Last year, the opera star J'Nai Bridges premiered a work by the composer Adolphus Hailstork and librettist Herbert Martin called "A Knee on the Neck," a response to the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in 2020. "There were times when I was learning the piece where I just had to stop singing and cry," she says in the new documentary J'Nai Bridges Unamplified, which is premiering on WTTW and PBS alongside a film about the Black country star Rissi Palmer as part of American Masters: In the Making, hosted by Audra McDonald.
The documentary follows Bridges as she learns the poignant piece and considers her place as a Black woman in the operatic world, while also tracing her rise in a career that has included singing at the Metropolitan Opera and winning Grammy Awards.
That career got an early boost here in Chicago, where she was a member of the Lyric Opera's Ryan Opera Center. She is now back at the Lyric, starring in Bizet's Carmen through April 7.
Carmen is a trademark role for Bridges, who visited WTTW's sister station WFMT in 2018 to sing the famous Habanera from the opera, in addition to a world premiere of "O Glory" by the Chicago area composer Shawn E. Okpebholo.
She has continued to work with Okpebholo, who will have his own operatic premiere in May with Chicago Opera Theater. In 2022, she was featured on a Grammy-nominated album of Okpebholo's compositions, Lord How Come Me Here, which used spirituals and new songs to address racial injustice in America.
J'Nai Bridges Unamplified is just one documentary in the American Masters: In the Making series, which is currently releasing a new film every week. On April 25, another documentary with a Chicago connection will premiere. Ethan Lim: Cambodian Futures profiles the chef Ethan Lim, who took over his family's restaurant Hermosa and has begun introducing Cambodian flavors into its sandwiches during the day while turning the small space into a tasting menu restaurant that explores Cambodian cuisine more fully at night.