Jamie Barton, Opera’s Nose-Studded Rock Star, Returns to the Met

The New York Times
September 2015

by Zachary Woolfe

The mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton will sing Jane Seymour in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” at the Metropolitan Opera. Credit: Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

The mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton will sing Jane Seymour in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” at the Metropolitan Opera. Credit: Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

Traditionalists don’t have to worry: Jamie Barton, the galvanizing young mezzo-soprano, will take out her silver nose stud before she takes the Metropolitan Opera stage on Saturday in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.” After all, it doesn’t exactly match the sumptuous Tudor costume she wears as the disloyal Jane Seymour in David McVicar’s moody production.

A leader of a new generation of opera stars at 33, Ms. Barton is a giggly cat-video lover, with a tendency to burp when she’s nervous and the kind of exuberance that leads someone impulsively to get a nose piercing to match her publicist’s. She’s also self-possessed in the midst of a jam-packed schedule, and realistic about her future.

“There’s a big part of me that’s inched away from the idea of fame, from being a household name,” she said recently at a Midtown Manhattan cafe, mulling the difficulty of a 21st-century opera singer’s becoming a celebrity like Pavarotti or Sills.

But even if mezzos traditionally receive less attention than sopranos or tenors, Ms. Barton has as good a chance at greatness as anyone. She caused a sensation two years ago at her last Met appearance, her first performances as another false friend, Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.”

Adalgisa first enters, alone, to pray for the strength to resist a secret lover. Striding onstage with luminous confidence, Ms. Barton reached tenderly toward bits of mistletoe left on an altar. It was strangely unsettling to be in an audience of 4,000, watching what seemed like an entirely private moment.

And then she opened her mouth. “Her voice is huge and charismatic,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in an interview. Rich and full of color, pouring from her with ease, it evokes not the great artists of our day, or even those of a generation or two past, but rather the opulent floods of sound unleashed by the likes of Kirsten Flagstad and Helen Traubel in the 1930s and ’40s.

Singers tend to become Met stalwarts only gradually — often by the time they’re already well known to other audiences. But after the tumultuous ovations for “Norma,” everything began to move more quickly than usual.

“That made us realize we’d better get our act together,” Mr. Gelb said.

Jamie Barton preparing for “Anna Bolena." Credit: Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

Jamie Barton preparing for “Anna Bolena." Credit: Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

In addition to “Anna Bolena,” which Ms. Barton joined just last month as a replacement for Elina Garanca, Mr. Gelb confirmed that the Met had big plans for her: Next season she’ll sing the witch Jezibaba in a new production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” and Fenena in Verdi’s “Nabucco,” then take part in a revival of “Norma” in 2017-18. Perhaps most exciting, for Bartonites and Wagnerians alike, is the news that she will be Fricka when the “Ring” cycle returns to the Met in 2018-19.

“She gets the underlying emotional pain of it,” said Patrick Summers, who conducted Ms. Barton in her first Fricka performances at the Houston Grand Opera last year. “She doesn’t just play Fricka as a harridan, so it has this epic sadness about it.”

Born in Rome, Ga., a town in the Appalachian foothills, Ms. Barton grew up amid classic rock and bluegrass. The floors at home were so unsteady that when her father’s music was on, she and her siblings had to restrain their horseplay to keep the records from skipping. “I always associated music with life slowing down, with focusing,” she said over dinner recently.

Piano lessons, church gospel, a cassette tape of “The Phantom of the Opera,” Mariah Carey albums and Chopin on public radio combined to bring her to study music, first at Shorter University, a small institution in her hometown, and then at Indiana University, with its famed Jacobs School of Music.

It was more or less to build up her aria repertory that she started the Met’s National Council Auditions process, ending up one of the winners in 2007, part of a superb class — captured in the documentary “The Audition” — that included rising stars like Michael Fabiano, Angela Meade and Amber Wagner.

In 2013 Ms. Barton won the main and song prizes at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, and this April the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. The Cardiff victory, in particular, has opened up opportunities and given her the leverage to avoid the character roles that mezzos are often squirreled into. She has instead held out for bigger, juicier parts like Adalgisa and Jane — Giovanna, in the opera — Seymour, which she sang for the first time in Chicago last season.

Jamie Barton preparing for “Anna Bolena." Credit: Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

Jamie Barton preparing for “Anna Bolena." Credit: Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

“She was just incendiary,” Mr. Summers said of that “Anna Bolena,” which he conducted. “But never to a point of being overdone. She’s one of the few operatic actors I know who doesn’t overact. She doesn’t do the generic scenery chewing.”

Some wondered, in advance, if Wagnerian ventures like her Fricka were coming too soon, but Ken Benson, her former manager, said: “People in the old days used to sing bigger stuff much earlier. When the voice is right, it’s right.”

Ms. Barton’s voice is, simply, right. Recording a passionate Sibelius song for her debut solo album last month at Purchase College, she inserted a quick breath to get through a long, arching phrase. The producer asked over the loudspeaker, “In a perfect world, would you want to do this whole phrase in one breath?” It seemed an unlikely feat, but she nailed it on the next take, eliciting chuckles of disbelief in the mixing room.

Hers is a voice so versatile that people can’t help playing fantasy opera with it. One expert can’t wait for her to try out Slavic rarities; another suggested French classics like Cassandre and Didon in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens”; a third longed to hear her in Handel. (She sings her first Cornelia in “Giulio Cesare” this season in Frankfurt.)

After her recent debut as Azucena in “Il Trovatore,” the other great Verdi mezzo roles — Eboli in “Don Carlo,” Amneris in “Aida” — clearly beckon. Mr. Benson even ventured that with Ms. Barton’s assurance at the top of her range, Wagner’s Brünnhilde — a dramatic-soprano touchstone — might lie somewhere in her future.

It’s a prospect that Ms. Barton herself laughs off without ruling out. “I want to have the option of being able to do this when I’m 70,” she said, meaning that she has to pace herself as carefully as a major-league pitcher. She dreams of cross-genre collaborations with artists like Björk or the mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the huge CD market or the huge PBS market anymore” to promote a singer like her, Mr. Benson said. Performances are the primary way for audiences to become acquainted with a new artist. At least it’s increasingly clear that Ms. Barton will have no trouble getting performances, in abundance.

“Hopefully, there won’t be a season she won’t sing at the Met,” Mr. Gelb said, adding, by way of explanation, “Singers who are electrifying are few and far between.”