The Path to Glory

BBC Music Magazine
June 2015

Interview with Helen Wallace

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World is generally acknowledged to be the vocal competition to win. As this year's finalists gear up for another thrilling contest, the 2013 winner, mezzo Jamie Barton, offers them valuable advice.

Photo by Brian Tarr

Photo by Brian Tarr

American mezzo Jamie Barton won both Main and Song Prizes at the last Cardiff Singer of the World in 2013. No stranger to success, she'd already won the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and been a member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio from 2007-9. Since winning she'd sung at the Met, the Lyric Opera in Chicago, and is playing Fricka in Houston's Ring. She makes her BBC Proms debut this summer in Brahms's Alto Rhapsody. Here are her tips for Cardiff success...

Try everything out at least two weeks before
I performed all of my pieces in two separate recitals before the competition, and tried out every dress. Nerves can produce mistakes you never knew you could make, so it's important to discover what they are before the competition. Nicole Cabell, who won in 2005, had warned me that once you're in Cardiff, it's busy and exhausting, so you need to have prepared fully before you arrive.

Remember, you are on television!
I was fortunate in having had some experience of TV cameras when I was involved in a documentary about the Met Opera Auditions. It was intrusive being followed by cameras, but exciting too, and at 25 I liked the idea of being in a movie. By the time I came to Cardiff I was 30, and realised that you need to suss out how footage might be used, and manage it in a way that's good for you. Because the BBC's approach is based on interviews, it offers you a great opportunity to draw people in, so think about your choice of words: what might leap out and communicate? Get your head around how you want to present yourself, but be true to the real you. There's room in this world for all sorts of people!

Research your repertoire
I spent a lot of time going through what had been sung in past competitions and working out what I could bring that was a little different. Art song is like tapas: use each song to show different languages and musical styles; make sure it will move you, stretch you and show you in a different light. I noticed that Rachmaninov's "Spring Waters" was sung in every competition, so I chose his "I wait for you" instead. The songs I brought ranged from Purcell, Brahms and Schubert to Sibelius, Duparc and Ives.

Try something that will show your potential
I sang the Witch's aria from Humperdinck's Hänsel and Gretel because I knew it so well; I could roll out of bed and deliver it. But I also picked one of Princess de Bouillon's arias from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvrer which is a role I won't be singing for years, but I wanted to show them where I'm heading.

Keep well
When I arrived in Cardiff I met Bryan Terfel backstage after a concert, and he said, "Get thee to an apothecary! Dose yourself up with vitamin C, zinc and water – have them for breakfast!" Getting enough sleep was really important too: it's exhausting living on the upper edge of your nerves. One of the biggest challenges of being an opera singer is staying well when travelling. On long flights, where the air is dry and recycled, I wear a contraption called a Humidiflyer, which prevents me losing moisture from my own breathing. But it's also important not to obsess over health, and to try and enjoy yourself.

Get on with your fellow competitors
Some singers need to go into lock-down mode in order to sing at their best, some are happier being sociable. I made some good friends there, and was so touched when those who didn't get through to the final round came up to me and said "We're rooting for you" – that was incredibly generous. The thing to remember is that any finalist in that competition is already a potential future colleague, so behave with respect.

Say 'no' more than you say 'yes'
The exposure the competition gives you will open doors and produce lots of offers. The golden rule is to be conservative about what you take on. Kiri Te Kanawa's advice to me was to "Say 'no' more than you say 'yes'." I've been blessed to have wonderful voice teachers, and excellent management in the US and Europe guiding me. Surround yourself with people you trust, and who'll tell you the truth, not what they think you might want to hear.

Build your brand your own way
I was worried that I had to live up to the impossible example of Joyce DiDonato and Renée Fleming, whose energy is simply phenomenal! I have 75 per cent of that on a good day. But I realise now that you can choose how you manage your dialogue with the public. I like to have a personal approach to social media, and I'm interested in reaching the crowd who are just getting into opera.