The New Review Q&A
The American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is an international opera star who took both top prizes in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2013. She identifies as bisexual and has spoken out on queer issues and body image. On 14 September she joins the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms.
You’ve revealed you’ll be wearing the bisexual pride colours of lavender, pink and blue at the Last Night… tell us more.
I’m so thrilled about the dress – and the Last Night! I never dreamt I’d be asked to do this gig. It’s 50 years since the anniversary of Stonewall. It’s so important for me to stand up proudly as a bisexual woman. What I can tell you is that the main colour of the dress will be pewter, with a cape element, a bubble sleeve – and a reveal! That idea of reveal is very much part of queer culture, and drag. It’s a way of saying this is who I am.
We’re speaking on the day that Plácido Domingo, one of opera’s most revered names, has been accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour. Where do things stand with #MeToo and opera?
Abuse has cost some who’ve suffered – women and men too – their jobs and careers. At last it’s being tackled. Companies are stepping up, some for the first time. Just this last season at one opera house, on the first day of rehearsals, when you normally meet the design team and everyone involved in a production, we were also introduced to the HR people. We were told who to talk to if anything occurred. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to confront these issues but if it’s an abuse of power it has to be dealt with.
You’ve spoken out about size and the appearance of opera singers. What’s the most important thing to say?
For me it’s a very personal conversation. It’s about health, longevity. If I’m not healthy I can’t do my job. I’m just a few months into quitting dieting – as I’ve written on Twitter – but I’m doing so with the encouragement of a good dietician and doctors, backed up by science and research. I’ve been a binge eater for several years, six of seven nights a week. I couldn’t break the loop. It’s not surprising. There are many good aspects to this wonderful career of singing opera but it’s also stressful. I can’t eat before I perform. It’ll come back up! I use my diaphragm to push the lungs up and the air out. If there’s food there too it all gets a bit cramped. It’s quite common for singers to rely on other comforts to help get through the weeks and months on the road, the loneliness, the pressure. Now I’m learning to trust my own hunger cues and cravings. It’s helping my health, my blood pressure and glucose count, and I’ve even lost some weight.
But what about appearance on stage?
I really am a supporter of having singers of every size on stage. The stories we tell in opera are about human frailties, human dilemmas. Audiences need to commiserate and identify with the characters they’re encountering. I get letters saying “I love your voice, but I love even more seeing a plus-sized woman in a lead romantic role.” Everybody is built differently. I was created with the resonance chambers and sinuses and shape of vocal cords and anatomy that make me a singer. I used to dream of having a long, slim giraffe neck. As it happens, my neck is short and thick, which is perfect for singing heavier roles by Wagner or Verdi. Body size truly doesn’t matter. You can be small with a gargantuan voice if the lung capacity and resonance chambers are large.
Are there particular challenges in being bisexual in a field where everyone looks and judges?
I came out later in life, not because I was in the closet but because I didn’t know. I was doing Rheingold in Houston, Texas, in 2014 when I realised I was attracted to a woman. Six months later I came out fully. Bisexuality is too often seen as fake. Dearest friends said maybe you’re really a lesbian. And if you date someone of the opposite sex, it’s as if you’re straight again. Neither is the case for me. It’s so important to speak out. Bisexuals are at high risk of abuse, depression, anxiety, suicide. It’s a personal calling for me to be who I am in a loud way. I haven’t had too much backlash, but I’ve had so much support, from all ages, from people saying I’ve helped them understand themselves or others.
Your upbringing wasn’t an obvious route into the world of classical music. How did it happen?
I have wonderful liberal, chilled, hippy parents. My younger brother and I grew up in the mountains of north-west Georgia – basically, the middle of nowhere, with no internet or wifi. It’s still like that. My family loved music. My dad and cousins played guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle; bluegrass, country, rock, a bit of church music, but no classical or opera. My mother didn’t sing much but has a rather lovely, low voice. I think she’s the reason I’m a mezzo-soprano. But once I was growing up, I wanted to get out and see the world. Classical music was my rebellion when I hit my teens. I discovered Chopin!
You studied voice and, in 2007, won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions for young singers.
I had a great music education in my home town at Shorter College, [in Rome, Georgia] and then at Indiana University. But the Met prize was the major push forward. The competition that year was filmed for a documentary and it got me recognition at an important stage.
Does any music come more easily to you than others?
Hilariously, Wagner is my roll-out-of-bed-and-sing music. It suits my voice and technique. With Verdi I’m treading more carefully. His music is so difficult, requiring vocal acrobatics unlike any other composer. You can’t just learn a Verdi role and go on stage and sing it. You have to work slowly, with a singing coach. A Verdi mezzo has to have low, contralto notes and be able to go up to a high C. So you have to have both an extensive range and the power behind it, in the middle of the voice too. I find that difficult. Some singers have a steely middle range, but mine’s more geared towards beauty. I have to be effective, but at the same time safe. It’s a mighty challenge.
Is there one opera you’d tell people to listen to?
There are two: Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. It’s got the most beautiful, almost Wagnerian music, and a wonderful story, even if it’s a bit silly. And, at the other extreme, Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.
Do you have a singer role model?
Absolutely. The American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. As a brilliant singer, as a woman who’s made her career the way she wanted.