Beginning October 14, two incredible artists will take on the title role in the COC’s production of Carmen
, one of the most high-profile roles for a mezzo-soprano in the operatic canon. Two-time Grammy Award-winner J’Nai Bridges will make her highly anticipated COC debut while Ensemble Studio graduate Rihab Chaieb returns to Toronto to share what makes her “[one of] the most brilliant mezzo-sopranos in the musical firmament” (The New Criterion).
Meet J’Nai and Rihab below, and find out more about their relationship to Carmen
, their favourite moments of the opera, and what they’re looking forward to in Toronto. Get to know the rest of the cast in our article here
runs from October 14 to November 4, 2022. Get your tickets here
J'Nai Bridges as Carmen in San Francisco Opera's production of Carmen. Photo: Cory Weaver
COC: What was your first professional role? J’Nai Bridges:
I’ve had the opportunity to sing many roles in grad school and as part of the Young Artists program at Lyric Opera of Chicago, but I consider my first professional role to be with the Knoxville Opera in 2014! I was actually still in the Young Artists program at Lyric, and sang Adalgisa in Norma
, which was an amazing experience at the Knoxville Opera. Rihab Chaieb:
I sang the Third Boy (!!!) in Mozart’s The Magic Flute
at Opéra de Montréal. I was still in my undergrad at McGill University. It was my first real experience in the whole “machine” that is opera. I loved roaming backstage, looking at how people got prepared, how scenes were changed, etc. COC: What was your first experience with Carmen – either as a performer or audience member? JB:
My first experience with Carmen
was actually not operatic, it was Beyonce’s hip hopera Carmen
! I’ll never forget how mesmerized I was...not only by her but the story, and it was so accessible for me! Then, I went down the rabbit hole and watched Carmen Jones
with Dorothy Dandridge.
Years later, I saw Carmen
at The Met, and I‘ll never forget my first experience watching this on an opera stage! It was 2009 and then it was a new production featuring Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna (who I’ve now sung with, which is completely incredible and full circle), but I just remember thinking this production is absolutely spellbinding. This was really when I thought “I have to sing this role one day.”
Then later in 2012, when I was a graduate student at Curtis Opera Theatre, I sang the role of Carmen in La tragédie de Carme
n (the abridged version by Peter Brooks), which I found to be both a very interesting and dark take! This was also an important moment for me where I realized this would be a role I would live with for a long time. RC:
My first time singing Carmen
was in a very unconventional production in Germany. I was ready for the castanets and the flamenco production and all the seduction that comes with the idea of Carmen
. Well… that wasn’t quite it! It was more like G.I. Jane
meets Orange Is the New Black Carmen
! It was a physically difficult production because there was some good amount of fighting, and also Carmen was on stage for the entirety of the show. Watching, smoking, drinking. She was never offstage. She was the constant key to the ever-changing world around her. Let me tell you that this production kicked away any preconceived ideas of what Carmen
should be. Carmen doesn’t have to necessarily be the stereotype everyone expects; she can surprise you.
I also felt that if I can do THIS Carmen
, I can do pretty much anything! COC: How much do you relate to the character of Carmen? JB:
I actually really closely identify with the character of Carmen, in that, I say what I mean and I mean what I say.
Like Carmen, I realize I too need a lot of freedom, I’ve been like that since I was a little girl. I was always needing a bit more space than most children (or adults), so I identify with her in that way.
I also find that when I’ve moved on from something, whatever it is, I move on, I don’t look back much and I definitely live in the moment. Of course, I think about the future—what it might hold and what I might want in life—but I don’t dwell in the future and I definitely don’t dwell in the past. I feel like Carmen is also a woman and character that is just “living in the moment” and I really strive for that in all I do. RC:
Carmen is such a multifaceted role. We all have a little Carmen in us. She is just a modern woman stuck in an era that didn’t suit her. Women empowerment was simply not a concept back then, and she became this mythical warrior of freedom. And that speaks to me. Freedom. In the opera she talks a lot about “liberté,” freedom. I do feel she encapsulated the term generally but in her inner self, she talks about freedom of women.
To me, that is the true freedom that Carmen talks about in the final act: if you cannot let me be me, live my life as my own self, if you continue to impose yourself on me, that is not a life of freedom. It is not a life worth living for. I always thought Carmen walked to her death head high, almost with a smirk because even in death, she is ultimately free, and no one will ever take that away from her. Even if someone can possess her physical body, her soul—or astral body—is fundamentally free. And that is something that speaks to me tremendously. (But not the death part!!!)
Rihab Chaieb as Carmen in Oper Köln's production of Carmen. Photo: La Scena Musicale
COC: What’s your favourite moment of the opera? JB:
This is tough as there are so many favorite moments in the opera for me!
I will say something that does stand out for me is in Act III, specifically when I sing the Card Aria (“En vain pour éviter”). It’s Carmen’s last aria that is discussing her fate of death and how the cards are not lying to her. I feel as though it is a real turning point for her character—there is no getting around it, the cards do not lie and it is only a matter of time.
Musically, it is extremely compelling—I think every movement from Bizet is brilliant, but I feel like this Card Aria, the trio, really says it all. It stresses “This is it, this is her fate” meanwhile Frasquita and Mercédès have this very jovial music that features them gorgeously. So there is a real juxtaposition of these worlds. Carmen is in a different space, she always has been and she’s accepted this fate, and the rest…is history.
In general, I find that Act III is most exciting for me—also Don José’s music where you really see him start to lose it. It brings a new wave of drama in this act. RC:
Musically, it’s the “Entr’acte” before the final act. It has the power to truly transport me to a warm and sunny setting with such fantastic Spanish musical elements. It’s incredibly lush in sound and gutsy! I sincerely feel the pure essence of “flamenco” in that last Entr’acte. Dramatically, it will always be the final duet between Carmen & Don José. COC: What are you looking forward to most while you’re in Toronto? JB:
I’m most looking forward to being in the city! I’ve heard nothing but great reviews and feedback about Toronto—how diverse it is, how beautiful and fun it is—so, I’m looking forward to exploring Toronto!
This goes without saying but also creating art with a new team! Every time I approach this role, it’s so exciting because I get to delve into a different interpretation or different production and team! I love the creative process, so I’m really looking forward to being in the amazing city of Toronto and collaborating and creating with friends, some new colleagues, and a new team! RC:
Coming back to a place that saw me grow (the company and the city). As an alumna of the COC Ensemble Studio, this is a huge deal for me. I’ve spent several crucial years in Toronto. It shaped who I am now professionally but also personally. I look forward to seeing the people, friends at the COC who I haven’t seen in years. I look forward to seeing my many friends in Toronto that I haven’t seen in a long time because… life! I look forward to the fall in Canada, to Riverdale Park, to biking the Don Valley on Sundays to get a warm cinnamon bun from the Evergreen Brick Works. All of these things that made my life in Toronto special years ago I’m very much looking forward to. COC: What non-opera music are you listening to? JB:
My playlist is all over the place, but lately, I’ve been really into Afrobeats! I just love this genre, Burna Boy particularly!
I’ve also been listening to Diana Ross! I’ve never really listened to or experienced her music and I came across a song called “The Boss” that I’ve been playing on repeat. I’ve also been listening to the full “The Boss” album and going down a Diana Ross rabbit hole! RC:
Right now I’m drinking Florence + the Machine. I saw them live this summer in Portugal and it was insane. My playlist is… the most eclectic to say the least! I listen to pop, French pop, I’m feeling Rosalía right now, Latin pop, Italian pop, I’m listening to Kate Bush, house music, hip hop, rock, binaural beats sounds, 70s, 80s, 90s (I love how the 90s are making a comeback right now. I’m a 90s baby so I’m all here for it).
See J'Nai and Rihab in Carmen
, opening October 4 and running until November 4! Rihab will perform on October 20 and 22, while J'Nai will perform on October 14, 16, 26, 28, 30, and November 4.Get tickets today!