WHAT'S ON STAGE
by Mark Valencia
Sharing ice tea with Jamie Barton was one of the better things to happen in 2016. In late October, the morning after an ecstatically received Wigmore Hall recital, the American mezzo-soprano spoke to WhatsOnStage about her career and about her forthcoming appearances in two of the Metropolitan Opera's 'Live in HD' cinema relays, the first of which, Verdi's Nabucco, can be seen in cinemas worldwide this Saturday.
In 2013 Barton was the wildly popular winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, so it's fair to say that in Britain we think of her as one of our own. But...
Where do you call home?
Home is in Atlanta, Georgia. It's an hour and a half from where I grew up, so it's been a large part of my life.
Singing has always been very natural to me. My family is quite musical, though not in a classical way, so I went into college thinking I wanted to do music education or maybe musical theatre, something like that. I discovered quite quickly that in order to be a MT actor I'd need to know how to dance and I wasn't ready for that. I'm not a triple threat, I'm a healthy double threat" (she chuckles), "so I thought 'What will allow me to be on stage but not have to dance? Opera. So I guess I'll try that.' And it worked!
I had discovered opera one or two years prior to college, listening to a compilation CD, and I distinctly recall some unknown lady on a Mozart album singing the Queen of the Night's aria from The Magic Flute and thinking 'wow, that's really cool. I want to do that too'.
The voice you have now is a magical instrument. How much of that is a gift and how much is the product of serious work?
I think that in order to have this career you absolutely need to have the natural gift. You need to have the physical structure—the resonating chambers that create the sound—and there are plenty of people in the world who don't have that. But that being said, you can have the perfect instrument and not do anything with it. The work that goes into it is massive. If I'm onstage and I haven't done the correct technical work with my voice, or worked with the language, or explored the story with the director, then the product is chaotic.
Directors are so important. I definitely have some I love working with, and good ones I've stumbled upon along the way, but I'm always happy to discover someone new. It gives me a fresh view into how to do this craft.
Up to now it's been common in my career that for a new production I'll show up on the first day and wonder how it's going to look. They don't send you any of the details beforehand unless you're a Joyce DiDonato or Anna Netrebko and you're launching a production.
Thinking of Nabucco, which you're singing for the Met: you recently appeared in a production here for The Royal Opera that is not greatly loved, and now you'll be singing the same role, with many of the same singers, in a Met production that by contrast is very much loved. Have you any preconceptions?
Honestly no, and I prefer to keep the preconceptions out of it. I am aware that it's well loved. I've heard that it's got lots of fire and lots of stairs, but beyond that I don't need to know much. I'm not trying to receate what the Fenena before me did, I'm aiming to come in with a blank slate. It's been quite a while since they've done this production at the Met, and this is a special cast of singers so it requires a more personal touch. It's the first time I've ever done one staging of an opera and then transferred with the same group of people to another production, and all within the year.
Have you done an HD Live before?
No. I've got a lot of friends who've done it before, though. The first Met production I did was The Magic Flute in Julie Taymor's production—I was the Second Lady—and to hear what they went through in the HD is very different, I believe, from how it is now. I've only known it myself from the audience perspective, which I love. I know it's a bit controversial and people either love or hate it, but now it means my mother can drive for an hour and go see me on a big screen. It's kind of nuts! I'm sure the process can be improved, but overall giving access to one of the greatest houses is amazing. And the ROH does this too, of course.
It enables us to bring opera to so many parts of the globe. You hear the phrase 'this art form is dying', but I refuse to believe it. It may be more that it's reshaping itself, as it must. People have this idea that opera has been the same since it was invented, but it hasn't. It's continually evolving. That's why it's still alive and still relevant.
You'll be doing two HDs this season, because you're also singing Ježibaba in Rusalka later on. Is that a role debut for you?
Yes, she's brand new. I'm still getting to know her. It's going to be fun to do a character part. I did the Witch in Hansel und Gretel a couple of times and I love that sort of thing; but this is one of a different flavour and I'm looking forward to seeing what the production does with her. And I'll be working with Sir Mark Elder, who's conducting. He is a champion for good art and I'm really looking forward to making music with him.
One of my favourite experiences was going to see Robert Lepage's Das Rheingold in a movie theatre. I was in Houston, Texas, and the place was packed. Seeing that in the cinema was just incredible; and Eric Owens was in it—he's a Houston boy—so when he came out onstage the whole audience erupted into cheers. It was fascinating to see the audience reactions. Very different from being in the theatre. There's no popcorn there for one thing.
Eric Owens is part of the Met family, and so now are you. Is there a lot on the horizon for you?
Yes, there's quite a lot. It's no secret that I'm going to be coming back in the new Norma production. And the thing I'm particularly excited about is the Ring. I'm going to be Fricka when they bring that back. I love that role; the ladies I get to sing in the Ring are my favourites. The Waltraute scene in Götterdämmerung is one I did this year for the first time and it's 12 minutes of the most glorious storytelling. The same with Fricka in Die Walküre. So often people say she comes out and yells at Wotan for 20 minutes, but I love the character. She is the one person in the story who tells the truth unconditionally at all times. She's the moral compass. Even thoughWagner wrote her vocal line to be a bit naggish, I see her as a very sympathetic character, not a harpy!
Is this the Lepage production again? I didn't think that was coming back.
A lot of us were under that impression, but it's been announced that it is.
You really belong to the New York Met now, and over here we're bereft. Is there anything you can tell us about when we see you over here again?
Oh gosh, honestly no. But I'm hoping there'll be invitations.