An Artist Whose Time Truly Has Come

Opera Magazine
March 2019

Photo by Wilfried Hösl

Photo by Wilfried Hösl

Jamie Barton may hail from Rome, Georgia, not Rome, Italy, but she possesses an exceptional affinity for Italian style. The lustrous-voiced mezzo-soprano shapes her legato in Bellini and Donizetti with superb elegance. Turning to Verdi, she effortlessly masters the toughest vocal demands, and her detailed textual communication yields an interpretative subtlety Verdi’s mezzo roles seldom receive.

 Along with her appearances as Wagner’s Fricka and Waltraute, Barton’s Verdi portrayals have set the seal on her ascendancy as one of today’s leading dramatic mezzos. She’s sung the vocally comparatively limited Fenena in Nabucco (her warmly praised ROH debut vehicle, also heard at the Met and in Seattle) but that role has now given way to Azucena (Cincinnati, Munich, most recently Chicago) and Eboli (Washington, Berlin.) After saying no to Amneris – ‘I needed to get through a couple of the other big Verdi women before taking on the Judgment Scene,’ she told me – she’s now raring to go and is thrilled that this role debut has been scheduled.

Don Carlo’s and Aida’s hot-blooded princesses, Il trovatore’s vengeance-obsessed gypsy, and the Ring’s formidable goddesses couldn’t be further removed from Barton herself. She’s an artist whose exceptional personal warmth has endeared her to colleagues and audiences everywhere. Watch her walk onstage for a recital; she does so with regal confidence, but also with an inviting smile and a palpable eagerness to share stories with her listeners through song.

Barton’s own story begins with her upbringing in the foothills of the Applachians. The first time she performed as part of an auditioned choir – with 500 other sixth-graders in Atlanta – was a transformative experience. (‘to be with people my age, making a homogenous, beautiful sound – I’d never experienced anything like that’). After studying piano, singing in high-school choruses, and appearing in community-theatre musicals, she entered Shorter College in her hometown. Music education initially seemed a logical major, ‘but I desperately didn’t want to take another standardized test in my life! I thought, “I’m not sure teaching is for me – let’s try vocal performance.”’

Barton’s college performances were mainly concerts and recitals, but upon arriving at Indiana University for graduate school, she immediately impressed the opera department. During her two years there she sang four roles (including her first Witch in Hansel and Gretel). At the start, however, ‘I didn’t know you needed to show up for opera rehearsals with the role already learned. I was thinking you bring your music and they teach you there. I was as green as grass!’

In addition to the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (she was a national winner in 2007), Barton undertook several other career steps common to gifted American singers on the way up: young-artist programmes at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis; Tanglewood; Wolf Trap (she sang Monteverdi’s Penelope, which she adored – opera-company casting directors, please take note!); and the Aspen Music Festival, where she returned to Humperdinck’s Witch for Edward Berkeley’s innovative production, set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Her second summer in St. Louis brought Barton’s professional debut as La traviata’s Annina. The production’s leading singers, Ailyn Pérez and Dimitri Pittas, left a stunning impression, Pérez especially: “hearing her in the first rehearsal, I had the reaction you have when you hear a great voice and you can’t quite fathom how that sort of beauty can exist in a person. Ailyn is now like a big sister to me. She taught me what this career could be, the possibilities it presents – as an artist and as a human being.”

Barton’s final training came at the Houston Grand Opera Studio. One of her assignments was covering Ewa Podles as the Fille Marquise – can one imagine a more intimidating experience for a young mezzo? She’s grateful today that the programme pushed her boundaries. For example, during her first year she sang Flosshilde in the opening scene of Das Rheingold, having previously been warned at university that Wagner would ruin her voice. Her time at the Studio, however, revealed that ‘Wagner is in some ways a roll-out-of-bed-and-sing composer for me. Fricka, Waltraute, Flosshilde, and Magdalene are right in the “sweet spot.”’ She had knowledgeable people guiding her, and not just in Wagner: ‘They said, “Here’s this aria, ‘O mon Fernand,’ why not try it? There can be a high C at the end, why not try it?”’ Teaching me how to let go of the worries and figure out what my voice would do – that’s what Houston gave me.’

Certain that she didn’t belong in Mozart or Rossini,  yet also knowing that the ‘big girl’ roles weren’t yet viable, Barton wisely chose to build her stage repertoire slowly, with numerous supporting roles in Houston and Chicago. Among them were the Voice of Antonia’s Mother, the Zauberflöte Second Lady, and the Boris Godunov Nurse (just 17 syllables to sing, but worth it just to be onstage with Ferruccio Furlanetto – ‘how to continue standing when that glory is next to you was a lesson’). She had more responsibility as Wagner’s Magdalene, Verdi’s Emilia, and Berlioz’s Ursule: ‘Those roles were about being a good stage partner to those around me. That was both a lesson and a joy.”

Barton’s bridge into Verdi was bel canto – initially Bellini, with Agnese (Carnegie Hall) and more crucially, Adalgisa. The latter portrayal triumphed in Houston, Los Angeles, and at the Met, but emotionally it wasn’t easy (‘I was going through that role when my marriage was falling apart’). Today Barton feels closer to Donizetti’s Léonor, which introduced her to Madrid’s Teatro Real   last season. She has a passion for this music, while also appreciating the character’s strength: ‘I identify as a feminist, so there’s a lot of frustration for me in the stories of bel canto operas, especially regarding the mezzos. They’re all in impossible positions. In terms of the mettle within them, Léonor is the one who leaps out to me, because she takes her circumstance into her own hands.’

Barton enjoyed Sara in Roberto Devereux (San Francisco), but Anna Bolena‘s Giovanna “I’ve nearly taken off the table. These days, having added Verdi and Wagner, there’s more heft to my voice than when I first sang that role [Chicago, later at the Met].’ Barton feels she’d be working too hard vocally, ‘and I don’t want that. That being said, if Sondra Radvanovksy wants to do the duet again, I’m there!’

Wagner is now vital to Barton’s operatic life. Brangäne (surely the ideal role for her voice) is on her schedule, she’s excelled as Waltraute and the Second Norn, and her Fricka has been a vital asset to Ring cycles in Washington, Houston, and currently the Met. Her favourite scene in the Ring is the Walküre Fricka’s dialogue with Wotan: ‘Wagner wrote so many brilliant women – Fricka does outsmart Wotan, after all!’ Barton feels their confrontation ‘changes the direction of the entire story. You’ve got just that one scene in the whole opera, but Wagner wrote in the ability to make your mark almost immediately.’

A hugely enjoyable excursion off the beaten track was Ježibaba in the Met’s Rusalka (‘I love the dichotomy between a kooky old woman and a terrifying sociopath’), but thus far there have been few opportunities in Barton’s native repertoire. She did sing Elizabeth in Robert Ward’s The Crucible at the 2016 Glimmerglass Festival, a powerful experience, given that ‘we were doing an opera that was basically about McCarthyism, the summer before Trump was elected and with so much tension in the world.’ Especially tough for Barton was Elizabeth’s final duet with her doomed husband John: remembering Abigail, her rival for John’s affections, ‘she’s saying, in effect, “Look at me, I’m so plain, I didn’t think you would love me as much as you loved her.” Oh, do I get that! I’m speaking from the standpoint of somebody who is a plus-size woman, who has been taught by society that this is a death sentence for romance, which is patently untrue. Every night I got through that duet with tears coming down my face. It was one of the most moving stage experiences I’ve had.’  

When we spoke in Chicago last fall, Barton had another important American role on the horizon: Sister Helen Prejean, the protagonist of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking at Atlanta Opera. That work is based on real-life events, with Sister Helen as the spiritual adviser for a prisoner on Death Row. Barton was looking forward to the role, noting that “to portray a character who truly believes in God’s love being equal for all of us is extraordinary.’

This singer brings penetrating intelligence to her conception of any role, and she hugely appreciates genuinely collaborative directors (for example, Francesca Zambello, with whom she worked on The Crucible). She can negotiate when something onstage isn’t comfortable for her, but certain situations have offered her no choice but to comply. She remembers a Wiederaufnahme of Dialogues des Carmélites in Munich, for which she had just three days of rehearsal: ‘In this production, when the men read the decree to the nuns, Mère Marie takes off her flannel button-down shirt in protest. This was 2010, I was just starting out, and it was a very delicate thing for me to show my body onstage. I tried to get them to eliminate it, and they said no. Every time we did the scene, all the ladies playing the Carmelites would walk by me, giving little comments of support, because they knew I was terrified.’

Despite her burgeoning operatic career, Barton manages to keep up her concert and recital activities. After years of cherishing Dame Janet Baker’s singing of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, she was thrilled to perform that work herself with the London School Symphony Orchestra. ‘After the concert, an older gentleman asked me, “Do you know the Janet Baker recording?” “I’m quite familiar with it.” “I was one of the trombonists for it. Your performance was at that level for me.” I nearly fell down – honestly!’

Other great London experiences have included the ROH’s Verdi Requiem with Pappano and, above all, debuting at the Wigmore Hall, Barton’s favourite recital venue. An artist who loves making eye contact with her listeners during recitals, ‘I could look out at that audience and people were looking back at me with utter engagement – it was different from anywhere I’ve ever sung.’

There are, alas, few comic roles in Barton’s Fach, but her gifts as a comedienne can come into play brilliantly during recitals. For example, I’ve seen her reduce her audience to helpless laughter with four pricelessly funny contemporary American songs about cats. On occasion she’ll devote half of a recital to Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appetit, in which the mezzo portrays Julia Child. ‘Themed’ recitals interest her; in her first venture along those lines, she devoted equal representation to men and women among the poets as well as the composers. That programme also included several songs written for men to sing to women. Breaking down barriers of who gets to sing what, particularly as regards gender, matters to Barton: ‘It’s not a secret that I’m bisexual – why can’t I sing a song as a woman to a woman? We’re living in a world where queer love stories exist. Why can’t they exist in classical music?’

Barton’s first solo CD is ‘All Who Wander,’ a programme of Mahler, Dvořák, and Sibelius songs that that won the 2018 BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award. The disc’s title, promoting inclusivity and a shared journey, hugely appealed to Barton. ‘Classical music isn’t elitist. You’re talking to a girl from the hills of Georgia! I stumbled on this, and there was a place for me. We each have stories to tell and insights to share.’

 Barton may feel part of a common story, but as an artist she’s set apart – a fact recognized with some extraordinary honours, such as the Beverly Sills Artist Award and Richard Tucker Award. In 2013 she was the second singer and the first woman to win both the Main Prize and Song Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.

The impact of all this has been life-changing, Cardiff above all. After that competition, Barton made a plan with her managers – Michael Benchetrit in New York, Shirley Thomson and Ian Stones in London (‘if there’s one major blessing in my career, it’s the team I have around me’). After three months, during which no offer was accepted or rejected, ‘we pieced together what we thought the next several years could look like. The gigs were lying  beautifully side by side, but there was so much! The next few years were an exercise in learning what my pace needed to be.’ After the major planning meeting, Barton walked to a nearby bar, sat down, and wept. ‘It was a 50-50 mix of “I can’t believe I’ve been given this gift” and  “What in the world am I going to do?” There was so much to learn, so many operas to put into my brain. I was overwhelmed.’

Nonetheless, with her feet firmly on the ground, Barton is taking everything in stride, while remaining staggeringly busy. She recently purchased an apartment in Atlanta, but is she there even 30 percent of the year? ‘God, I wish! One season I was home for 35 days out of 365.’

While enjoying her success, Barton also makes time to give back. She serves as a mentor with Turn The Spotlight, an organization working to empower arts leaders among women and people of color. This season, Barton mentors a remarkable University of Michigan alumna, mezzo Rehanna Thelwell: ‘I knew I wanted to work with a woman with a larger voice, who wasn’t immediately stepping into big leading roles – that’s very much a part of my own past.’

Especially within the last two years, ‘when it’s been really important to stand up for what is right and give voice to those who deserve to have their voices heard,’ Barton has used her artistry to do just that. ‘It’s no longer that very specific cis/hetero/white male kind of world. I’m a champion of everybody having an equal chance, no matter where you come from, no matter whether you’re religious or not, no matter what sexuality you identify with.’

What response to Barton’s performing has touched her the most? She recalls a woman she met at San Francisco Opera’s stage door last year. ‘It was Pride month, and a lot of my social media posts had been about that. She told me how much it meant to her – as both a student of singing and a bisexual person – to see onstage someone who was very out and proud. It moved her that somebody can be an artist of the calibre she considered me to be, and also be a champion of social justice.’

A complete singer with a once-in-a-generation voice, a born communicator, a deeply compassionate human being with so much to give to audiences – Jamie Barton is an artist whose time truly has come.