Music that Changed Me: Jamie Barton

BBC Music Magazine
December 2016

Jeremy Pound

Jamie Barton was born in Georgia, US. Following studies at Shorter College in her hometown of Rome and then at Indiana University, she began her career at Houston Grand Opera. In 2013, Barton won both the Song Prize and the Main Prize at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, leading to major engagements worldwide. In 2017, she sings in Verdi's Nabucco and Dvorak's Rusalka at the New York Metropolitan Opera, to be shown live in cinemas across the UK on 7 January and 25 February respectively.

I come from an extremely musical family – I grew up in the northwest Georgia mountains, and several of my family played bluegrass instruments. My dad started my music recognition education from a very early age with The Beatles. One of their songs would come on the radio, and he would ask me which it was, and which album it came from. I was really in love with the White Album and jovial songs on it such as 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da'.

I started playing the piano at about nine years old, and at around 14 I discovered Chopin. The piece that really made me fall in love with classical music was his Nocturne No. 21. I remember asking for Chopin CDs for Christmas, and got one called Chopin and Champagne. Hilarious as the title is, most of the recordings on it were by Claudio Arrau, and I remember listening to Nocturne No. 21 again and again. There are so many pieces by Chopin that I'd love to be able to play, such as his F major Ballade.

I sang in a choir and musical theatre shows at high school, but in terms of solo singing it was only at Shorter College that I decided I wanted to go into vocal performance. A couple of months into my second year, I was awarded a place in a competition, which I won. For the competition I sang Brahms's 'Von ewiger Liebe', which I still have a massive affection for – you get to live through three characters as you sing it, and it's beautifully structured.

After Shorter, I went to Indiana University where, in my third year, my teacher insisted that I enter the Metropolitan Opera and Houston Grand Opera competitions and that I also apply for the mezzo Marilyn Horne's masterclasses at Carnegie Hall. It went well, as I won the Met competition, came third in Houston, and Marilyn offered me the opening slot in her recital series for the following year! Marilyn is a wonderful teacher – she's formidable and scary, yes, but in a good way. The first time we worked together, I sang 'Urlicht' from Mahler's Second Symphony and it was an intense, emotional experience. Since then, I've taken all of my bel canto roles to her. It was also in my masterclass with her that I heard others singing songs by Duparc, and I thought 'What beautiful music!'. I bought mezzo Sarah Walker and baritone Thomas Allen's Duparc disc and played it constantly.

It was in 2010, when I was singing Second Norn in Götterdämmerung in Munich, that I heard Nina Stemme sing the Immolation Scene. It was at that moment that I suddenly found my great love in opera – all of a sudden, here was Wagner. The bass-baritone Iain Patterson introduced me to Daniel Barenboim's recording of the Ring cycle and it has remained my favourite. I'm just built to sing Wagner – I can roll out of bed and sing Fricka, and it's a happy day for me.

I first tried to enter the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in 2009 and didn't get in; likewise in 2011. And then in 2013 I did get in, and it turned out to be my year. As so much of what I do and love is art song, I sang the middle song for Elgar's Sea Pictures in the first heat and Sibelius's 'Var det en dröm?' in the final – many singers, in contrast, choose to do opera arias in the rounds with orchestra.

Going into the competition, I didn't have a very full engagement diary at all, but Cardiff changed that completely. Now, the trick is to not overschedule myself, which is a lovely thing to have to manage. One engagement that did come as a result of Cardiff was singing last spring in Verdi's Nabucco at Covent Garden... with Plácido Domingo as my dad. That was one of those moments when I thought 'How has this happened to a girl from Rome, Georgia?'!