From witches and Wagner to women championing body positivity, the mezzo soprano talks all things opera with Lisa Houston

During an intermission at a recent performance of Dvorak’s Rusalka at San Francisco Opera, the audience seems entranced. It is a stunning David McVicar production and the singing is glorious all around, but there is something more. Mezzo soprano Jamie Barton has cast a spell with her mischievous interpretation of the sorceress, Jezibaba. It is a portrayal propelled by movement, facial expression, and vocal gymnastics that mock, scheme, delight, dismiss, and ultimately concoct.

Barton likes playing witches. ‘A witch is inherently the story of a woman going against what society deems worthy, beautiful, and powerful,’ says Barton, whose rich mezzo tones are lush and earthy, much like the deep valley known as ‘The Pocket’ northwest of Atlanta, Georgia, where her family has lived for generations. It is a special voice, in the tradition of mezzo powerhouses Dolora Zajick and Stephanie Blythe, both of whom Barton admires immensely.

One of the happy audience members at Rusalka that night is composer Jake Heggie. ‘She’s having fun,’ he says as we chat at intermission. ‘That’s why I love working with her. She so obviously enjoys what she does.’ The day after the performance, Barton meets with Heggie and the two rehearse for an upcoming recording of his songs. According to Barton, Heggie is one of the ‘special artists doing special things’ who make the many challenges of a life on the road worthwhile.

A little while after their rehearsal, Barton shows up for our meeting at a crowded Starbucks but we quickly flee the noise to complete the interview in her temporary home, a comfortable apartment with a stunning view of San Francisco. For a singer in demand, the view is constantly changing. Last year she sang in Washington, D.C., Houston, San Francisco, Munich, Chicago, and London. This year she sang Sister Helen Prejean in Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in Atlanta before essaying a pair of Frickas in the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring Cycle. After Jezibaba in San Francisco she will sing Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde in Amsterdam and Lucerne before closing The BBC Proms, traveling to New York to sing Orfeo in Orfeo ed Euridice at the Metropolitan Opera, and crossing the Atlantic yet again to give a recital at Wigmore Hall. But for Barton, home is where the cat is. When traveling stateside, she is accompanied by River, a green-eyed orange tiger kitty who makes her way onto the sofa during our interview, nuzzling next to the singer as she discusses a love of animals that goes back to her childhood days on a farm.

When not on the road, Barton still lives in Atlanta, near the foothills of Appalachia where she is just finishing a building project for her father, finally replacing the trailer she grew up in with a house. ‘We’re just about ready to buy the furniture,’ she says. ‘It’s [a] happy time.’

Barton was raised in a music-loving household and encouraged early on by her eighth grade choir director, who was also the wife of her first voice teacher, Dr. Brian Horne at Shorter College. ‘They have been like a second set of parents to me,’ says Barton. ‘I had no training before I went to college, and he built a technique for me from the ground up,’ she says of Horne, who is now on the faculty at Indiana University. Another important mentor of the same name has been Barton’s fellow mezzo, Marilyn Horne. ‘She offered me my debut recital and invited all of Columbia Artist Management to come. Then she invited me to do a duo recital with Russell Thomas, and through that concert I got my Met debut. She gave me opportunities that brought the attention you need to get a career off the ground. I would not be where I am without that woman.’

These days Barton pays that forward by mentoring a young singer through the Turn the Spotlight foundation, which pairs established professionals with emerging artists, particularly women and people of colour. ‘I have an overwhelming schedule,’ Barton says, ‘but I can take on one person. It’s an awkward part of the career for anyone.’

Barton knows all too well the pressure young artists are under. At twenty-five, she was one of the finalists of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council auditions featured in the 2007 documentary, The Audition. ‘I was as green as grass,’ she recalls. ‘Amber Wagner and I became good friends, and spent most of the week running around going, “Oh my God, we’re at the Met!”, seeing Anna Netrebko in the cafeteria and freezing like a deer in headlights.’

Barton saw other colleagues in the competition skyrocket to fame after the film came out. ‘I was envious,’ she says, ‘but looking back, I’m glad. I needed time to stew. The Houston Grand Opera Studio was exactly what I needed, a place out of the spotlight to get my feet under me.’

A witch is inherently the story of a woman going against what society deems worthy, beautiful, and powerful

While at Houston, Barton began working with collaborative pianist Kathleen Kelly, who encouraged the young singer to embrace Wagner. (Kelly will accompany Barton at Wigmore Hall in November.) Barton is quick to reject any idea that Wagner is bad for the voice. ‘If you’re built to sing it, it is not a voice killer,’ she says, adding that she adheres to the Leontyne Price adage about ‘singing on the interest, not the principle.’

Barton’s star began to rise in earnest when 2013 saw her crowned BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, and even more so in 2015 when she won the Richard Tucker Prize. Anne Midgette of the Washington Post describes her as ‘a singer with a big comfortable voice, from solid low to ringing high C,’ while Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle characterized her Sara in Roberto Devereux as ‘rich in pathos and cloaked in the thickly upholstered vocal colors that make her singing so irresistible.’

Barton is the first to acknowledge that it takes work for a voice of this size to navigate bel canto. ‘In some ways it is not as innate for me as the Germanic languages and the through-composed style,’ she says. ‘It comes down to the elements of storytelling that are more natural to me. On top of that, I’ve got a loud honking voice. With Wagner, or even Jezibaba, my voice clicks into it kind of automatically,’ she says, explaining that the tessitura tends to be lower in the Wagnerian repertoire. ‘In bel canto, I have to mentally focus more to do it well. But it’s a thousand percent worth it. Variety keeps me flexible.’

Barton takes the artistic trajectory of her career seriously, weighing repertoire decisions with Kelly, voice teacher Stephen King, and her management team, which includes Michael Benchetrit of CAMI in New York, and Ian Stones and Shirley Thomson of Harrison Parrott in the UK. Barton describes her approach as sequential, one role building to the next. ‘With Wagner, I did a Magdalene in Die Meistersinger, then Second Norn was the next step, then Fricka, then Waltraute. The next step is Brangäne. I look forward to the day when I can I can look at a Venus or a Kundry. Further in the future I’d love to tackle an Ortrud. It’d be so much fun.’

With Verdi her method has been equally considered. ‘I have gone from Amina in La Traviata, to Fenena, to Azucena, then Eboli. The next one coming is Amneris. That’s further down the line and hasn’t been announced. That role is going to challenge me. Verdi is a composer I have to be very careful with.’

There’s another role on Barton’s radar, which to date she has not been offered. ‘I feel strongly about Carmen,’ she says, ‘because I think I understand the character and the conflict. Carmen and all her associates are creative, liberal, colourful. They would be a Seattle, Washington, group of friends. While Don Jose is conservative, very Atlanta, Georgia,’ she says, laughing. ‘So they are oil and water. There is a stock character that people go to, which makes sense in a lot of ways, but for me the character is not dependent upon a size and look. I think a body-positive Carmen is right up the alley of what people should be thinking of and it’s something I’d love to be a part of.’

Inclusivity on stage and in life is a true passion of Barton, who shares openly on social media about LGBTQ pride, gender equality, and body image issues, writing recently: ‘My voice is directly impacted by the anatomy around it. Fat and all.’

Barton says she would love to sing Carmen with a company like Opera Philadelphia. Even though she has yet to work with them, she admires this kind of forward-thinking organization. ‘They have a real understanding of the truth kernels of opera, the elements of storytelling that connect with the audience,’ she says. There are companies with which Barton feels a particular affinity. ‘Houston is doing La Favorite specifically for me,’ she says. ‘I’m interested in building relationships with those houses, like San Francisco, who are doing really good work, but also trying to be inclusive in terms of who they hire as well as who they market to. That is a direction opera needs to go in to stay relevant and viable.’