A Tudor Opera Tangle for Mezzo-Soprano Jamie Barton

Windy City Times
December 2014

by Scott C. Morgan

Photo credit: Rebecca Fay

Photo credit: Rebecca Fay

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton knew that she would need plenty of plain old luck on top of her considerable talents to forge a career as a professional opera singer. But in Barton's case, winning a number of impressive opera vocal competitions particularly helped.
"For me the three big launching points in my career have been because of competitions," said Barton, back again in the Windy City rehearsing her role debut as Giovanna Seymour (Jane Seymour) in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new co-production with Minnesota Opera of Donizetti's 1830 tragedy Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn).

While she was still a student working on her master's degree at Indiana University, Barton competed to become a winner of the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in New York. But Barton was doubly lucky to win that particular year because it coincided with the filming of a high-profile documentary called The Audition focused on the annual competition. The shared win with rising colleagues like soprano Amber Wagner and tenor Alek Shrader not only helped to put a then-unknown Barton on the international opera map, it was captured in high-definition for future posterity.

"It still manages to bring publicity to me," Barton said. "Even today people will come up to me and say, 'Ooh! I saw you in The Audition.'"

Barton's prize-winning ways continued as a recipient of a 2012 Career Grant from the Richard Tucker Foundation. But most impressively Barton won both the biennial BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2013 and its concurrent World Song Prize dedicated to piano-accompanied recital pieces. Barton is the first woman to win both prizes in the history of the 30-year competition, and only the second singer ever to do so after Romanian tenor Marius Brenciu triumphed with the same two prizes in 2001.

"Since then, life has just been completely different," Barton said about her career post-Cardiff. "It's not even the same ball game."

Barton, a native of Rome, Georgia, made her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut in 2011 as the offstage voice of Antonia's mother in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. Her other Lyric appearances include small supporting roles as a nymph in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in 2011 and as Magdalene in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 2013.

But now Barton is taking on a far juicier role as Jane Seymour, who was wooed to be the third wife of King Henry VIII as he was looking to do away with his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

"This one is very difficult to sing. It's very high—sopranos have done it, though it is traditionally cast with a mezzo-soprano," Barton said. "For me it's a lot of mental focus to make sure I'm singing correctly because it's such emotional music and such emotional text. My character from the moment she steps on stage is in emotional turmoil. It's really easy to let that creep into the voice, but that's the first thing that will make you crash and burn as a singer."

Barton doesn't necessarily see Jane Seymour as the villain of the piece—that would most definitely be Henry VIII, played by Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea. But Barton said even the title heroine (played by St. Charles native Sondra Radvanovsky) has her flaws, too.

"[Director Kevin Newbury] is making a real effort to bring this back down to the human element, to not make it so black and white," Barton said. "There are so many shades of gray and that's what makes it interesting."

Barton herself revealed a very personal aspect of her life when she came out as bisexual via her professional Twitter account on National Coming Out Day. Although she initially identified as straight, "It just so happened that I fell in love with someone and she happened to have indoor plumbing instead of outdoor plumbing," Barton said with a laugh.

"Being an ally for so long, having so many gay friends in the community, I mean, Hello, I'm an opera singer, I knew within a shadow of a doubt that coming out would not be a problem to my friends," Barton said. "Of course I was a little nervous about coming out to my family. But really I had a very easy time of it."

"My father who I was most worried about, not because I didn't think he would accept me because I knew that he would, I just wasn't sure about how long it would take him to come around to being comfortable with it," Barton said. "It took him approximately 2 and a half seconds. My family is all from the South, so he went, 'Well, I love 'ya. Ain't nothing gonna change it.'"

Career-wise, two prominent future engagements for Barton include her first Fricka ( the Norse queen of the gods ) in Wagner's Die Walküre for Houston Grand Opera next April, then the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra premiere of The Work at Hand: Symphonic Songs for Cello and Mezzo-soprano by gay composer Jake Heggie in May. But for now Barton is happy to be back in Chicago with a company that she says that has always been very welcoming for her.

"This company and this city is just fantastic to be in. The company is like a family and it's almost like a family reunion coming in for the first days of rehearsals," Barton said. "It's a hugs-all-around kind of place."