by Georgia Rowe
Jamie Barton is one of the fastest-rising stars in the opera world today, earning rave reviews for her keen musicality and voluptuous, richly colored instrument. The Atlanta-based mezzo-soprano has also become something of an expert on the current competition scene, having ridden a wave of wins. To name a few:
- The 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions
- The 2013 Cardiff Singer of the World’s Main and Song prizes
- The 2014 International Opera Awards Young Singer of the Year
- The 2014 Marian Anderson Award
- The 2015 Richard Tucker Award
MusicalAmerica.com spoke with Barton on the West Coast in December, where she was singing Adalgisa in Los Angeles Opera’s Norma and making her San Francisco recital debut at San Francisco Performances.
Georgia Rowe: The Richard Tucker Award capped a string of wins for you—it’s a very big deal considering some of the past winners!
Jamie Barton: The Tucker Award, as well as the Marian Anderson Award and the Opera Awards’ Young Singer of the Year prize, were all ones that I was put into the running for, without any personal effort on my part. That was something very new to me. They are all career benchmarks, especially the Richard Tucker Award. Just to be nominated is wonderful. I’ve been part of the Tucker family for several years, having won one of the Richard Tucker career grants. They really do take care of the people they attach their name to.
Rowe: How do you prepare for a competition?
Barton: When I was preparing for competitions that I auditioned for, I had a two-fold rule—one, to program music that is accessible to a panel of judges, and two, to choose music that I adore. I think a lot of people go into competitions trying to sing exactly what they think the judges want to hear. I learned early on that trying to predict that was very difficult and usually doesn’t work. I was lucky, even before I did the Met competition in 2007. I sang for Gayletha Nichols, who runs the Met competition and goes around to different young artist programs to hear people. It was my first time singing for her, so I thought I would sing something very standard. I sang “Va, laisse couler mes larmes” from Werther. It’s fine, but it’s a bit of a mezzo national anthem. She thanked me, and I went on my way.
A few weeks later, we met again at Tanglewood and I had the opportunity to sing for her again. I’d just started working on the Witch’s aria from Hansel and Gretel, and I sang that. She said “I had in my notes that you sang “Va…” three weeks ago, and I’m going to tell you, I don’t remember it. But this song is the kind of thing you need to be starting everything with.” I followed her advice, and started using it for auditions and competitions, and people responded to it. I ended up winning the Met competition finals with it. So I think it’s very important to claim a place for yourself that way.
Rowe: Describe how you prepare psychologically.
Barton: There are two kinds of approaches. One is the hunker-down mentality: “I’m going to come in, not talk to anybody, and do what I do.” I’ve done that in the past. But the one that is more comfortable to me is the one where I refuse to acknowledge that there’s a competition going on. Cardiff, for instance, was such a high-pressure situation that I knew it was going to be impossible to hunker down and focus without blowing a gasket from the pressure. I knew a couple of people there—we’d worked in the same houses—so I just decided going in that I would think about it in different terms, as a job audition. The greatest European tour audition ever.
And these people are my colleagues. When you box it into “this is a competition and I must win,” I think you end up cutting off the big picture. You never know what mood the judges are going to be in or what they’re looking for. All you can do is do your best job. If I treat it as a performance— as a job—it puts me in a head space that is much less nervous. I can feel, “I’ve got this. This is my job.”
Rowe: Can you talk a little more about how you interact with other candidates? They are your colleagues, but how do you relate to them in that environment?
Barton: I think you just have to be sensitive to how they’re processing being in a competition. In the Met competition, there were several people in the finals with me who really had the hunker-down mentality. And I thought, okay, and I tried not to be in their space. At the same time, there were others who were just thrilled to be there. Amber Wagner was a perfect example. Neither of us had been to the Metropolitan Opera before, or even spent time in New York. We were like little opera kids in a big candy shop. It made for wonderful memories of that competition. In general, I’ve found that the people I’ve done competitions with are incredibly gracious and collegial.
Rowe: What about encounters with judges? Do you meet them, talk with them?
Barton: Usually not at all. It’s generally perceived as a very big no-no.
Rowe: For the awards that were not competitions, how did you know that you were in the running?
Barton: With some of them, you get a letter. You know you’re in the running for Cardiff because you have to go through several auditions beforehand, to be able to be chosen as the American representative. But this is a small community. I had heard through the grapevine that I was on the short list for the Richard Tucker Award. The Marian Anderson award was a complete surprise. I didn’t know I had won until [Houston Opera Artistic and Music Director] Patrick Summers— who was the person who had nominated me—called me to tell me. We were in the middle of rehearsals for Rheingold in Houston at the time, and I got this call. He said ‘‘I hadn’t mentioned that I had nominated you for this, but I now get the pleasure of telling you you’ve won.” Patrick’s been a big part of my musical life for several years, so it was very special to have him tell me. With the  Opera Awards, I found out through the Internet.
Rowe: When you learn you’ve won at the actual ceremony, what is that moment like?
Barton: Cardiff is the one that comes to mind. Nobody knew. They have this wonderfully sadistic way of having you line up for the announcement. It was so nerve-wracking! Especially with the Song Prize, I didn’t expect to win at all. I would have said my voice is the opposite of the kind of voice they choose for that prize. My voice— while I pride myself on being able to show a lot of colors—is an operatic voice. Recitalists, especially in the U.K., tend to be not so Wagnerian. The Song Prize winners from past years have certainly had a lot of variation. But people with my size voice have not tended to be winners. So when they announced it, my mind just absolutely went blank. The next thing I knew, they had me walking out onstage and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa was giving me this award, and I was just sort of stammering, “where do I go?” (laughs.) She told me to go greet the judges. It was just too much to process.
Rowe: Competitions really are pressure situations. What have you learned from these experiences?
Barton: Certainly they teach you how to have grace under fire. A big part of starting this career is cultivating your professional side. Especially during a competition, when there are cameras on you—like at the Met or the Cardiff competitions— you have to be mindful of what you’re saying, how you’re presenting yourself. Even if the cameras aren’t on you backstage, that’s still the case. The people who are judging you are career professionals. They’re the people who hire you. It’s taught me that you never know what they’re looking for. And that’s okay. There’s nothing more humbling than losing a competition. I’ve lost easily as many as I’ve won. Probably triple. Winning gracefully is a lot easier when you’ve lost many.
Rowe: Of course, there’s also the pressure of stepping into a role last minute, as you did in San Francisco’s Norma and the Met’s Anna Bolena.
Barton: Yes. Those were unique experiences. In San Francisco, I got the call four days before I left Japan. I thought I was going home to Georgia! With Anna Bolena, I had a little more lead time. Thank goodness for my iPad and the Fourscore app, where I can store opera scores. And it was nice to be able to do [Anna Bolena] with Sondra [Radvanosvsky], who’s a friend. We did it for the first time in Chicago about a year ago, and I didn’t have any more Anna Bolenas on the schedule—until toward the end of summer, when I got a call from the Met. We knew it was going to make my schedule in September just barmy, but it ended up being a wonderful experience.
Rowe: Your San Francisco recital featured a recent Jake Heggie piece. How do you approach new works?
Barton: Jake’s piece, The Work at Hand, is very special. The words are by Laura Morefield, who passed away from cancer. She was only 50 years old. Even though it’s about the process of letting go, it’s just so beautiful. It’s a love song to life, and it’s absolutely cathartic to sing it. Every time I approached this piece for the first month, I cried. I would sit down at the piano with the vocal score, and I kept having to walk away from it. At one point I left Jake a voicemail, just sobbing. I adore his music, and I honestly think he’s knocked it out of the ballpark with this one.
Rowe: What’s coming up in 2016?
Barton: This year is bringing a whole bunch of new things. Waltraute is the next Wagner role I’m taking on, at WNO in the spring. Before that, I’m adding Cornelia from Giulio Cesare. I’m very excited about that.
Rowe: Your dream roles for the future?
Barton: I’m looking forward to singing Eboli [in Verdi’s Don Carlos]… Another dream role is Orfeo: the music is just stunning, and how many times do mezzos get the title role? I love Wagner and I’m slowly learning my way through [the canon]. I’d love to do Brangäne [in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde], or [Tannhäuser’s muse] Venus, or Ortrud in [Lohengrin]. Those are very interesting ladies. Quite honestly, I would love to sing Carmen. She’s vocally a good fit for me, and such a fascinating psychological character.
Rowe: What is your advice to young singers thinking about entering competitions?
Barton: Start at the level where you’re comfortable. For me, that was starting with NATS [National Association of Teachers of Singing] competitions and small school competitions. Then build your way up in terms of getting comfortable with the atmosphere of a competition. After a year or two, start stretching toward the bigger ones. I find it always makes it easier to go in and do a competition like it’s a performance—as if it’s your job. Because hopefully doing your job doesn’t make your mouth go dry and your legs shake! The moment you let it mentally get to you that there is a panel of people literally judging you, that’s when the nerves get to you. But if I go in thinking that I’m giving a performance for a group of people, then I tend to be out of my head a bit more.