Jamie Barton: A new breed of operatic superstar

Jamie Barton

Jamie Barton

– By Ray Cooklis

Her voice has been compared to that of the, well, incomparable Kirsten Flagstad, legendary Wagnerian soprano. She has sung major roles in operas such as Bellini’s “Norma,” Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” and Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle in leading venues worldwide. She won the 2007 Metropolitan Opera Auditions, 2013 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, 2014 Marian Anderson Award, 2015 Richard Tucker Award and the 2017 Beverly Sills Artist Award.

Clearly, American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is not just a still-rising vocal phenomenon, but an established international star.

And now, in a major coup for the 105-year-old Matinee Musicale Cincinnati recital series, Barton comes to Cincinnati’s Memorial Hall Jan. 26 for her local recital debut. Barton also will conduct a master class for voice students at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, co-sponsored by Matinee Musicale, Jan. 25, free to the public.

Barton’s astounding voice – “sumptuous” seems the adjective most frequently employed – has earned her the sort of superlatives not heard in decades. “The world has been waiting for this voice for a long time – one that reminds you of how capable the human voice is of creating something of absolute beauty,” says leading mezzo Joyce DiDonato, a fellow Sills award winner.

Matinee Musicale had Barton on its radar for several years, says organization treasurer Nancy Martin, who was instrumental in negotiating Barton’s appearances here. “We are very excited that we will be able to present her in her first Cincinnati solo recital.  She is, indeed, an intelligent and insightful singer.”

Heady stuff for Barton, a native of Armuchee, Georgia, who, at age 36 and at an enviable height of fame, says she came relatively late in life to opera. Her parents favored classic rock, and she didn’t gravitate toward classical music until high school, where her big, fresh voice relegated her to the back of the choir risers with plaintive admonitions to “blend.”

She earned her undergraduate degree in voice at Shorter College in nearby Rome, Georgia, then went on for graduate work at the prestigious Indiana University School of Music, a hotbed of aspiring young opera singers.

Further training at the Houston Grand Opera Studio honed her skills, leading to a flurry of smaller roles with companies such as the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Then came Cardiff, and Barton’s career has been on a rocket ride ever since.

“Life has certainly changed drastically for me since 2013, when I had a sort of double-header of winning Cardiff Singer of the World, and a few months later did my first leading lady at the Metropolitan Opera (Adalgisa in “Norma”), and I’m not entirely sure if the attention will ever feel ‘normal,’ ” Barton says.

“I’m naturally an introvert, and I honestly never expected to have a life where I would get fan mail or sign autographs, so sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming! But, I’ve found that I love interacting with classical music goers, and it’s always a joy to be able to meet some of the people who connect with me on social media at the backstage door.” 

Jamie Barton (Photo by Rebecca Fay)

Cincinnati Opera audiences first heard Barton in 2015 as Azucena in a production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.”

“Jamie Barton is a rare combination of up-to-date and a throwback,” says Evans Mirageas, Cincinnati Opera artistic director. “What places her in the new generation of emerging stars is her ability to be so wonderfully normal offstage and so extraordinary onstage.

“Her voice is the throwback. It is a thrilling dramatic mezzo-soprano voice with an unusually wide range. It is almost contralto at the low end and nearly dramatic soprano at the top.”

What sets her apart from her contemporaries in the operatic world is not only her powerhouse voice, but her distinctive artistry in a more intimate recital setting, such as January’s Memorial Hall program.

“As you know, some opera phenoms are not always successful in the more intimate and exposed atmosphere of the recital scene, but Jamie has had phenomenal success in her most recent recital tours,” says Martin, herself a mezzo-soprano.

“The recital reviews have all been extraordinary – not just in praising that sumptuous voice but also noting the diversity of song literature and languages – all impeccably presented!”

Barton’s undergraduate experience at Shorter may have helped her develop her recital skills.

“There is a very special place in my heart for recitals,” Barton says. “I love the intimacy of it, between myself and my collaborating partner, as well as the intimacy of telling short stories to a smaller audience with whom I can visually connect. I really love looking out at the audience and seeing their reactions… noting how the music moves them, and what elements of the text hit home changes my performance in the moment quite organically.”

Whether in opera or recital, Barton says she gets a special thrill reaching out to listeners who are unfamiliar with classical music in general.

“I particularly love meeting people who are new to loving classical music,” Barton says. “I was late to learning how powerful and interesting this music can be, and so I feel a bit of a bond with those who are just discovering that for themselves. Nerding out over a musical experience with a newbie is almost like getting to experience that thrill again myself!”

Barton says she approaches a recital in a completely different manner from an operatic performance.

“Preparing for a recital really is something akin to preparing to tell a group of stories to an audience directly,” she says. “There may be lights and a fancy dress, but so much of the bravado of an opera performance is stripped away, and it comes down to the close, intimate connection that all of us in that hall get to share in for the evening. It’s an experience I can’t get on the opera stage, and one that I need in order to feel like a whole artist.”

That Cincinnatians will get the chance to hear Barton close up in Memorial Hall is a tribute to Matinee’s new vision and willingness to adapt.

“Matinee Musicale could never have afforded to hire singers of the caliber and reputation of Jamie Barton in years past, but a recent generous bequest to us from Louise Dieterle Nippert has enabled us to expand our horizons and continue our mission,” Martin says.

Also, she adds, making Memorial Hall the series’ major venue this season eliminated a major hurdle to getting Barton – who had only that weekend available for a recital all season – “because it’s a larger theater than those in which we have performed in the past five or so years, and we do anticipate a good turnout for this international star.”

Likewise, it’s a rare opportunity for both students and the public to watch Barton get into the inner workings of the vocal art in her CCM master class.

For Barton, getting to see “real artistic intent” in students is most important, and “I find that a lot of times, they need reminding that that is the point.”

Actually, it also reminds her of her own vocal development.

“During the academic years, I know that I had my head so focused on singing correctly that I sometimes forgot that what we do is a living, breathing art form,” Barton says.

“These composers we sing give us so many clues in the score as to the story they’re composing music to and how to bring it to life. It sometimes takes a little extra digging, but I find when the storytelling becomes the mental focus, then a lot of the other details that singers worry about (remembering words, pronunciation, how to sing that coloratura passage accurately, maintaining a legato line, etc.) tend to correct themselves.

The ability to probe beyond the vocal sound itself, Mirageas says, is what makes Barton’s artistry so special. “She is not a singer who simply goes for beautiful sounds alone. Communication – urgent, passionate, nearly a desperate desire to make you feel what she feels as she sings the stories of her characters or gives voice to the poetry of songs – is her hallmark. Jamie Barton’s time is now and we are lucky to be her contemporaries.”

Matinee Musicale presents Jamie Barton, Friday, Jan. 26, 7:30 p.m., Memorial Hall. matineemusicalecincinnati.org

Jamie Barton Master Class, Thursday, Jan. 25, 11:30 a.m., University of Cincinnati CCM, Werner Recital Hall

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