Jamie Barton: The Magnificent Voice Returns to The TSO

Musical Toronto
September 2016

by Joseph So

Jamie Barton: Artist in Focus

Credit: Fay Fox

Credit: Fay Fox

My first experience of the Jamie Barton voice was the Met in HD showing of The Audition, a documentary on the 2007 Metropolitan Opera Auditions. It was a vintage year, with several young singers going on to spectacular careers. Even with stiff competition, Jamie Barton was singled out as one of the winners, for her radiant smile, gleaming tone, and engaging personality.

The next time I heard her was in person, as Emilia in Verdi’s Otello at the Canadian Opera Company in 2010. Emilia is not a showy role, yet Barton managed to make a strong impression as a voice to be reckoned with. Sure enough, she was named the 2013 Cardiff Singer of the World, winning the prestigious top prize as well as the song prize, only the second singer to have accomplished that feat in the history of the competition.

In May 2015, I was blown away by her in the Verdi Requiem with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis. In my review for Musical Toronto, I wrote: “Jamie Barton’s gleaming mezzo with its exemplary legato was such a pleasure — no wonder she took Cardiff! Her Liber Scriptus, Quid sum miser, and Lux Aeterna were all amazing. She was not afraid to use chest voice, but it was very musical and without vulgarity. Barton sang Emilia at the COC Otello. Isn’t it time to bring her back for something more important?”

Her most recent appearance was just in July, in a fabulous recital as part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. It’s our great good fortune that she’s back again, barely two months later, in the monumental Mahler Symphony No. 3 with the TSO.  I took this opportunity to interview her about her career, and her thoughts on singing Mahler:

JS: First of all, welcome back!  Great to have you back in town so soon after your recital in July, which was wonderful. I remember well your Emilia in Otello a few years ago. Was that your first engagement in Toronto?

JB: Yes! One of the very first engagements I had out of the Houston Grand Opera Studio was with the Canadian Opera Company. We joked that it was “The Texas Otello” because so many of the cast were from Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas.

JS: You’ve also sung the Verdi Requiem with Sir Andrew and the TSO, and the recital last July. This Mahler 3rd with the TSO is your 4th engagement in Toronto. What are your impressions of the Canadian (Toronto) audiences?

JB: I think they’re incredibly engaged, really smart, and very enthusiastic. I loved meeting people after my recital. Even in the middle of performing the recital, I could tell that they were knowledgeable. Such a fun audience to be able to sing songs to!

JS: Your schedule seems to be evenly divided between recitals/concerts and operas. It’s very obvious to the audience that you enjoy the recital stage. Maybe this is an unfair question — if you had to choose, do you prefer opera or recitals/concerts?

JB: I would pick recitals and concerts because I can always sing an aria in that context!

JS: You’ve sung Mahler 3rd with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Is this TSO engagement your second time singing this piece? 

JB: This is my fourth time, actually — the first time was with Gustavo Dudamel in Caracas, Venezuela, with El Sistema, and I also got to perform it with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

JS: What draws you to Mahler?

JB: I have been a lover of Mahler’s songs since my first voice teacher gave them to me around my third year of studying with him. I fell in love with the combination of real human relatability and the ethereal and sometimes esoteric telling of those human stories.

JS: Could you share your thoughts on singing Mahler 3rd with our readers?

JB: I love Mahler Symphonies because the soloist gets to come in and almost comment on what is happening in the music. I get to be the voice that brings the work, which the orchestra is spending many movements developing, to life.

JS: What other Mahler pieces do you sing? Second Symphony? Eighth? Das Lied von der Erde?  Des Knaben Wunderhorn

JB: The first major cycle I ever did was the Rückertlieder, and I was so happy to be to include that cycle on my first solo album, All Who Wander, which will be released November 11th. I sing other Mahler songs as well [not on the album], including selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Das Lied von der Erde. All Who Wander also features three Mahler songs written for piano, the Dvorak Gypsy Songs, and songs by Sibelius.

JS: Coming to a piece for the first time, do you listen to recordings? Do you take it to a pianist/coach?  Or do you prefer to work entirely on your own? Could you share your process with us?

JB: I do prefer to work on my own. The text is the first stop on my journey. I work through the translations, trying to discern what the poet was saying. Then I try to figure out how the composer interprets that with his music. After that, it’s time to figure out my own unique telling of that story, what experiences do I have that lend themselves to the story of the song I’m singing…

JS: I noticed that you have a recital tour this fall. Is it the same program as the one you sang in Toronto – Brahms, Dvorak, Ives, and Turina?

JB: There is a bit of overlap, but most of the material is different. I met James Baillieu, the pianist for that recital tour, at Cardiff, and I thought he was a phenomenally sensitive collaborator. When he asked me if I wanted to be on his series at Wigmore Hall, I darn near leapt at the chance!

JS: Tell us about your upcoming first solo album.  What is the repertoire on the disc?  Why have you chosen these pieces?

JB: All Who Wander is inspired by something that lives within all of us, that little voice inside that wants to step out and experience the world. I’ve always been drawn to the lush music and storytelling of art songs of the late 1800s, and these songs by Mahler, Dvorak, and Sibelius represent the whole gamut of the human experience within rich musical landscapes.

JS: We’ve only heard you once in opera in Toronto, as Emilia in Otello. Any plans to come back to sing opera?

JB: I hope so – it would be an utter delight to return to Toronto.

JS: Thank you so much.  We look forward to your Mahler Third later this month!