by Brian Kellow
Jamie Barton's full-lyric mezzo has a dusky yet brilliant tint that is occasionally reminiscent of Tatiana Troyanos. Mostly, Barton doesn't sound quite like anyone else, and a close look at her c.v. quickly makes it clear that she doesn't think quite like anyone else. She loves recital work most of all, but you won't find yet another Frauenliebe und -leben on her programs. She's partial to Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Charles Ives, Libby Larsen (Love After 1950). This March, shortly before returning to the Met as the Second Lady in Die Zauberflöte, she sings a recital at New York's Weill Hall, in a program that includes the Croft-Britten Hymn on Divine Musick and "Love in the 30s," one of the lesser-known cabaret songs of William Bolcom. Nothing as standard as "Amor" or "Toothbrush Time" for her.
Barton is from Rome, Georgia. "Not even Rome," she corrects herself. "I lived on a farm about thirty miles north of there. I remember us getting our first grocery store when I was about twelve, and it was twenty minutes away!" But Barton found an advantage in growing up so isolated from creative centers. "There are a lot of people who have lived a career their entire lives," she says. "I think I came to this career with a completely blank slate and fresh mind. I don't have the 100 years' worth of recordings in my head. I don't know the productions that were done back in the 1960s and '70s. I think it gives me a little more room to create something that is uniquely mine."
When she was a student at Shorter College and at Indiana University, Barton recalls, her professors quickly learned they could throw her "into stuff that wasn't quite normal music." She has honed her keen musicianship and unfussy diction at Tanglewood Music Center, with the Marilyn Horne Foundation (Horne called one of Barton's recitals "possibly one of the greatest ones I've heard") and at Houston Grand Opera Studio. One of the most significant companies in her career has been Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, where she sang Suzuki and covered roles in Michael Berkeley's Jane Eyre and David Carlson's Anna Karenina. "At Saint Louis," she says, "they always do a cover run with the conductor, which is always a good fifty-fifty on fear and excitement. Anna Karenina was a gorgeous opera. I hope it gets more play. I think the composers who are most successful - especially with these novels that are classics - are the ones who delve into the text and make the music about the storytelling. When it's more about, let's make a weird rhythm here, and let's have them sing a high F-sharp here, then the audience doesn't connect with that. You have to do something to bring the audience in."