June 02, 2021

Spotlight on Janai Brugger

Soprano Janai Brugger performs with the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus at Stars of Lyric Opera in Millennium Park in September 2017.

Since her company debut as Liù in Puccini's Turandot during the 2017/18 Season, soprano Janai Brugger has quickly become an audience favorite at Lyric. Reviews praised her plummy lyric soprano as well as her innate ability to connect with the audience. "There is no doubt, she is a consummate, committed actor with a beautiful, flexible instrument," Schmopera said of her performance. While Brugger's ever-expanding repertoire includes everything from Pamina/The Magic Flute to Clara/Porgy and Bess, she will always be closely associated with the role of Liù, which also served as her 2012 Metropolitan Opera debut.

Brugger conveyed in liquid voice and sure movement both the intensity and the honesty of Liù's sacrifice. For that extended interval, in which a plaza jammed with royals, soldiers and commoners is frozen with amazement and indeed compassion, Brugger absolutely ruled.

–Chicago On The Aisle


The Darian, Illinois, native made her professional opera debut with Chicago Opera Theater in 2006, when she appeared as the First Witch in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas while part of the company's young-artist program. From that moment, it was obvious that her star was on the rise.

Janai Brugger as Liù in Lyric's 2017/18 production of Puccini's Turandot.

While her stunning turn as Liù marked her mainstage debut at Lyric, Brugger's relationship with the company stretches back much further. Beginning around the time Brugger was in first grade, her mother (a lifelong classical music fan) began taking her to performances at Lyric. As a six-year-old, her interest was first sparked by the beautiful dresses she saw on stage — particularly one worn by soprano Kathleen Battle in concert — but soon enough, her own musical talents would point her toward stardom.

Though she was initially drawn to musical theater, Brugger began her classical vocal training in high school. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in vocal performance from DePaul University and a master's degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she studied with the late Shirley Verrett. In a 2014 interview with Opera News, Brugger called Verrett "an unbelievably important figure in my life. She was such a force — such a strong symbol of what it is to be a woman of color in the arts. Ms. Verrett taught her students to be confident — and to work harder than we thought was possible. She demanded that we be prepared and on time and treated us like professionals. She was everything I would love to be."

Brugger with students following a community performance of Donizetti's The Elixir of Love in 2009.

Soon enough, the tables were turned and Brugger was the one performing for hundreds of captivated Chicago-area students as Adina in Lyric's 2009 Opera in the Neighborhoods production of Donizetti's The Elixir of Love. The following year, Brugger headed west to participate in the renowned Merola Opera Program at San Francisco Opera, and went on to become a young artist at Los Angeles Opera for two seasons before what could arguably be considered her "big break."

In 2012, Brugger swept the operatic competition season, winning all three awards at Operalia as well as the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Since making her Met debut, she has been greatly in demand at top opera houses around the world. In 2014, Brugger also added the Sphinx Prize to her resume, followed shortly by Washington National Opera's Marian Anderson Vocal Award.

Brugger returned to Lyric's stage in the 2018/19 Season as the Trojan Princess Ilia in Mozart's Idomeneo. The role held a special place in her heart, as it was the first major role she performed as a vocal student at DePaul University. "Janai Brugger was exquisite. The warm glow and golden tones of her shimmering lyric soprano lent itself to an ingenious portrayal of the princess torn between love for her family and country and her love for Idamante. Whenever she graced the stage, she infused it with the power of hope" (Buzz Center Stage).

Brugger was originally set to close Lyric's 2020/21 opera season in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. While the production was sadly canceled due to the COVID pandemic, audiences can still hear her as Anne Trulove in the virtual concert, Celebrating Sir Andrew Davis, from Mozart to Stravinsky. She also portrayed Susanna in highlights from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in the concert, now streaming on Lyric's Facebook and YouTube.

Janai Brugger performs with members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra in Celebrating Sir Andrew Davis, from Mozart to Stravinsky.

As a fan of everything from Motown to musical theater, Brugger isn't afraid to step outside the box musically. Fans can hear her on the album, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, a setting of Langston Hughes's 1961 masterpiece composed by four-time Emmy Award-winning composer Laura Karpman. She reconnected with Karpman in 2020 to record the requiem "Tulsa, 1921: Catch The Fire" which closed out the first season of the hit HBO sci-fi series Lovecraft Country. These recordings and others are available wherever music is bought or streamed. To see more of Janai Brugger's musical journey, follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Header photo: Janai Brugger as Ilia in Lyric's 2018/19 production of Mozart's Idomeneo. Credit: Kyle Flubacker

All other photos: Lyric Opera of Chicago, Kyle Flubacker, Dan Rest