Interview with Jamie Barton

OperaRox
October 2013

Last night, I had the express pleasure and honor of interviewing mezzo Jamie Barton regarding her experiences as a singer and her recital this Sunday. Ms. Barton recently won the 2013 Cardiff Singer of the World competition and makes her role debut of Adalgisa (Norma) at the Metropolitan Opera this month. She will be singing Fricka for the first time in Houston Grand Opera’s Das Rheingold in the Spring.

OperaRox: It’s wonderful to meet you. I love your work.

Jamie Barton: Thank you, thank you.

OR: What is your musical background and how did you know that you wanted to be a singer?

JB: Well, I came from a family that was very, very musical. They played music, they played bluegrass, sang along with that kind of thing, in church as well… But mainly they listened to a lot of music at the house. I grew up in a really rickety, small house and when they put albums on, you couldn’t run around because that would make the album skip. It was very much a family that would sit down and chill out and listen to music. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid.  Most of what I was listening to was The Beatles and Grateful Dead and Lynyrd Skynyrd and that kind of classic rock, which is different from classical. But at the same time, it was instilling a love of music, a love in hearing things that turn you on.

Somewhere around my teenage years I decided that I wanted to be as opposite from my family as is possible, as every teenager decides at some point. And opposite from hippie, bluegrass musicians is classical music. So I started listening to a lot of that. I started out listening to musical theater, a lot of Chopin, and somewhere along the way, somebody gave me a CD of Italian Opera hits. It had, I remember, Anna Moffo doing “Una voce poco fa.” There was something about hearing her do that that made me think “Oh my God, I want to do that.” Somewhere around college, I decided that maybe that might be the way to go. I know I wanted to do music of some sort. Musical theater was where my heart was at the time, but I can’t dance to save my life. So rather than having to put on a leotard and go into ballet class, I decided that maybe I would just go for the performing and singing that didn’t require dance class and that was opera.

OR: What was your school experience like and was it different since you came into school with a much larger voice than most people?

JB: Yes, naturally my voice is bigger than most others. I did choir in high school and musical theater, so you get used to the team sport aspect of music making in doing those two things. I learned from a young age not how to hide my voice, but how to blend well enough to be able to sing in a choir and support the section that I was in. So I still have a really great, deep love for choral music.

In undergrad, it was definitely that I had to learn how to back off a little bit, but I had a wonderful choir teacher — two of them, actually — who taught us to use our voices in different ways. To explore different resonance, different ways of making it. It was crazy.

I went to two very different schools: I went to Shorter College in Rome, Georgia first and Indiana University for grad school. You talk about coming from a very, very small pond to practically the ocean. But it was good! When I meet high-schoolers, people looking into going into undergrad, and I hear them saying, “I want to go to Indiana” or “I want to go to Juilliard,” I say, “You know, that’s fabulous, but go to a small undergrad first.” I think it’s really good to be able to get the experience in undergrad. If you’re in a small program, they’re going to have to cast you in whatever they’re doing. You get a chance to grow, you get a chance to make mistakes, you get a chance to shine. And in a small school, it’s like a family. That’s what I had at Shorter. And then I went to IU and I had to figure my way out. That’s appropriate for that time: to figure out how to fight your way to the top.

OR: How did you choose the music for this concert and why did you choose it?

JB: All of the music on this particular concert is based off of music I chose for Cardiff and won my rounds with. Everything from the Sea Picture pieces, which I did in my first heat with the orchestral round, down to “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” a Charles Ives piece. I very, very pointedly, desperately wanted to do an American composer because I was representing the U.S. So I built a set around that.

OR: Is this music that you felt drawn to, or did you choose it only for the competition?

JB: I chose it for the competition because I felt drawn to it. 

OR: Perfect!

JB: Absolutely! Some of it is stuff I’ve never done, but some of it is stuff I’ve been doing for years. 

OR: What type of music brings you the most joy as a singer?

JB: I can tell you, this was kind of hilarious.  When I was planning all my rep for Cardiff, they actually make you fill out a big form. It has everything— all the keys, the composer and their dates… But I was looking through the sheet and really, for the most part, it was all music from 1870 and 1930. It was everything from Charles Ives to Rachmaninoff. Definitely a wide breadth of stuff…

I’m a bit split-mind when it comes to what I like doing. I love doing the Charles Ives stuff because of the intellectual side of it, the kind of avant-garde-ism that he composed with. Then I love doing things like the Sibelius stuff. It’s like turning on Verdi. It’s simply gorgeous and it’s also operatic singing. I might as well have an orchestra behind me. And thank God I have Brad because he is an orchestra.

OR: There’s nothing like an amazing accompanist.

JB: Yeah. Recitals are totally a team effort. It’s not the singer standing up there and they’re the one doing the performing. It is a collaboration. You’re both making the music; you’re both telling the story. It’s vital.

OR: When it comes to being a professional singer, it’s a really tough career. What aspect do you find the most challenging?

JB: The travel. Honestly, the travel is the most difficult in almost every aspect. It’s also really rewarding. I now have a worldwide network of friends. When I go on opera gigs, they’re also going on opera gigs, and we meet up in random cities and get to discover the city together. We get to spend time together. That’s the really wonderful part.

The difficult part is: I haven’t been in my own bed since August 21st. With so much travel, especially nowadays, there’s sickness. The first week that I was here [New York City] doing rehearsals for Norma, I had come directly from Australia. I was sick as a dog for the first two weeks. That’s the hard part: figuring out how you’re going to keep yourself healthy.  It’s also figuring out when you’re going to see your pets and your loved ones and your stuff. 

OR: I have a question from one of my readers, Bess (moserbess). She wants to know what scares you the most about Fricka.

JB: Honestly, what scares me the most about Fricka has nothing to do with the music. I think Fricka, for the small bit that she has, is one of the most compelling characters in the whole Ring. What scares me the most is finding a way to honor the music and honor the text without making her seem like a Harpy. Harpy is probably the wrong word… Someone who’s a really nagging wife.

OR: Like a Hera type?

JB: Yeah! Because I don’t think she’s like that at all. It’s so interesting to me that Wotan married the goddess of marriage and he has fidelity issues. She’s the beacon of truth in many ways. She comes in and she’s the one who says, “Uhh, they’re brother and sister. That’s uh-uh.” And the audience is already, “But they’re so cute.” (laughs) But she’s the one coming in saying, “Guys, that’s messed up!” She’s the one pointing out to Wotan why all this is going to fail. Why it’s going to be the downfall of not only him, but of everything. It can very often come across as a nag and that’s what I’m scared of. I’ve got to figure out how to do that.

OR: It’s like whenever you play Donna Elvira or something; you don’t want to be that shrill person that everyone just wants to go away.

JB: In a lot of ways, it’s easy to go there. But I think there’s so much more depth, there’s so much more interest in it that can be brought out. I think if you got the right person with the right imagination with the right background of the story telling it in a way that you have the truth. That’s what’s interesting: the truth. Once you start building a character on fabrication, then it seems hokey. You get really bored with it. When it’s the truth, when there’s something that people can connect with, that’s when it’s interesting. That’s often really difficult. But that’s the cool bit of getting to do it. That’s the fun part.

OR: Ok, I have a really nerdy question for you from one of my readers (fyeahoperasingers). If you had to write a Dr. Who episode that included opera, when would it be set and what would happen?

JB: Yes! Oh! (laughs) Oh man! I have so many ideas! An opera would be a hard one. You know what I would love? I would love a Dr. Who episode about the Unfinished Symphony. Exactly why was it unfinished? Could the Doctor have helped that? That was the first thing that came to my mind.

OR: That’s so random! I love it.

JB: Maybe Mozart? Gosh, there were so many composers that died at an early age. I’m thinking back to the Van Gogh episode and how that played out.

OR: That’s all the time we have.

JB: Well, it’s great to meet you.

OR: Great to meet you, too. Thank you so, so much.

JB: My pleasure.