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All Natural

Mezzo-soprano JAMIE BARTON, who sings Ježibaba in the Met’s new Rusalka next month, brings unaffected grace to all her music.
by William R. Braun. Photographs by Fay Fox. 

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Portraits by Faye Fox
“I THINK MY VOICE IS FURTHER GEARED TOWARDS BEAUTY THAN TOWARDS STEEL.”
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As Adalgisa in LA Opera’s 2015 Norma
© Ken Howard
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In concert at the 2015 BBC Proms, with conductor Marin Alsop
© Chris Christodoulou/Lebrecht Music & Arts

JAMIE BARTON'S VOICE IS A VAST, ENVELOPING SOUND,  the sort of thing soprano Carol Vaness calls “a voice that blankets.” This is true whether she is offering a Dvorˇák song in recital or holding the stage as Waltraute. But nowhere was it more in evidence than at the Glimmerglass Festival last summer. After her opening group of Turina songs, the heavens opened, and a major storm pelted the roof. Returning to the stage for a group of Ives songs, Barton merrily chirped, “Hi! It’s raining!” (It is hard to think of a singer readier than Barton to smile in a lieder recital or giggle offstage.) She then proceeded to override the storm with her voice, never losing quality of sound and never giving the slightest sign that she might be at her limits.

Barton’s career has already encompassed a rare double victory (both lieder and opera) at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, highly lauded appearances at the Met as Adalgisa in Norma and Jane Seymour in Anna Bolena, and a Richard Tucker Award. She made her Covent Garden debut last June, as Verdi’s Fenena—a role she repeats at the Met this season—and in February she will sing in her first new production at the Met, as Jezˇibaba to the Rusalka of Kristine Opolais. This is a remarkable list of credits, particularly since, as she puts it, “My first foray into this world was in the year 2000.” Incredibly, she is speaking not of the start of her career but of her arrival as an undergraduate music-education major at Shorter College, where she had her first real lessons in classical vocal technique.

Sources list Barton’s hometown as Rome, Georgia, but, she says, “That’s because that’s where the hospital is. I went to high school in Armuchee. It’s north of Rome, but my family lived even farther than that, up in the mountains.” Music meant bluegrass and hymns. “My grandparents and great aunt and uncle across the street would hold ‘pickin’-and-grinnin’s,’ as they called it. It would just be a bunch of people who were amateur musicians who’d play through everything that they could think of, and then they’d open up the old Cokesbury hymnal and start playing through different hymns. I remember getting ready for that like I was in the movie Dirty Dancing, getting ready for the dance, just so excited about going and experiencing this, but I was enthralled by the music.”

CLASSICAL MUSIC  came later in high school, in what Barton calls “the weirdest rebellion a child has ever chosen. In the teenage years, kids start to want to do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. Given that I grew up on a farm and my parents listened to a whole lot of classic rock—actually they were really cool parents—I wanted something different. And I was in piano lessons already. I discovered Chopin, and I completely went off the classical-music cliff.” It was soon apparent that she had an unusually large voice. “When I was singing in choirs, it was a lot of ‘Jamie! Blend!’ and ‘Jamie! Go to the back row!’ But I had the experience of having to learn how to use my voice in different ways, of learning how to blend in a group of voices where my voice could capsize a choir. I feel like in some ways I continue to expand with my voice. I try not to be just loud. People like to hear a story. So how can I take my voice, and the color of it, the breadth of it, and shape the text into what it is—that’s one of the ongoing challenges.”

The glory of Barton’s voice is in the area around the F and G at the top of the treble staff, but every part of her voice is commanding. She sustains her breath and tone to the very ends of phrases, but there’s always a dramatic point to the vocal opulence. As Waltraute, breaking in to see her long-banished sister, she produced a sound that first conveyed out-and-out joy at the reunion, before the narration turned dark. As Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible—in the great outpouring, “I do not judge you, John”—her consistency of sound portrayed both an unshakable religious faith and a degree of self-justification. And her ability to fill a phrase, even a phrase with a difficult downward leap at the end, is occasionally turned to comedy. As Julia Child in Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appetit, at Child’s assertion that a Queen of Sheba cake is “nicer than a soufflé because it doesn’t fall,” Barton pulled out a vocal plum at the end.

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As Fricka to Iain Paterson’s Wotan, in Das Rheingold at HGO, 2014
© Lynn Lane

THE ABILITY TO DO  a variety of things so well can cause difficulty or even confusion for a young singer when selecting roles. “That’s why I have a ‘board of directors,’” Barton says. “There are three people on my board—my manager, my voice teacher and a mentor.”Asked whether she would take a role if all three agreed on a project that she herself was unsure about, she immediately replies, “I’ve done that—with Adalgisa, Anna Bolena. All three of the board said, ‘Yep, you need to do this.’ These people who give me advice are older than I am, more experienced, and I trust them. It took me a while to trust that these roles were the right decision. And they were.”

Verdi is in the mix as well. In addition to Fenena and Azucena, Princess Eboli is on the way. But don’t expect to hear Barton as Amneris. “That one is not for me,” she says. “That judgment scene, it’s a bear. It takes that really steely middle singing, and I think my voice is further geared towards beauty than towards steel.” Wagner is another matter. “The interesting and funny thing is that Wagner is—I don’t want to sound flippant—my roll-out-of-bed-and-sing music,” she says. “There is something that is just so inherently correct about my singing this music. I feel, and my voice feels, that I understand this. The expression in German I get, and I love. The weird thing is that when I was singing Fricka, I could just warm up on the big scene in Walküre in the shower and get to the opera house, and I was fine. It didn’t take the kind of mental focus and gear-shifting that Verdi does.” Her Wagner epiphany came at a dress rehearsal of Götterdämmerung in Munich. Singing the Second Norn, she had not been around the rehearsals much. But at the dress rehearsal, waiting to practice the curtain call, she came upon Nina Stemme singing the immolation scene. “I’d never heard it live. I had a moment when it all came to me—‘Oh, this is what I love, this is my vocal home, this is my aesthetic, this makes me excited!’ I never knew that there was opera like that. And I was in the show.”

There has been a tendency to view Barton as part of a group of young singers who have all come up together, but the amplitude of her voice sets her apart. So does her commitment to song recitals. When I spoke with her early last October, she was about to embark on a recital tour of the U.K. that would culminate in a date at the Mecca of art song, London’s Wigmore Hall. “A lot of my colleagues are not particularly interested in being that close to an audience, in that level of vulnerability. I understand. And, I mean, a recital is a massive amount of memory, it’s a massive amount of voice, it’s a massive amount of effort in every way. But at the same time I’m drawn to it because of the intimacy. I like looking out into the audience and seeing exactly what is hitting, what’s missing, what people are responding to. I like the programming challenge, and I also like the freedom. I like the fact that, between me and a pianist, we get to choose what we’re doing, and that is one of the very few, maybe the only, edges of this career that we get full control of.”

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As Giovanna Seymour in the Met’s 2015 Anna Bolena revival, with Ildar Abdrazakov as Enrico
© Beatriz Schiller

MANY OF BARTON'S  stories about lieder revolve around Charles Ives, the composer who “made my mind absolutely spark.” Before her Ives group at Glimmerglass, she told the audience that the music was “an important and special group for me,” and she was taking a set of six Ives songs on her U.K. tour. Indeed, much of a two-hour conversation with Barton defined her as a particularly American artist. In often unexpected ways, topics kept circling back to family, church and bluegrass. Asked where her epic sense of humor comes from, she jumps in with, “Oh, my father, absolutely. You gotta picture this guy. He’s got longer hair than I do—he’s a country hippie. He used to wake us up for church on Sunday mornings by turning on Jimi Hendrix playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ turning it up to the loudest volume that it would go, cranking it throughout the house—he had a great stereo system—and bellowing down the hall ‘JAMIE! TYLER! GET UP, JESUS IS CALLING!’ He’s got kind of a dry sense of humor, but he does stuff like that.” A discussion of Barton’s excellent sense of pitch also turned back to church services when she was a girl. “I would hear my dad sing something that wasn’t what I was used to hearing at church, so I asked him what it was, and he taught me how to sing harmony. Aural theory was never a problem. I really attribute this to the bluegrass background. I could listen to a symphony score and understand what was happening in it harmonically.”

Discussion of what might interest her in the future further defines her as an artist of her own place and time. Asked what would tempt her to do a Broadway musical, she responds, “Oh, the mere mention of it would tempt me!” (Note to producers: she has her eye on Charlotte in A Little Night Music.) And ultimately the question of which composer might write an opera or song cycle for her brings everything full circle. “I think Chris Thile is one of the greatest musical minds of our time, of the last century,” she says of the mandolinist, who at the time of our interview was about to take over Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show. Barton had already bought tickets for one of Thile’s Christmas shows at New York’s Town Hall. “He really is a genius. If you listen to The Goat Rodeo Sessions, if you watch the DVD, you see that they came up with that on the spot. If you listen to the Punch Brothers, you hear them do Debussy and Scriabin. He’s the bridge in a big way across that particular aesthetic—the bluegrass kind of folky American things to the classical side—and he’s equally comfortable in both. To work with him on some Appalachian folk tunes, to set some of those John Jacob Niles things that I grew up singing, to marry that with what I do now would be amazing.” She is nearly out of her chair in excitement. “Feel free to print the hell out of that,” she says. spacer

William R. Braun is a pianist & writer based in Connecticut.



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