The World on a String: Talking to Jamie Barton

Parterre Box
June 2013

by Christopher Corwin

Photo credit: Brian Tarr

Photo credit: Brian Tarr

American mezzo Jamie Barton, who has steadily been winning fans in the US over the past few years for her rich and nuanced singing, took the international opera world by storm last weekend by winning both the Song Prize as well as the overall prize in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Watching her final program of arias from Adriana Lecouvreur, Hansel und Gretel, and Berlioz’s Les Troyens, along with a song by Sibelius, it’s hard to imagine how the international jury that included Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Dame Felicity Palmer, Neil Shicoff and Håkan Hagegård could have chosen anyone else. 

Born in Rome, Georgia, the 31-year-old mezzo returns to this fall to the Metropolitan Opera where she made her debut as The Second Lady in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in 2009 to sing Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma opposite Angela Meade. Barton took some time away from traveling and relaxing after her double-barreled win to answer some questions by email for Parterre Box.

DeCaffarrelli: Competitions seem a necessary evil for most singers these days and you’ve done particularly well at them, having also won the National Council Auditions at the MET in 2007. Is there a particular talent or skill to doing well at these? I know you share a manager with Nicole Cabell–the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World—did she give you any advice or insight into negotiating that particular event?

Barton: I think the greatest piece of advice I’ve ever been given in this career came early in my training: “Take your time.” For me, this translated into doing things when I was ready to do them. I think this is especially important for voices that take a little while to bloom: I was never going to be able to win one of the larger competitions before my mid-20s because my voice was still going through growth spurts and figuring its way out!  But, I think this is all a round-about way of saying that I think, having given myself the time to grow, I also gave myself the time to learn what I need to succeed in competing: a calm mind, well-prepared music, and an absence of “the noise” (as Ms. Price would call it).  I think these things feed into me being able to do my job, which is preparing something that would please an audience and make them curious to see me again.  So far, that formula has worked for me!  And yes, Nicole did send advice… everything from telling me about her experiences with the competition to a note before the competition started just to wish me luck!  She’s not the only one either: Leah Crocetto, Ryan McKinny, and Quinn Kelsey were all very helpful too.  It’s good to have multiple points of view.

DeCaffarrelli: American singers are often praised (and sometimes damned) for being able to sing most everything well. During the competition, it was often remarked that you brought an unusually varied and interesting repertoire: Sibelius, Donizetti (in French), Berlioz, Humperdinck, Cilea, etc. Was this a conscious decision to highlight your versatility or have you always sung an eclectic variety of music?

Barton: I’ve definitely always sung an eclectic variety of music, partially due to what was available for my voice at a younger age, but also because I enjoy finding rep that is a bit out there.  It’s easier to be able to interpret freshly, and fewer recordings also means fewer opinions on the way something “has” to go.

DeCaffarrelli: From remarks by radio and television commentators along with posts online, it seemed clear from the first night that you were the odds-on favorite to win at least one of the prizes. Did that buzz get back to you and, if so, did it have any effect on your concentration/preparation? Were you aware any of your fellow competitors trying to get you to sit in drafts, etc.?

Barton: Honestly, the only buzz that really got back to me was that of friends contacting me to congratulate me on what they were seeing online.  But, I tried to stay fairly insular on purpose… I kind of feel like if I let in the opinions (good or bad) it distracts me from being able to think rationally about how I’m performing.  And no,  the other competitors were nothing but kind and professional.  Of course, we all wanted to win, but one of the pluses of having competitor colleagues that already have a few years under their belts in the career is that, for the most part, everyone is very friendly.  No matter how much we each want to win, the competition only lasts a week or so and we will be colleagues within the business for many, many years to come.  I think most performers would prefer to be friendly to the people they’re going to spend time with on gigs on the road– it just makes it easier when you’re away from you home, bed, spouses, and children/pets!

DeCaffarrelli:  In addition to your wins at Cardiff, 12-13 was a banner season for you from your show-stopping appearance at the Richard Tucker Gala at Avery Fisher Hall which was later televised over PBS to your acclaimed Agnese in Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda at Carnegie Hall with Collegiate Chorale to your first-ever Mahler #3, performed in Venezuela with Gustavo Dudamel, as well Magdalene in the new production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Lyric Opera of Chicago. How do you top that? What upcoming projects can you share with us that you are looking forward to?

Barton: 2012-13 was definitely a banner year, and one that (for the most part) came as a surprise!  Many of those gigs were booked last minute.  This next year does not disappoint at all, though–my first leading lady at the Met in Norma, my first Fricka with Houston Grand Opera, my debut with the Cleveland Orchestra–all of these are very big steps for me professionally, and I’m really looking forward to them!

DeCaffarrelli: Every singer seems to dream about singing a particular role or roles, for sopranos it always seems to be either Violetta or Tosca. Are there roles that you covet and would like to tackle over the next decade of your still young career? Didon? Kundry? Eboli? (Attention, worldwide intendants!)

Barton: Oh yeah… there are definitely roles that I just can’t wait to get to try.  The first ones that come to mind are Eboli, Amneris, Didon, and Léonor (c’mon… somebody do a La Favorite!)  Outside of these sorts of women are some really fun things; I’d love to sing a Baba the Turk in The Rake’s Progress, and although I’m not the typical body type for this, I really feel like I’d sing the heck out of a Carmen.  In concert, I’d really love to get to sing a Dream of Gerontius, Mahler #2, or an Alto Rhapsody (although it’s not too easy to find someone with a men’s choir raring to back me up!).

Barton’s discography is still fairly small at this point but includes leading roles in two baroque works recorded with Ars Lyrica of Houston, Hasse’s Marc’ Antonio e Cleopatra and Domenico Scarlatti’s La Dirindina. She also appears in recordings of three contemporary operas, The Refuge by Christopher Theofanidis, André Previn’s Brief Encounter and Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket.