Rome as Inspiration: Artist Night Program at Mechanics Hall

Worcester Telegram & Gazette
February 2015

by Richard Duckett

It's understandable that Rome could be an inspiration for an opera singer. That's certainly true for mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who will give a recital at 8 p.m. Feb. 7 in Mechanics Hall, Worcester, for the Artist Night program presented by Music Worcester Inc. 

Cardiff, Wales, has also been important for Barton, who won both the Main and the Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, a biennial event that has helped several winners achieve sustained international success and acclaim in the opera world. 

But Rome is where the singing started for Barton. The city of Rome, Georgia, that is (population 36,000 approximately), in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. 

"My family did not listen to classical music," Barton said. But there was music — including bluegrass, Appalachian folk and singing in the small church she attended with her family. Barton heard spirituals, including one of her favorites, "His Eye is on the Sparrow." "My family shared this love of music — full stop," Barton said. "From an early age, I sang everything."

Sitting next to her father in church, she would listen as he sang the harmony to a particular piece. "I asked him how he did that…It really struck a chord with me, pun slightly intended," Barton said. Later, "it so happened in college I discovered opera and decided to go in that direction." 

Which has taken her in many directions, including that of "rising star" and beyond. Barton recently reprised her role as the priestess Adalgisa in the Metropolitan Opera production of Bellini's "Norma" and was described by one reviewer as "a fresh wonder of the opera world, possessing a voice of preternatural beauty and power." 

Barton's 2014-15 season has numerous major roles and engagements in this country, England and Europe. Part of the season includes putting together a new recital program that she'll be performing Feb. 17 in Carnegie Hall and Feb. 24 at Oper Frankfurt. 

But before those dates, she'll be bringing her recital to Mechanics Hall (Barton will be accompanied by pianist Bradley Moore). For many years a popular part of the Worcester Music Festival was Artist Night, featuring opera stars. Music Worcester is bringing back that tradition beginning with Barton's performance. 

"I'm excited," Barton said during a recent telephone interview from her home in Atlanta, where she was taking a rare short break before going back on the road. "It's the first new recital I've put together in a long time. It takes quite a bit of time and planning to put a recital together, but I love to do it," she said. 

One major difference from an opera role or a competition is that with a recital, "I get to choose anything I want to sing." Often that involves reaching "into different genres I haven't explored very much" or old favorites with a new approach, she said. 

The program Feb. 7 will include Homenaje a Lope de Vega, Op. 90, by Spanish composer Joaquin Turina; Three Melodies by 19th-century French Romantic Ernest Chausson; Franz Schubert's Four Lieder on texts by Goethe; Antonin Dvorak's Gypsy Songs, Op. 55; and selected spirituals. 

"I fell in love with the Dvorak gypsy songs a long time ago and had them in the back of my mind to learn some day," Barton said. She has not sung any Spanish in recital previously, but with Turina's set of pieces, she found "just a stunning group. Very beautiful, very slightly flashy toward the end." With the selected spirituals, meanwhile, she'll perform "a group of songs that is sort of in my blood." 

After graduating from Rome's Armuchee High School, Barton earned a bachelor's degree from Shorter College (also in Rome) in voice performance. Barton said that her involvement with opera was "a little bit of a gradual process." She joked, "Perhaps the most solid moment I ever had was when I realized I couldn't dance and musical theater wasn't in the cards." 

However, "the more I studied opera, the more I fell in love with it." From Shorter College, Barton went to Indiana University, where she obtained a master's degree in voice, and she also graduated from the Houston Grand Opera Studio. In 2007 she was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. 

Opera and concert appearances started to come her way. "I was always quite lucky," Barton said. "But nothing to the extent of what has happened in the last year and a half." A year and a half ago was the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Winning has changed her career "drastically," Barton said. She's even turned down offers. "I think we've said no as much as we've said yes." 

As the BBC puts it, "All eyes are on Cardiff during one week every other June — agents, managers, opera house directors, impresarios — whether they are in the city or experiencing the competition via the TV, radio and web broadcasts." 

To put it another way, competitions can be nerve-wracking. "Quite honestly, in the early years, it (competition) was particularly nerve-wracking. I'm not going to deny Cardiff was nerve-wracking. But that being said, it gets easier," Barton said. 

A friend told her to " 'Look at it as auditioning for a job.' I looked at it as auditioning for the greatest European job ever." She found it did help to "look at it like that, rather than as if my personal life is at stake." 

For her professional life, "Before Cardiff I was making a good name for myself and maybe I would do the roles I wanted at some point. Now I'm looking at my calendar through 2020, and I'm doing all the roles that I wanted to do," Barton said. 

"Not every singer gets that sort of luck, and I'm quite grateful for that luck."