Janai Brugger picked up the phone and couldn’t believe the news.
The acclaimed soprano – who recently signed a nine-month contract to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City – learned she’d been selected as the 2016 winner of the Marian Anderson Vocal Award. Given by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Washington National Opera, the honor recognizes a young singer who has achieved initial professional success in the vocal arts and who exhibits promise for a significant career.
“I was completely taken by surprise,” Brugger says in a phone call from New York.
In the opera world, the Anderson award, which honors the famed contralto who died in 1993, is a big deal. So is a perk that goes with it: the opportunity to perform a recital at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Brugger will do that on Sept. 8.
For classical music lovers in Fresno, however, there’s no need to make a trip to the nation’s capital. Brugger is offering a sneak peek of her Washington concert when she opens the Fresno Pacific University Pacific Artist Series.
She performs at the university on Thursday, Sept. 1, with a good friend of hers: pianist Douglas Sumi, a Tulare native and Fresno Pacific graduate who helped arrange the concert at his alma mater.
“This is huge,” says Fresno Pacific music professor Walter Saul, who oversees the concert series. “What an opportunity to showcase a major artist from the Met.”
Brugger and Sumi will perform the complete Kennedy Center program, which includes Gounod’s “Jewel Song” from “Faust,” Grieg’s “Sechs Lieder” and a series of well-known spirituals, including “Give Me, Jesus” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
One of Sumi’s favorites is Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” which sets to music excerpts from James Agee’s autobiographical novel, “A Death in the Family.”
“The text is a prose poem depicting the typical life of the American South, written from the perspective of a child, which seems to morph into the perspective of an adult at times,” Sumi says. “There is a great feeling of nostalgia throughout the piece. Barber’s music successfully carries and enhances the genuinely honest text, creating a dreamlike feeling throughout.”
Sumi and Brugger became friends at Los Angeles Opera when she joined the company’s Young Artist Program. He was a coach for the program, and they quickly hit it off musically.
“We always had the same connection with music,” Brugger says. “We had the same taste and styles. That’s so important for a solo artist when you’re out there on the road.”
“We had very similar perspectives about opera and training the voice,” he says. “It’s hard to explain, but we sort of just spoke the same musical language.”
Brugger’s career has built upon her experiences with the Los Angeles program and the prestigious Merola Opera Program at San Francisco Opera. She was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and in October, she was named in an Opera News cover story as one of 25 “Rising Stars.”
After extensive travel in the last few years – and a baby – she’s happy to be in New York to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in her first season-long contract with the company. She will perform in three operas in repertory.
“I’m very excited to be in one spot for this long of a time,” she says.
After traveling to Fresno, of course.
Fresno Pacific’s Saul is looking forward to it.
“I believe this will be a wonderful gift for our city and Valley,” he says.
Fresno Pacific University Pacific Artist Series
- 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 1
- University Presbyterian Church, 1776 E. Roberts Ave.
- 559-453-2267, www.fresno.edu/programs-majors/arts/pacific-artist-series
- $20, $15 seniors