by Janelle Gelfand
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has won some of the biggest voice competitions in the opera world.
Still, nothing prepared the listener for the sound of her voice, when she unleashed its full power in a Verdi aria at Cincinnati Opera’s “Opera in the Park” concert last weekend. Even outdoors, the enthusiastic audience seemed to know that this voice was something unusual and very special.
“I believe that people are sometimes built to sing certain things,” she said, between rehearsals at Cincinnati Opera last week. “This is why I can roll out of bed and sing Wagner. I’m taking my time with Verdi.”
Barton will sing her first Azucena, the role of the gypsy in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour), in her debut with Cincinnati Opera this week. It is one of five operatic roles she is singing for the first time this year, partly as a result of winning the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition – the “Olympics of Opera.”
Just two months ago, she won the so-called “Heisman Trophy of Opera,” the 2015 Richard Tucker Award. That prize awards $50,000 to the singer who is “poised on the edge of a national and international career.”
“Yeah, I’m tackling all the operatic sports,” said the 33-year-old singer, laughing. The money, she added, will come in handy for her just-purchased condo in Atlanta.
Looking more girl-next-door than opera diva, Barton is all smiles as she describes her improbable ascent. A career in opera is highly competitive, often cutthroat and critics can be merciless. But Barton, who grew up on a farm in the mountains of northern Georgia, was oblivious to all that. She fell accidentally into opera, she said.
Her parents gave her piano lessons, and she sang in high school choir and musical theater. It wasn’t until she heard a recording of music by Chopin that she fell “head over heels” for classical music.
“I had the silliest teenage rebellion. I was devouring classical music, literature, art – anything that was not on a farm with some hippies in north Georgia,” she laughed.
She didn’t take voice lessons until she was a music education major at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia. Even then, her teacher, who had already recognized her unique talent, sat her down and threatened to toss her out of his studio unless she began some serious work. That happened at Indiana University, where she earned a master’s degree, and at the Tanglewood Music Center. At Tanglewood, maestro James Levine suggested she sing some Verdi. She had neither sung nor heard any Verdi before.
Before she walked into the Metropolitan Opera House to compete in the finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, she had never set foot in New York, read any reviews, tuned into the Met broadcasts or seen very many operas.
PBS television viewers may remember Barton from the 2007 documentary, “The Audition,” about aspiring opera singers who had survived multiple rounds to make it into the finals of the prestigious opera auditions. She and her fellow competitors, who have become great friends, didn’t mind being followed around by a movie team.
“It was a good distraction, in a big way,” she said. “The wonderful thing about coming in with no expectations was that we weren’t so nervous. I walked in with a clean slate. And had I not, I’m not sure I would have won.”
Just six years later, sweeping the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World with both the main prize and the Song Award, she received a blizzard of offers of every role she could conceivably want to sing. She took two months off as a breather, while she and her manager decided how much she could handle.
“What this year has taught me is that I need years where there is not this amount of learning,” she said, laughing. “The time you take to memorize everything, to be able to put it out there in a storytelling kind of way that the audience will respond to, you’ve got to put the work in.”
Today, some critics are hailing her as the next Kirsten Flagstad – one of the great singers of the early to mid-20th century.
As for the newest role she is tackling, “Azucena is a deeply fascinating character to me,” she said.
“The first thing that hit me is that she deals with things many people deal with. She deals with guilt, fear and anxiety. I think she’s afflicted terribly by PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”
That would be because, in the opera, the gypsy Azucena witnesses her mother burned at the stake, which is the catalyst for the events that unfold in the opera.
Musically, the role stretches her voice from its lowest register to a high B-flat. It’s a lot driving a stick shift, said the singer.
“Sometimes it’s all about going smoothly through all the gears, and sometimes it’s about popping it out of fourth and going into first. That’s the challenge of this role.”
Spoken like an opera singer who grew up driving a tractor on a farm in northern Georgia.