“Classical music was my rebellion,” says Jamie Barton. The 27-year-old has strawberry blond hair, a megawatt smile that lights up a room and a personality that conveys a down-to-earth, girl-next-door quality with a little bit of spitfire.
But it’s her voice that’s getting her noticed, a rich, multi-layered mezzo soprano that’s only at the beginning of a journey that most music experts say will go on for decades. Opera News says she has a “sumptuous voice;” and The New York Times has praised her “gospel-powered fervor.”
It’s all made her a rising opera star, but you’ll never hear her describe herself that way. “If I stop and think about it, I freak out,” she confesses. “The things I am doing now are happening really early in my career.”
Those “things” include a Metropolitan Opera debut this fall as Second Lady in Mozart’s timeless The Magic Flute, following on the heels of her role debut as Penelope in Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria at Wolf Trap Opera Company and preceding her debut with the Canadian Opera Company.
“It’s such a surprise,” she says with that bright smile as she chats over Indian food in Houston, where she’s finishing up two years in Houston Grand Opera’s Studio training program for young artists. “I really wasn’t expecting [Second Lady]. It’s really nice to debut at the Met in a role that people observe and see as a good singing role.”
Rome today, tomorrow the world
It’s a long way from Rome, Georgia, where Barton grew up. But if the world is suddenly her oyster, she knows it all began here. “I love Georgia,” she says. “I lived on this farm, miles from anywhere. It was great, and there was always music.”
Her father played the guitar and the fiddle and his side of the family all had a musical bent, whether it was playing an instrument or singing; her mother loved music and Barton says she had a “really deep voice—she’s why I’m a mezzo.”
“We’d have jam fests at my great aunt’s house. Aunt Emma Jean and Uncle Cal lived across the street from us and they had this wraparound porch.” Barton remembers how family and friends would show up—and pretty soon they’d all be gathered on the porch, singing bluegrass.
Barton was involved in the chorus and musical theatre at Armuchee High School. She and her best friend Cole Burden—who recently finished a stint as Grantaire in Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars production of Les Miserables (“It’s funny how we both wound up in performing careers,” Barton muses)—and some of their other pals would hang out at Kaledisnow ice cream shop, sitting in booths, singing Broadway show tunes.
“I think the reason we never got thrown out was because we knew the waiters,” she laughs. “We were definitely not the cool kids.”
But they were the ones who brought back the drama program at their high school. The program had been cut, and Barton says Burden basically resurrected it, corralling her and a few others to anchor it.
In addition to performing in high school theatre, Barton’s mom would take her to concerts like Lilith Fair, and she is the first to admit her background often sounds a little bit hippie. “My parents are great,” she says. “They gave me a lot freedom to do things. So, I’d decide to paint my bedroom some wild color and they’d go, ‘Fine.’ We were really close, so there wasn’t a lot to rebel against.”
Instead, she used classical music to express herself. Barton graduated from Shorter College and went on to Indiana University, earning a master’s in vocal performance. While there, Barton sang Mrs. Soames in the world premiere of Our Town, based on Thornton Wilder’s classic, a performance The New York Times called “noteworthy.”
She received offers to perform at Aspen Music Festival and Opera Theatre of St. Louis, performing The Witch in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and Suzuki in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
Critics lavished praise on the young woman. The Dallas Morning News called her performance of Suzuki “vocally and dramatically … appealing,” while the Aspen Times raved that she “came close to stealing the show” as The Witch.
Then Barton won the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition and grabbed third place in the Eleanor McCollum Competition for Young Singers, becoming a Houston Grand Opera Studio fellow. The program is one of the country’s top young artist training programs and while there, she performed Ursula in Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict, Third Lady in The Magic Flute and sang in the company’s world premiere of The Refuge, ultimately recorded for Albany Records’ classical label.
Last winter, Barton made her Carnegie Hall debut, singing in the Marilyn Horn Foundation’s On the Wings of Song recital series. In fact, Horn has become one of Barton’s biggest supporters.
“She’s just done it all for me,” Barton says with a mixture of wonder and appreciation. “She got me my Carnegie Hall debut. I have management because of her.” Horn also wrote a personal recommendation for Barton for the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition.
“She’s still thinking of me.” Barton says the opera diva will call or email to tell her about things that she thinks are right for Barton. “I am so blessed by how she’s taken me under her wing.”
Stephanie Blythe, another mezzo known for her lyric repertoire, had always been a role model for Barton, who describes her as “an inspiration.” She met Blythe when she won the Met’s National Council Auditions, and didn’t see her until a year or so later, when Barton saw her perform at Tanglewood.
“I waited by the stage door, like a total fan” Barton laughs. “And she came out and she looked at me and did a double take. ‘Jamie?’ she asked. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God! Stephanie Blythe knows my name!’”
If the trajectory continues the way it has, so will a lot of other people.