SFOpera - From Musical Theater to ‘Lovecraft Country,’ Janai Brugger Shares Her Journey to the Stage

From Musical Theater to ‘Lovecraft Country,’ Janai Brugger Shares Her Journey to the Stage

She walks through the flames that rain down upon her, from burning buildings and pointed guns, from airplanes dropping explosives from the sky.

Letitia Lewis has just witnessed a woman burn alive. A family slaughtered. Thousands of lives destroyed. Protected by magic, she walks through the inferno, cradling a book that holds the knowledge she needs to protect the ones she loves.

It’s the penultimate episode of HBO’s hit fantasy series Lovecraft Country, and Lewis has traveled back in time to the Greenwood area of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the night of June 1, 1921. By morning, one of America’s most prosperous Black neighborhoods would lie in ash, up to 300 of its residents massacred in one of the worst racist attacks in the country’s history.

Though there is bloodshed all around her, Lewis walks steadfast. She stares straight ahead, her gaze unwavering — almost piercing the screen that separates her fiction from your reality. And then you hear it: a voice that glows like fire, cutting and pure, singing serene amid the chaos.

“Sometimes I wonder what to say to you now.” That voice belongs to Chicago-born soprano Janai Brugger, as she puts poetry to music. “In the soft afternoon air, as you hold us all in a single death.”

Brugger, one of the stars of December’s Celebrating the Voices of San Francisco Opera, was scheduled to be on stage this year in the company’s production of La Bohème.

But as with many events in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic intervened. Stuck at home, Brugger was making dinner when the phone call came. A new opportunity had arisen: to perform an original piece of opera for the soundtrack of Lovecraft Country.

It was a chance to reunite with composer Laura Karpman, whom she’d collaborated with on the album Ask Your Mama, based on the poetry of Langston Hughes. Brugger — an award-winning singer who walked away with top prizes at competitions like Operalia and the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions — jumped at the offer.

“It was a humbling, really humbling experience and completely blew my mind,” she says. Now, in a new interview, Brugger breaks down how she conquers her nerves on stage and what inspires her to sing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Your mom was an opera fan. Can you tell me a little bit about how she started exposing you to opera? 

BRUGGER: She always had recordings of The Three Tenors and Kiri Te Kanawa and Jessye Norman. And she was always playing the classical radio station when we were getting in the car. So I just remember listening to it growing up quite a bit.

Then she started taking us when we were a little bit older — around 6 years old — to see operas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. For us, it was not only fun to dress up and go out with my mom, but it was also a challenge because she said we have to sit still and be quiet. If we could do that and get through it without being disruptive, there was always a treat afterwards.

My earliest memory is going to see Kathleen Battle in recital at Lyric Opera of Chicago. It was that moment where it settled for me that this was something special, something I really admired. I felt like she was singing directly to me, being all the way up in the nosebleed section.

And I just had a great discussion with my mom afterwards about how magical that whole experience was and how I knew I wanted somehow to be a part of that. I didn't know I wanted to be an opera singer. I just knew I definitely wanted to be on stage somehow. 

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Did you ever resist your mom's love of classical music and opera?

BRUGGER: There was not much of a pushback until actually I got older. Not that I was rebelling, but I was taking piano. I wasn't really good at it and having to sit in classes, I couldn’t do it. So I started to push back a little bit.

And then of course, when I started taking voice lessons as a freshman in high school, I got more of the technical side of training the voice for classical music. My teachers really wanted me to sing classical. They thought my voice was headed in that direction, and I was 15 or 16 years old. I was really into musical theater. That's what I thought my career would be.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What was it about musical theater that captured your imagination? 

BRUGGER: My older sister's 13 years older than me. When she would come home from college, we would watch movies with her and it would always be a musical, whether it was Hello, Dolly!, Oklahoma, Grease one and two.

And I loved the stories. My first time singing, I was in sixth grade and I got to be Marian the librarian from The Music Man. It was my first time ever being on stage, my first time auditioning. I was in school. That's how I knew I had somewhat of a voice because they've told me, “Oh, you sound really good. You can sing this in the right key, in the right pitches. So you're going to be our Marian.”

And then in high school, my senior year I was Marian the librarian again. It was like a full circle. I got to be Kim MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie and I got to be Marty Maraschino in Grease. So I love musical theater. I was just totally into it in high school.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You were performing at such a young age. Did you ever have nerves? I’m finding I have more nerves now than I ever had as a kid.

BRUGGER: You nailed it. I never had nerves. You couldn't keep me off the stage. You would literally have to drag me off the stage. Like: “Okay, your part’s done. Get off.” It wasn't until I got to undergrad in college.

When you get to college, you're with a bunch of other kids that were the best in their class. So all of a sudden it's like, “Oh, maybe I'm not as good as I thought I was.” All of a sudden, it’s super competitive. Everybody's really, really good. I've always loved that. It makes me work harder. I'm always proud of what my colleagues do and what their strengths are.

It just taught me discipline, to keep practicing what you're doing and working on your craft and your technique. And it doesn't just happen overnight. You may be good, but you can always be better. Just keep honing those skills.

So it was a huge learning experience for me and still is. The bigger the house, the bigger the pressure. I get extremely nervous every time I go on stage. I’m terrified, which is the complete opposite of what I was before. But I just realize maybe this is my own critique. I'm hard on myself, as we all are.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Has there ever been a situation or a criticism that you found particularly hard to get over?

BRUGGER: I've had those moments onstage, even early on. My costume wouldn’t zip up, and I had to go out on stage with my back completely exposed and learn how to somehow navigate that and still sing and act like nothing was going on. I've cracked on high notes during major competition. Or I couldn't get my breath under control.

So I've had those experiences, and it's terrifying in the moment. I’ve forgotten words. God, I’ve forgotten words. I think that's my biggest fear is always forgetting the words.

And then once it happens, it just takes the edge off, like, “Okay, I got it over with. Now we can get on with it.” So it's taught me a lot — to not take myself so serious. I'm human. I'm not a machine. I can always go out with the best intentions and give it my best shot. I can't please everybody, but as long as somebody is moved, I feel like I've done my job.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You found out you were pregnant three hours before going on stage at Operalia.

BRUGGER: Yeah. [Brugger laughs.] That was something.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I can imagine! What’s running through your head?

BRUGGER: I was in Beijing, so obviously I didn't have my husband or any family with me. We had been trying [to get pregnant] but had stopped because I was in these competitions and didn't know where it was going to go.

I had no idea that the little guy was there already. And so I spent the majority of that trip just having a good time and enjoying myself and not thinking much of it.

I don't know what prompted me to try to take a pregnancy test, but I did. Of course, it was in Mandarin. I couldn't read it. I had to run downstairs and ask the people, “Is this strip positive or negative?” And they're giving me a thumbs-up. And I’m like, “Oh my God.” So I bought two more.

They all came out positive. I literally dropped my gowns on the floor. I stopped and I just started crying. I think it was just shock, excitement. I was happy but terrified because I'm like, “Oh my God, I have to go sing still in this huge competition. What do I do? It’s like 3:00am back at home. Should I call them?”

But I couldn't keep it to myself. I knew I had to call somebody. So I called my mom and I called my husband and let them know, and they were elated. We all cried. And then, for some reason, once I got to the theater and had a couple of hours to digest, something changed. I wasn't nervous anymore. I was just in this cloud of happiness, like, “Oh my gosh, I'm going to be a mom.” This is what I’d been wanting and dreaming of, being a mom.

The song I sang was “Depuis le jour.” It's all about happiness and love. It just felt like the right piece to coincide with how I was feeling in that moment. Nothing else really mattered then. I just allowed myself to let go. That was the best feeling ever: to just let go and be. And that's what I did.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Did singing while pregnant change your voice at all?

BRUGGER: It didn't change my voice. While I was pregnant, it was hard to breathe. I had to really learn how to breathe over my belly, especially as I got bigger.

But after my son was born, my voice did change and it changed, as in it got a little bit bigger, a little bit darker, a little bit rounder. But it was new to me. So I had to go back to my teacher and relearn how to sing with this new color and size of my voice.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How old is your son? 

BRUGGER: He is seven and a half. He'll be eight years old, February 1. 

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What does he think about opera? What does he think about what mom does?

BRUGGER: That it’s loud! He knows all my warm-ups now. Sometimes he’ll come in and warm up with me. He likes it. I wouldn't say he's completely enamored with it, like I was.

Whenever I'm studying a role, I play the CD and he's listening to the recordings. He has seen The Magic Flute. He got to see the kids’ version at the Met, and he really enjoyed it. I think he was four or five when he saw that, and he loved it. He didn't like me. [Brugger played the heroine Pamina.] He loved the Queen of the Night. He liked the bad guys more than the good guys.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Since the pandemic, you’ve had to build basically a home studio. What was that process like? 

BRUGGER: My husband records a lot for people as a violinist. But once the pandemic hit, he just literally ordered a bunch of poles from Home Depot and moving blankets and just measured our space in our basement and set it up.

So I'm talking to you in it right now. He moved our microphone in here, set up a table, had a computer and software all hooked up. And I sit in this little space and record. My son even recorded for two commercials, voiceover for commercials.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What?!

BRUGGER: Yeah, he’s making more than I am. [Brugger laughs.]

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Let’s talk about Lovecraft Country. You've worked with composer Laura Karpman before. Can you talk to me about meeting her for Ask Your Mama?

BRUGGER: I met Laura when I was a young artist at the Domingo-Thornton program in L.A.

She came up to me, introduced herself, told me she was composer and that she was working on this big album, based on twelve songs by Langston Hughes.

She's like, “I really loved your voice and would be interested in having you record some of the parts for this album. Here’s my card. Give me a call. I have my home studio.”

And so I went to her gorgeous studio at her home and she's just one of those down-to-earth, badass women that you want to be around all the time. She's super cool, chill, so intelligent and so aware of everything that's happening in the world and somehow dangerously putting that all together in music.

So anytime she calls me for anything, I'm always like, “Yeah, I'll do whatever you want.” She knows my voice.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: We know that the vast majority of composers presented on major opera house stages are men, particularly of the dead, white variety. Did it make a difference that Laura Karpman was a woman in this industry?

BRUGGER: Yeah, I was extremely excited to work with a woman. Up until that moment, I had only worked with one woman director.

Laura was the first woman composer I had met, first woman producer I had gotten to work with, and a conductor, if you will. She did conduct me in a few of her pieces. So it was really special to have that, someone to be inspired by and look up to. I consider her a role model for sure, especially with how she fights for women's rights.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: She approaches you for Lovecraft Country. Can you explain where you were when you got that offer? 

BRUGGER: It was July, I want to say. I was home because I couldn't go anywhere. I think I was making dinner. She sent me a text saying, “Hey, if you have some time, give me a call. I want to ask you a question.”

I called her. We were catching up: “How are things going?” The normal questions. And she says, “So, look. I'm writing the music for this huge HBO series. I truly believe it's going to be a big hit when it comes out.”

Like I said, anything Laura writes and asks me to sing, I’m totally down for it. But she was telling me it was going to revolve around the Tulsa massacre and I was like, “Oh wow.” I had heard about it, but I didn't know as much as I should have known, to be honest.

So she taught me the music. I sat here in my studio and listened to it and the moment it starts, I was like, “Oh my God.” Not knowing and not having that much context, I was just completely transported.

But I still had no idea exactly what it would mean or how it was going to be used or in what scene. I had no clue. So I was watching like everybody else that day when it came on.

And I was just blown away by the storyline. I forgot about my own singing.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You gave an interview to New York Public Radio. And you were asked about working in a white medium, opera. You pushed back against the idea a little bit. I was wondering if you could explain that

BRUGGER: It, for many years, has been stereotyped as only being for white people. Trying to break that stereotype over the years is always going to be a challenge.

In general, you don't see the Black population at the opera houses. And most of the time, they just don't feel like it's for them or that they belong. I think that needs to change.

That day that I saw Kathleen Battle walk out on stage, this gorgeous Black woman, I was like, “Oh, if she's doing that, I can do that.” It's inspiring.

Reaching out to Black communities and bringing opera and classical music to those communities and to schools and outreach programs — the more that happens, the more you'll see diversity in the audience as well.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Where do you see your career going in the future? What are the goals from here forward? 

BRUGGER: That’s a great question. God, I honestly don't know. And it's the first time I really don't know.

 

Learn more about soprano Janai Brugger by visiting her website or following her on social media.

Photo: Kristen Loken Photography, Merola Opera Program

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