Mezzo Jamie Barton Plays 'Waiting Game'

Associated Press: The Big Story
October 2013

by Mike Silverman

Photo credit: Stacey Bode

Photo credit: Stacey Bode

She's one of the most prodigiously gifted singers of her generation, but Jamie Barton has yet to tackle the leading operatic roles she was born to perform. Instead, for now she's playing a "waiting game."

Barton, who just turned 32, has a gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice, a force-of-nature-sized instrument that is centered in the middle of the female vocal range, just below soprano. In her case, that range has extensions at either end — down to contralto territory and up to high C (a note she laughingly refers to as "my trick pony").

"It's a rare voice, the kind we don't hear much anymore," said Stephen King, chair of vocal studies at Rice University who first worked with Barton when she joined the Houston Grand Opera's young artists program. "It's not only powerful, it's beautiful, and those don't necessarily go together in the opera world."

The hitch is that for her type of voice, 32 is still young and her sound is still settling in and maturing. To start performing full-throttle Verdi mezzo parts like Amneris in "Aida" or Azucena in "Il Trovatore" too soon could cause lasting damage and make her what King calls "one of those rocket ships that burn out in 10 years."

"It's difficult for people who have larger voices," Barton acknowledged in an interview at the Metropolitan Opera last week. "I want to have this career where I get to sing all the fun, meaty, juicy roles. But the name of the game is a waiting game at this point."

So Barton has stuck to smaller roles, "where I can kind of build my way up." She made her Met debut in 2009 as the Second Lady in Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and has dipped her toe into Verdi at other houses with Emilia in "Otello," Annina in "La Traviata" and Giovanna in "Rigoletto."

This season, however, marks a step forward. Later this month she will sing Adalgisa in a revival of Bellini's "Norma" at the Met. It's a big part, but lighter than Verdi. Next spring she debuts as Fricka in Wagner's "Das Rheingold" in Houston, and there is an as-yet-unannounced prominent role upcoming at Chicago's Lyric Opera.

These higher profile engagements come on the heels of her triumph this past summer in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in Wales, where she won both the overall prize and also the prize for song recital. It was only the second time one person had won both in the event's 30-year history.

One aspect of Barton's artistry that critics have consistently noted is her interpretive gift, an ability to imbue her words with heartfelt meaning, whether in the Witch's Song from Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" or Dido's lament from Berlioz's "Les Troyens."

Barton credits her early experience performing musical theater during her high school days in rural Georgia. She said she was especially influenced by listening to albums of songs performed by Audra McDonald.

"To me she's the perfect communicative artist," Barton said of McDonald. "You have somebody who can give you the story right there on a platter, you understand exactly where she is emotionally with the text, and it's beautifully produced."

Barton remembers when she discovered Verdi. She was 25, in the young artists program at Tanglewood, when James Levine — music director at the Met — assigned her the role of Amneris in the second-act duet from "Aida."

"At this point of my life, all I had ever heard about Verdi and Wagner was stay away until you're above 30 at least," she said.

But when she started rehearsing, Barton said, "it was the first time I had sung music where I was like, 'This is home. This is what I'm supposed to do. This fits my voice, and fits my body and fits me in a way I had never experienced before.'"

Levine had much the same reaction — with a strong caveat.

"He smiled and said, 'I want you to promise me you won't sing that Amneris in the car, in the shower, for five years," she recalled. "'I want you to put it down. I don't want you to touch it. And then after five years you're allowed to start learning it.

"'And then after eight years, I maybe want to hear you try it.'"

Opera fans all over the world will be looking forward to that day as well.