Soprano Janai Brugger takes nothing for granted — ‘I’m down to earth’

Many Chicago music lovers will remember their first encounter with Janai Brugger. In 2006, the young soprano, an area native, made her professional debut at Chicago Opera Theater as a member of the company’s young artist program. Singing the tiny role of the First Witch in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Brugger stepped forward to deliver her few phrases; there was a palpable reaction. Her sound was extraordinary, round and supple, with an ethereal quality that instantly commanded the space. It was one of those rare moments when an emerging artist evokes the reaction of “That’s the one. That singer is going places.” ’

Today, Brugger enjoys a burgeoning career, performing with leading opera houses and orchestras all over the world. She has sung in every major company in America, from Chicago to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, where she is a regular presence at the Metropolitan Opera. She won great acclaim at London’s Covent Garden as Paminia in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. International audiences now recognize what Chicagoans have long known — that Janai Brugger possesses one of the most beautiful lyric soprano voices of her generation.

Her fans can sample Brugger’s artistry twice this season at the Ravinia Festival, in concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. On July 30, she takes on Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony, which she has never sung before. “The biggest difficulty is getting the language down, because I have never sung in Hebrew,” she said. “But it is just so beautiful. The narrator’s text relates so much to our culture today — asking God about the failures of mankind, and feeling such hopelessness, yet then finding faith and strength. It is uniquely beautiful.”

On Aug. 12 and 14, as part of James Conlon’s revived “Mozart in the Martin” series, she essays the role of Servilia in La clemenza di Tito, an assignment she recently sang under Conlon in Los Angeles. “I am thrilled to work with James again, especially in this role I only just did with him three years ago.” 

“I am very down to earth. All the opportunities I have been given, the great places I have seen — none of this is taken for granted.” — Janai Brugger

Despite her success, an interview with Brugger reveals a disarming lack of pretension. “I get shy,” she said. “I don’t always see myself the way others see me, so I’m just in shock, sometimes. ... I am very down to earth. All the opportunities I have been given, the great places I have seen — none of this is taken for granted.”

Although Brugger is the only member of her family to pursue a musical career, her mother is a dedicated opera fan. When Janai was barely 6 years old, she went to see Kathleen Battle in recital. Of hearing Battle’s iridescent voice, Brugger recalled, “I experienced goosebumps for the first time!” As a self-described “girly-girl,” she was especially taken with the lemon-yellow couture confection Battle that wore. On the way home, she asked her mother how she could get to wear beautiful gowns like Miss Battle. “You have to learn to sing like Miss Battle,” her mother replied. So she did.

Brugger initially imagined a Broadway career. She performed in the children’s chorus of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” with Donny Osmond, and in school productions of “Grease” and “Bye, Bye, Birdie.” Her voice teacher Ingrid Mueller sensed an untapped potential, however, and steered her toward classical repertory. A bachelor of music from DePaul University followed, as well as that COT debut. Brugger then waited two years before graduate school. “That’s normal,” she said. “I tell young people now, take your time, this is not an easy path.”

As a hometown girl, Brugger’s Windy City successes have held special significance. CSO audiences recently heard her in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Riccardo Muti. “That was an incredible experience,” she said. “I was so excited to work with the legend that is Muti. He is a genius. He is kind and gets the very best out of his musicians. It was extra special because the text is all about coming together in brotherhood, and we performed it just as the war in Ukraine began. Muti gave an incredibly powerful speech about it, and you could feel the energy from the audience flowing through all of us onstage. That’s what music is about.”

Another special performance was her debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago as Liù, in Puccini’s Turandot (also her debut role at the Metropolitan Opera). “I don’t think I had ever felt the kind of reception I received when I came out for my bow that night,” she said. “It was so special to be home, on that stage, to sing a role that I love and have people respond as they did. It will never leave me.”

This is an excerpt from a feature published in Ravinia Magazine.