself and her artistry.
Thank you to Janai for sharing with us! You can visit her website to learn and listen to more. And remember, YOU can be a part of our Artist Spotlight conversations. If you are interested in sharing your experiences with our readers or if you want to submit questions for our next spotlight interview, contact a team member at firstname.lastname@example.org.