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The world on a string: talking to Jamie Barton

American mezzo Jamie Barton, who has steadily been winning fans in the US over the past few years for her rich and nuanced singing, took the international opera world by storm last weekend by winning both the Song Prize as well as the overall prize in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Watching her final program of arias from Adriana Lecouvreur, Hansel und Gretel, and Berlioz’s Les Troyens, along with a song by Sibelius, it’s hard to imagine how the international jury that included Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Dame Felicity Palmer, Neil Shicoff and Håkan Hagegård could have chosen anyone else. 

Born in Rome, Georgia, the 31-year-old mezzo returns to this fall to the Metropolitan Opera where she made her debut as The Second Lady in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in 2009 to sing Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma opposite Angela Meade. Barton took some time away from traveling and relaxing after her double-barreled win to answer some questions by email for Parterre Box.

DeCaffarrelli: Competitions seem a necessary evil for most singers these days and you’ve done particularly well at them, having also won the National Council Auditions at the MET in 2007. Is there a particular talent or skill to doing well at these? I know you share a manager with Nicole Cabell–the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World—did she give you any advice or insight into negotiating that particular event?

Barton: I think the greatest piece of advice I’ve ever been given in this career came early in my training: “Take your time.” For me, this translated into doing things when I was ready to do them. I think this is especially important for voices that take a little while to bloom: I was never going to be able to win one of the larger competitions before my mid-20s because my voice was still going through growth spurts and figuring its way out!  But, I think this is all a round-about way of saying that I think, having given myself the time to grow, I also gave myself the time to learn what I need to succeed in competing: a calm mind, well-prepared music, and an absence of “the noise” (as Ms. Price would call it).  I think these things feed into me being able to do my job, which is preparing something that would please an audience and make them curious to see me again.  So far, that formula has worked for me!  And yes, Nicole did send advice… everything from telling me about her experiences with the competition to a note before the competition started just to wish me luck!  She’s not the only one either: Leah Crocetto, Ryan McKinny, and Quinn Kelsey were all very helpful too.  It’s good to have multiple points of view.

DeCaffarrelli: American singers are often praised (and sometimes damned) for being able to sing most everything well. During the competition, it was often remarked that you brought an unusually varied and interesting repertoire: Sibelius, Donizetti (in French), Berlioz, Humperdinck, Cilea, etc. Was this a conscious decision to highlight your versatility or have you always sung an eclectic variety of music?

Barton: I’ve definitely always sung an eclectic variety of music, partially due to what was available for my voice at a younger age, but also because I enjoy finding rep that is a bit out there.  It’s easier to be able to interpret freshly, and fewer recordings also means fewer opinions on the way something “has” to go.

DeCaffarrelli: From remarks by radio and television commentators along with posts online, it seemed clear from the first night that you were the odds-on favorite to win at least one of the prizes. Did that buzz get back to you and, if so, did it have any effect on your concentration/preparation? Were you aware any of your fellow competitors trying to get you to sit in drafts, etc.?

Barton: Honestly, the only buzz that really got back to me was that of friends contacting me to congratulate me on what they were seeing online.  But, I tried to stay fairly insular on purpose… I kind of feel like if I let in the opinions (good or bad) it distracts me from being able to think rationally about how I’m performing.  And no,  the other competitors were nothing but kind and professional.  Of course, we all wanted to win, but one of the pluses of having competitor colleagues that already have a few years under their belts in the career is that, for the most part, everyone is very friendly.  No matter how much we each want to win, the competition only lasts a week or so and we will be colleagues within the business for many, many years to come.  I think most performers would prefer to be friendly to the people they’re going to spend time with on gigs on the road– it just makes it easier when you’re away from you home, bed, spouses, and children/pets!

DeCaffarrelli:  In addition to your wins at Cardiff, 12-13 was a banner season for you from your show-stopping appearance at the Richard Tucker Gala at Avery Fisher Hall which was later televised over PBS…

…to your acclaimed Agnese in Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda at Carnegie Hall with Collegiate Chorale to your first-ever Mahler #3, performed in Venezuela with Gustavo Dudamel, as well Magdalene in the new production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Lyric Opera of Chicago. How do you top that? What upcoming projects can you share with us that you are looking forward to?

Barton: 2012-13 was definitely a banner year, and one that (for the most part) came as a surprise!  Many of those gigs were booked last minute.  This next year does not disappoint at all, though–my first leading lady at the Met in Norma, my first Fricka with Houston Grand Opera, my debut with the Cleveland Orchestra–all of these are very big steps for me professionally, and I’m really looking forward to them!

DeCaffarrelli: Every singer seems to dream about singing a particular role or roles, for sopranos it always seems to be either Violetta or Tosca. Are there roles that you covet and would like to tackle over the next decade of your still young career? Didon? Kundry? Eboli? (Attention, worldwide intendants!)

Barton: Oh yeah… there are definitely roles that I just can’t wait to get to try.  The first ones that come to mind are Eboli, Amneris, Didon, and Léonor (c’mon… somebody do a La Favorite!)  Outside of these sorts of women are some really fun things; I’d love to sing a Baba the Turk in The Rake’s Progress, and although I’m not the typical body type for this, I really feel like I’d sing the heck out of a Carmen.  In concert, I’d really love to get to sing a Dream of Gerontius, Mahler #2, or an Alto Rhapsody (although it’s not too easy to find someone with a men’s choir raring to back me up!).

Barton’s discography is still fairly small at this point but includes leading roles in two baroque works recorded with Ars Lyrica of Houston, Hasse’s Marc’ Antonio e Cleopatra and Domenico Scarlatti’s La Dirindina. She also appears in recordings of three contemporary operas, The Refuge by Christopher Theofanidis, André Previn’s Brief Encounter and Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket.

Photo: Jonathan Timms

117 comments

  • MontyNostry says:

    A Cardiff connection here, so not totally OT …

    I just discovered that Welsh National Opera is staging and touring Roberto Devereux with the oft-slagroomed (see above) Alexandra Deshorties. My interest and curiosity has been aroused, since it will be touring to Oxford, so in easy reach of London. Do you think it will be worth a punt (Oxford joke there, haha)?

    There is also Anna Bolena with Serena Farnocchia and I rather like her. Not so interested by Maria Stuarda with Judith Howarth and Adina Nitescu.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      I had been wondering about casting for their Tudor trilogy, and would never have guess Deshorties in a million years! I’ll probably try and get to that.

      Never heard of Farnocchia, can’t muster up any enthusiasm for Howarth, or Maria Stuarda in general (although I’ll give it a go at the ROH next year).

      • MontyNostry says:

        I think it could be rather fun. I saw Farnocchia as Fiordiligi six or seven years ago and found her a very appealing singer, though I’m not sure she is ballsy enough for Anna B. (Her recent Norwegian Verdi Requiem, with Fabiano, seemed well sung, from what I saw of it, but there is something placid about her.)

        • Cocky Kurwenal says:

          Have you heard Leah-Marian Jones recently? When I first started going to the ROH in the second half of the 1990s, she was in EVERYTHING, but has disappeared of my radar since. Sara is a meaty role with an aria and 2 big duets, as well as ensembles, I sort of worry about them entrusting it to a former comprimaria who doesn’t seem to have got very far in 20 years. For all I know she’s fabulous though and seldom works because she’s bringing up children, or something.

          • MontyNostry says:

            I haven’t seem LMJ recently, but she always seemed a sound singer and she looks good. I tend to think of her as being a bit like Anne Mason, who has always garnered lots of praise for her appearances with companies like OHP.

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            Yes, you’re probably right. No reason not to go.

            (I went right off Anne Mason recently, reading her contributions to recent FB threads -- she gets more Jan Moir-ish by the day it seems).

          • MontyNostry says:

            Less is Moir. I’ve always found Mason’s voice a bit buzz-saw-ish, but she never fails to deliver the goods. Talking of OHP mezzos, the one time I saw Carole Wilson there, as Ulrica, I wondered why she isn’t more famous.

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            Carole will be thrilled to hear that. What did you see her in? It’s a funny thing, but standing next to her on stage it seems like a small, almost amateurish voice which she uses in a sort of artless, totally straight forward way -- she is 100% ego-free. Clearly it goes over the foot lights extremely well.

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            Duh, Ulrica, you said.

          • MontyNostry says:

            I just remember her Ulrica being very classy. It was an odd evening -- when David Rendall had to sing from the side of the stage for another tenor, who had laryngitis, I think. Amanda Echalaz was a strong Amelia, though she couldn’t float enough -- she’s got better at that since.

    • Camille says:

      Depending upon the current state of her vocal condition, and you certainly will NOT be hearing ‘the beautiful voice’, you could be in for an exciting evening with La Deshorties, especially in a big diva role such as Elisabetta. Aside from hearing her notorious performance in ABDUCTION from the SERAGLIO over the radio (which was not all that bad, a matter of de gustibus I felt), I have heard her but one other time, and in the theatre, as Valentine in The HUGUENOTS. She is what I term “interesting”, as a singer and performer. Now I am sorry I didn’t venture upstate to hear the MEDEA, which she ventured a couple summers ago.

      She is nowhere near the NADJir, if you get my drift….and an intelligent interpreter, to say the least. There is a review of HUGUENOTS from-when? Summer of 2009, I believe, in the Archives which you may peruse, or not. At any rate, here’s hoping I don’t end up with a face full of slagroom for having given her a good word or two. Cheers!

      • MontyNostry says:

        I might just book a ticket for Roberto Devereux based on that advice, Camille, even if it means having to shlep to Oxford.

        • Camille says:

          Oh dear, please do refer yourself to that review of her performance in Les Huguenots before you do — I believe it is written by John Yohalem, a reliably intelligent and experienced reviewer. As it does take “temperament” in spades for this role, on that count you may be assured you shall get your moneys’ worth! I do so hope you will get some more advice from someone who has heard her more recently, as I wouldn’t have you going all the way out to Oxford for a disappointing evening! If her voice is in order she could very well be an eccelente Elisabetta.

          You can always visit “Downtown Manhattan” while you are there..hahaha..I did love THAT!

          Bon voyage!

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        There is in fact a favourable review of Deshorties in the current edition of opera. Unhelpfully, I can’t remember what of -- a contemporary work I think, which I had never heard of, and which didn’t stick in my mind for that reason. If it helps, I think Susan Graham may have been involved (although I read so many reviews today, they might have got muddled). Anyway, it had no complaints about her at all.

        • MontyNostry says:

          Argento’s Aspern Papers, Cocky. It says, if I remember rightly, something about her ‘allowing some brittleness’ into her tone when playing the older version of her character. Was that being gallant?

  • MontyNostry says:

    Scarily, I think the last opera I saw at the New Theatre in Oxford was a Glyndebourne Touring Falstaff in October 1981. At the time the theatre was decorated in red metalflake and had a nightclub downstairs called Downtown Manhattan. Sheer class.

  • zamusik says:

    congrats, jb!