Things are a little different for Jamie Barton at the moment: She seems very much at home.
The acclaimed Atlanta-based mezzo-soprano is currently enjoying the rare treat for an opera star of working in her hometown as she prepares to perform the lead role of Sister Helen Prejean in the Atlanta Opera’s upcoming production of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking.”
“I’m on the road about 90 percent of the year,” Barton said in understandably good spirits during a recent stop for cappuccino at a Buckhead coffee shop shortly before rehearsal. “It’s great to be able to go home to my own bed at night. Usually when I’m here, I don’t tend to leave my house a lot, so it’s been lovely to explore Atlanta when I have the time.”
But far more than just enjoying some downtime in her base city, Barton seems very much at home with herself spiritually and personally now, too, riding out some challenging changes in her life and learning to manage the pressures of a major opera career. The purple streak in her hair might come as a surprise at first, but it ultimately seems to suit her perfectly.
Barton grew up on her family’s farm outside of Rome, Ga., in a part of the state so rural and isolated there is still no cell service. She first began contemplating a career as a professional singer while a student at Rome’s Shorter College, now Shorter University. During her graduate study at Indiana University, she won the Met Council Auditions, a career-making turn for any aspiring singer, but the year she participated, 2007, also happened to be the year award-winning filmmaker Susan Froemke created a full-length documentary about the grueling process called “The Audition.”
Her career since that auspicious start has been stratospheric. When she won the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2013, a critic for London’s The Guardian wrote, “She is a great artist, no question, with an imperturbable steadiness of tone, and a nobility of utterance that invites comparison not so much with her contemporaries as with mid-20th century greats.”
But during her early years of success, Barton also went through a divorce and came to some difficult realizations about herself.
“I came out later in life,” she says of her decision to publicly share her bisexuality on Twitter for the first time at the age of 32 on National Coming Out Day in 2014. “I spent a lot of my life thinking that no one would want to be with me. A lot of things happened when I went through the divorce, but one of the beautiful things that happened was a discovery of self-love and self-acceptance. When that happened, my scope opened up, and I started to understand that I had attraction to people, not to genders, but people, their energies, who they were.”
Although Barton says she’s enjoyed exploring Atlanta lately, she’s also been very busy preparing for her role debut as Sister Helen.
“Mezzos don’t often get leading, show-carrying roles,” she says. “And I can’t think of any other opera at this level that is so intrinsically about social justice. That is something that’s really important to me. I love opera and I love doing what I do, but to be able to sing about something that every single audience member is going to walk in with an opinion about, that is a rare luxury.”
And unlike roles in traditional operas with their Norse goddesses and romantic heroines in peril, “Dead Man Walking” offers the unusual chance to perform as a real person. Sister Helen Prejean’s close relationship with convicted death row killer Joseph De Rocher became the basis for her 1993 nonfiction book “Dead Man Walking,” followed by the 1995 film and the 2000 opera.
Prejean recently visited Atlanta to speak at Emory’s Center for Ethics, and the Atlanta Opera set up a meeting between Prejean, Barton and baritone Michael Mayes, who will perform as De Rocher. They bonded over fried chicken at Atlanta’s JCT Kitchen.
“It was surreal,” Barton says. “I’ve known about her for a long, long time, and I’ve created who she is in my head based on every bit of research that I’ve done. But to sit down with the woman was amazing. I did ask some questions geared to the opera, but mostly it was just getting to know her as a person, what her laugh sounds like, what her sense of humor is, how she relates to other people when she talks with them. She’s just an absolute gem. One of the biggest impressions I got was that Terrence McNally, who wrote the libretto for the opera, captured her beautifully. I heard her say things that are in the score.”
Barton says it’s especially fitting that the story itself, which is set in Louisiana, is in many ways a story of the South, a story about her home. “There are so many points that remind me of where I came from. The accent, the people,” she says. “It’s wonderful to do a project where you can slip back into where you came from in a way.”