Broadway World Opera
by Richard Sasanow
With the season's first performance of Donizetti's ANNA BOLENA--that's Henry VIII's Anne Boleyn to all you Masterpiece Theatre fans--at the Met, the big news is that it's soprano Sondra Radvanovsky's first part of the Tudor Trilogy, with MARIA STUARDA and ROBERTO DEVEREUX to come later in the season. Alongside her, as Jane (here, Giovanna) Seymour, Boleyn's successor as consort to Henry, is mezzo Jamie Barton, this year's winner of the Richard Tucker Award, a past winner of the Met Council Auditions (and many other major awards) and a sensation when she sang her first big role at the Met two years ago, Adalgisa in Bellini's NORMA, opposite soprano Angela Meade.
Barton wasn't originally on the schedule for this opera; in fact, she wasn't on the Met schedule at all this year, despite the success in NORMA. "Well, to be honest, the Met, like any other major opera house, is cast years in advance and, I have to hand it to them, they really tried to get me in last year and this year. But they had already cast everything that would be appropriate for me," the 33-year-old singer recalls.
Originally cast as Giovanna in BOLENA was Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca, who, frankly, has a bigger international profile than Barton's. "We knew Elina's mother was sick and the Met asked if I wouldn't mind standing in as a contingency plan," Barton explains. (She had already tried the role on for size last year at the Chicago Lyric Opera, also with Radvanovsky, and found it challenging to learn but it gave her a major success.) Then, Garanca's mother died, but everyone, including the Latvian mezzo, thought she would go on with it.
"As I heard it," Barton continues, "her mother was also her voice teacher and Giovanna was the last thing they worked on together. It was just too much of an emotional situation for Elina to do it." While Barton says "I can't imagine being in her position and I am glad she's taking the emotion break she needs," she admits, honestly, "I'm equally glad this worked out with my schedule, too, because I love singing this with Sondra."
Not that she found the role a breeze to learn. On paper, she seems a perfect fit for the character, who was a popular figure in her time, though best known for providing Henry with a male heir and then promptly dying. Musically, it was something of a challenge. Says Georgia-born Barton, "I have to be honest: Every time I do a new bel canto role, it kicks my butt." She continues, "Bel canto is not my natural preset: art song, recitals, that was kind of my beginnings and the German style of music is where I'm most comfortable.
"Put me in Wagner, no problem. Put me in Humperdinck, no problem. (She sang the Witch's aria from HANSEL UND GRETEL when she won the two main prizes at the BBC's "Singer of the World" competition in 2013.) Put me in English, no problem. But the bel canto thing is something I'm still learning," the mezzo admits. "The first one I ever did was Bellini's BEATRICE DI TENDA at Carnegie Hall (with Angela Meade and the Collegiate Chorale); the second was NORMA for the Met and then BOLENA in Chicago. So I'm inching my way into this style of singing. Even if it's difficult for me--and it takes a completely different vocal technique for me to be able to sing--it's a good exercise and has shown me a side of my voice that I find very friendly."
"Friendly" is a good adjective to describe Barton's demeanor. If you saw the documentary, "The Audition," which came out about two years ago, you will understand what I mean. The film recounts the trials and tribulations of the 2007 Met Council Auditions finalists, of which Barton was a winner when she was just finishing her graduate studies. Among the young singers featured in the cast, she stood out not only for her warm, inviting voice and lively personality, but also for her collegiality and low-key approach to hearing her name called out as a winner. If there had been an award for "Miss Congeniality," it certainly would have gone to her. (Back home in Rome, Georgia, she's called "A Down-Home Diva" for the benefit concert she is doing this Sunday.)
Part of Barton's current success she credits to her stint as part of the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) Studio. "Things have magically lined up for me because of it--the right voice teachers, the right coaches. The Houston program gave me the voice teacher I still use today, Dr. Stephen King, along with the opportunity to look at roles that I wouldn't have ever considered doing," says Barton. "As a young singer I was always told to stay away from Verdi and Wagner. While it's true for some people, at HGO I found out, well maybe I'm built for this, maybe it's not hard for me, though I have to be careful about how I do this.
"Now, I've done roles including Fricka [NB: a role she'll sing in the next Met Ring revival], Fosshilde in Houston's Ring. I've done Magdalene in MEISTERSINGER in Chicago, the second Norn in Munich and covered that at the Met. It's been a really nice progression leading up to where I am now. I'm adding Waltraute [one of the Valkyries] this year." She clearly feels that HGO made it possible for her to consider all this--and to provide an opportunity outside the glare of The New York Times.
Still, Barton hears the siren call of the Big Apple. In 2013, she and Angela Meade were the standbys for the first cast of NORMA at the Met. (Neither did any of the cover performances, which was fine with Barton: "I don't like covering, dealing with the anxiety of possibly going on. And I don't want to go on; I want the scheduled singer to go on and get her paycheck.") Then came the two performances where they were the scheduled stars. As Barton recalls, "People have asked me what my most memorable moments on stage have been, and that first NORMA is up there--walking out for the bows. It sounded like we were in a football stadium. It was insane. I never expected that." (She and Meade revisit their NORMA pairing in Los Angeles in November and December.)
"Every time I come over to Lincoln Center, I look at this gigantic, beautiful opera house and, sometimes, I get lucky and get to be part of it. It's not quite mine yet--at least I haven't gotten to the 'oh I totally belong here' point yet. I'm just excited to be part of it," Jamie Barton freely and happily admits.