Jamie Barton in Nabucco: 'Fenena fits me like a glove'

Seattle Times
August 2015

by Jason Victor Serinus

Among the four singers making their Seattle Opera debuts in the especially strong casts Aidan Lang has assembled for “Nabucco,” 33-year old American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton (Fenena) stands out.

After entering the spotlight in 2007, when the film “The Audition” highlighted her triumph at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, she went on to win important categories in the Cardiff Singer of the World Contest in 2013, which is for opera and concert singers at the outset of their careers, and the equally prestigious Richard Tucker Award in 2015, which carries a $50,000 prize.

“She is a fresh wonder of the opera world, possessing a voice of preternatural beauty and power,” wrote New Yorker critic Alex Ross of Barton.

“My first instinct is to go for a very sympathetic Fenena,” Barton says of a role she will sing for the first time in Seattle. “I think there is a core of strength within, but I do think it’s nice to create a contrast to Abigaille (Fenena’s sister and romantic rival). I’m a big believer in bringing beauty into the story when I can, and the audience gets quite enough of the kind of screamfest soprano bullying her way through.”

Given the rush of attention Barton has experienced after her triumphs — nine days after finishing here, she will sing at the BBC Proms — she is determined to push herself gradually, but not too far, too fast.

“Vocally,” she says, “debuting Fenena is right up my alley. She fits me like a glove. Even if the time setting is that of the biblical story, she is still dealing with human problems and issues. Love is not always straightforward. So I go at her from my own personal experience and empathy, and arrive at how she would handle things through my own truths.”

A bluegrass fan since birth, Barton was also raised on Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead and lots of Monty Python and Mel Brooks movies. Somewhere along the line came choir, then musical theater and piano. “Opera was the last cog to fall into place,” she says.

Seattle Opera is taking advantage of Barton’s presence to present her recital debut in Benaroya Hall’s Nordstrom Recital Hall on Aug. 10. It’s a benefit for the company’s Wagner and More, a social club, and its presentation of “The Flying Dutchman” next year. While the recital repertoire is not yet set, it’s pretty safe to anticipate a mix of song with opera arias.

“Opera to me is a steak dinner,” says the woman who once played Julia Child in Lee Hoiby’s one-woman opera, “Bon Appétit!” “It’s a big, beautiful, wonderful steak dinner. You know that you’re going to be chewing on it for a while, that it’s going to be tasty and fantastic. But recital is more like tapas. You’ve got many different tastes, you get to try a whole bunch of different things, and it’s a shared, intimate experience.”

Should she actually sing Wagner in Benaroya, the audience has a lot to look forward to. “Wagner is my roll-out-of-bed-and-sing music,” she says. “I understand it on an intrinsic level, and my voice automatically gets it. For what I’ve done thus far, once I’ve gotten the role into my body, I can roll out of bed, sing it in the shower and be ready for the evening performance.”