Acclaimed Mezzo Jamie Barton Talks About Opera, the Castro and Teaching Leatherwork to Boy Scouts
San Francisco Bay Times
Recordings of mezzo soprano Jamie Barton have been playing in our San Francisco Bay Times offices of late, as we are mesmerized by this supremely talented and justifiably acclaimed singer. She is the winner of the 2017 Beverly Sills Artist Award and 2015 Richard Tucker Award, the winner of both Main and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, the winner of the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and a Grammy nominee. Barton also won our hearts in 2014—major swoon—when she came out as bisexual via her professional Twitter account on National Coming Out Day.
Born in Rome, Georgia, Barton has done everything from singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the 2017 Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks to being featured in The New York Times as “Opera’s Nose-Studded Rock Star.” The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, for his great blog The Rest Is Noise, wrote: “She is a fresh wonder of the opera world, possessing a voice of preternatural beauty and power. She has a remarkable ability to keep the vocal line afloat amid pauses for breath; she’d swell on a note, take a breath, and then resume at even greater volume, tricking the ear into thinking that the phrase had never been broken.”
We could not agree more, and love that Barton is bookending San Francisco Opera’s 2018–19 season: first with her role of Sara in Roberto Devereux and then with the unforgettable witch Ježibaba in Rusalka. She enjoys San Francisco and playing witches, just a few of many fun admissions she made during a recent interview with us.
San Francisco Bay Times: What do you most enjoy about the city, and what are you looking forward to doing here, outside of your performances and related work?
Jamie Barton: I love the spirit of this city so much! Even though I’m from Georgia, I’ve always felt like a West Coast girl in many regards. San Francisco has a lot of what I hold dear to my heart: a fierce liberal and queer streak, surrounded by stunning landscapes, and chock-full of some of the best restaurants in the world! I love spending time in the different neighborhoods—I lived in the Castro during the Ring Cycle (and Pride month) this summer, which was an amazing experience, and now I’m living in Haight Ashbury. As a 90s kid who was raised by two hippies, I adore it!
San Francisco Bay Times: How do you physically and mentally prepare to perform the role of Sara and the wide range of emotions that it requires?
Jamie Barton: Well, being a mezzo, I get the treat of doing these sorts of characters a lot! I love playing a conflicted, complicated character—I feel like they are often so much closer to reality than the heroic tenors or the angelic sopranos. My method of tapping into the character I’m portraying is to try and connect their emotions to experiences I’ve had that have given me similar feelings. (Or, if I have no personal experience with which to forge a connection, I try and empathize to the best of my ability.) That way, by the time the performances come around and I have had weeks in a rehearsal room to get comfortable with the character I’m singing, I can really champion her story. During performances, I just focus on having the most organic reactions I can, and on being a receptive stage partner to the people with whom I am co-creating this story.
San Francisco Bay Times: What are some of your favorite moments of Roberto Devereux?
Jamie Barton: I think the duet with Nottingham is perhaps my favorite part that my character sings, but the best moment of the entire show is the mad scene for Queen Elizabeth. It’s absolutely stunning—heartbreaking, enthralling and an absolute bear to sing. To hear it done so well is such a treat!
San Francisco Bay Times: Who are some of your own favorite singers, both past and present?
Jamie Barton: I have a LOT of musical loves! The ones who spring to mind right now are Stephanie Blythe, Sir John Tomlinson, Jessye Norman, Robert Plant, Billie Holiday, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.
San Francisco Bay Times: Have there ever been times when an unexpected occurrence on stage required a sudden change of plan?
Jamie Barton: Oh yes … it is live theater, after all! Early in my career, I made my Metropolitan Opera debut as 2nd Lady in The Magic Flute. In that production, when the Three Ladies introduced the Queen of the Night before her first aria, the stage was supposed to spin to take us offstage and dramatically reveal the Queen. On the opening night of our run, the stage started to spin and then stopped. Abruptly. My colleagues and I were stuck onstage, and the poor Queen had to make her Met debut singing the first third of the aria from the wings! They did eventually get the stage rotating again and she made it onstage for the most important part of the aria, but it was definitely one of those times when you’re just kind of stuck, waiting for the theater gods to smile down and get the show back on the rails!
San Francisco Bay Times: What do you think are the most effective ways to interest younger generations in opera?
Jamie Barton: Honestly, I think the most effective way of getting younger audiences into the opera house is to make experiences available that audiences simply cannot have on their couch with Netflix. I think it’s vitally important to champion new works with good composers, because that’s how we get our current stories told. If the stories being shared on stage are done well—whether they’re entirely new works or compelling stagings of classics—I truly think that opera has all of the elements to become an addictive experience for people who love great stories and incredible music.
San Francisco Bay Times: In addition to Roberto Devereux, we look forward to seeing Rusalka. Please tell us about your character Ježibaba.
Jamie Barton: I really do love to play a witch! Ježibaba is such an interesting character—she’s half human, half magic and feared by all who know of her power. She is the one who decides the consequences that Rusalka must suffer, and I’ve always found her to be a bit scary! I also love that her exit from the storyline of Rusalka is quite blasé. She doesn’t have an extended moment of trying to teach Rusalka a storybook moral. Rather, she just keeps on going along her normal path, chiding Rusalka for her naïveté and trying to eat the kitchen boy. It seems obvious to me that she just keeps going, even after Rusalka’s story ends.
San Francisco Bay Times: Back to real life: Did you really teach woodcarving, leatherwork and metalwork to Boy Scouts, as your bio indicates?
Jamie Barton: I sure did, for 3 years! I helped out at the arts and crafts cabin at Camp Sydney Dew during the summer while my Mom was the ropes course instructor for the camp. “Helping out” moved quickly from organizing supplies to teaching. The man in charge (whose lovely name was “Mr. Ed”) must have really trusted me—I was between the ages of 11 and 14!
San Francisco Bay Times: Is River (Barton’s beloved cat) coming to San Francisco with you?
Jamie Barton: She is! River is also requiring that I keep audiences abreast of her San Francisco trip. Feel free to follow along on Instagram at @jbartonmezzo!
San Francisco Bay Times: Please mention anything else that you would like for our readers to know.
Jamie Barton: I think you San Franciscans are simply the best. Thanks for the warm welcome!