Georgia On Her Mind

Georgia On Her Mind

Today’s superlative-driven society inundates us with designations of distinction. From “Employee of the Month” to Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” we love to laud the “most” and the “best.” Some boast of achievements like All-Region, All-State, and All-American.

But “Singer of the World”? That title is still hard for mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton to wrap her mind around after recently capturing the top prize from the BBC-sponsored vocal competition in Cardiff, Wales.

“Getting that title—for me, it was overwhelming,” Barton said during a phone interview from her Georgia home. “I’m actually sitting on my couch looking at the trophy right now, thinking, ‘I can’t believe that actually came home with me!’ We actually had to buy extra luggage for it.”

Barton also won the competition’s World Song Prize, becoming the first female in its 30-year history to win both awards, and only the second singer ever to do so.

Truly an international competition, the four other finalists vying for the £15,000 grand prize included an Italian soprano, Argentinian mezzo soprano, Croatian bass-baritone, and Ukrainian soprano—while the finalists for the £5,000 song prize were a Hungarian soprano, Belarusian tenor, Ukrainian soprano, and English tenor.

They all sang for an accomplished jury comprised of Adam Gatehouse, Christoph Prégardien, Dame Felicity Palmer, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Håkan Hagegård, Maren Hofmeister, Neil Shicoff, Nicholas Payne, and Per Boye Hansen.

Traditionally, a win in Cardiff can serve to expedite the ascension of careers already on the move, as it did for previous grand prize winners Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Karita Mattila and song prize winner Bryn Terfel.

But this is by no means Barton’s first major victory. She was a 2007 winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, was nominated for a Grammy, and was awarded a Career Grant from the Richard Tucker Foundation in 2012. Having already performed with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Bayerische Staatsoper, the Canadian Opera Company, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, her upcoming schedule includes engagements with Opera Memphis and the Cleveland Orchestra, a Carnegie Hall appearance with the Marilyn Horne Song Celebration, and a return to the Metropolitan Opera as Adalgisa in Norma.

However, in reflecting on this success, Barton emphatically points to the teachers, institutions, and programs that helped her along the way and continue to fuel her quickly rising star.

“I definitely did come from a musical family,” Barton says. “But it wasn’t classical music by any stretch of the imagination.” Thanks to her parents’ predilection toward classic rock and bluegrass, music of one kind or another has been constant throughout her life.

“There was always music around the house,” she says of her family home in Rome, Georgia. “Growing up in kind of a rickety little house with a record player, you learned that when music was playing to sit and listen instead of jumping around and running.”

Her interest in classical music began during her teenage years, partly due to an adolescent desire to be different. “It was just so opposite from what I came from,” she said. “As any teenager going through their rebellion, you want to do something completely opposite as your parents. And, hilariously, mine was classical music.”

In high school, she was increasingly drawn to musical theatre, her first choice of study. But her lack of triple-threat skills (“I can’t dance to save my life!”) necessitated exploring other options.

She was searching for the next thing, which would allow her to sing and act at the same time. “Opera was the logical answer, and I guess I’m just lucky that that’s what my voice is suited to do.”

She initially hoped to move away for college, but several factors made Shorter College in her hometown the logical choice. Barton’s eighth grade choir director is married to former Shorter College voice professor Brian Horne. “I had been told he was a very good voice teacher,” Barton remembers, “and so I asked to study with him and got into Shorter. And that was probably the most fortuitous decision at that point in my life.”

During Barton’s senior year at Shorter, Horne encouraged her to audition for the graduate program at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he completed his own graduate studies. “Unbeknownst to me at the time, he was putting in his application for faculty,” Barton said.

As the semester continued and it looked more and more likely that Barton would choose IU, Horne revealed that he had been hired as assistant professor of music and was moving there himself. It was news that would seal the deal for Barton.

“There are people who are born with really incredible natural talent, and a lot of times that can go straight down the toilet depending on what voice teachers they end up with,” Barton said. “I’m really, really glad that I got with one that was a pedagogue—a technical teacher.”

As she continued vocal study with Horne in her first year at Indiana, he encouraged her to look beyond his studio for her next teacher. “The plan was, going in, that I would use that year to get to know the rest of the faculty and take a year to kind of figure who else I wanted to try to go on to,” she says. “So he was the one who pushed me on to other ears.”

She found that next teacher in fellow mezzo and Voice Department Chair Mary Ann Hart, who remembers well the early lessons, technical progression, and vocal breakthroughs.

“It was so much fun to introduce music to Jamie,” Hart says. “She came to me with a very solid technique, thanks to her work with my colleague Brian Horne, and was especially attached to her lower octave and a half. We spent a good deal of time exploring her head voice, which was light and somewhat new to her. When successful sounds came out, we would generally laugh like hyenas. Thankfully, the occasional happy dance lives only in our fond memories, not on YouTube!”

Beyond building her voice, Barton recognizes how much Indiana prepared her for future success. “I think for a young student, it’s critical to start at a place where you can really dig in, do things, be on stage, make mistakes, get in there and kind of figure your way out,” she says. “And then I think the next really important step is to go somewhere where you have to work to be noticed and you have to work to get the opportunities. It kind of separates the men from the boys. IU was certainly that.”
Upon graduation, a next major stepping stone was serving as a young artist at Houston Grand Opera, which she describes as “completely different” from the academic world. “Houston Grand was really wonderful. It was something I’m really glad I went through.”

She recalls learning the inner workings of an opera house, finding another acclaimed voice teacher in Stephen King, managing her time and energy like never before, and the intimidation of understudying her “vocal idol,” Ewa Podleś, in two roles. “I was quaking in my shoes for the first few months in Houston, going, ‘Oh God, please don’t make me go on!’”

Transitioning from student to Young Artist made Barton aware of how much her apprenticeship in Houston was preparing her for professional work. “I needed the time in between the end of IU and the beginning of my career to be able to once again be in a place where I could learn, have a good voice teacher, get to do things and figure things out, and also make mistakes but not have the New York Times looking in on every performance that I’m doing. . . . I needed to sort myself out, and that included making a lot of mistakes and having a very patient group of people pushing me when I needed pushing.”

Having known her since she was 13, Horne recalls moments when Barton required a little pushing. “She herself would admit that I had to sit her down on a couple occasions to remind her that she would need to work harder if she wanted to have some chance of success,” he says. “More or less, I told her that I couldn’t guarantee that she would succeed if she gave it everything she had, but I could guarantee that she wouldn’t succeed if she didn’t give everything she had. The difference is that Jamie, first of all, had the maturity to accept that message. Many students would stomp off in a huff that I didn’t recognize their greatness. To her credit, Jamie agreed with my assessment, apologized for her lack of effort, and promised to do better—which she did.”

He believes that honesty and self-knowledge propelled her forward in her vocal studies. “When Jamie put forth less than her best effort, she recognized that. Jamie had times of more discipline and times of less discipline, as we all do—but when she was slacking off, she didn’t blame anyone but herself for the fact that things might not have been going well.”

Barton can easily track how this discipline resulted in considerable technical progress over the years. “I’ve always had a bit of an extension on either side. My upper extension has gotten considerably higher and my lower extension has gotten considerably stronger. And, then, more important than either of those, my middle voice has really filled out and I’ve been able to connect through the breaks much more seamlessly.”

Horne also noticed the important strides she made in her vocal development and how that contributed to her consistent success. “She’s improved in all ways, but I believe that the most significant difference is that she has learned to handle that enormous voice,” he says. “When I took Jamie to NATS in her undergraduate years, sometimes she would win and sometimes she wouldn’t. It seems hard to believe that such a voice wouldn’t take every prize she approached, but it took a while to grow into it.”

Hart also observed this progress and believes it has put Barton on a decidedly positive path. “Jamie always had a voluptuous sound, and it has grown exponentially in size and range (upward!) in the last six years,” she says. “She’s entered the prime mezzo years—the next 20 or so will be so exciting!”

Barton is reaping the benefits of her expanded range and technique as she takes on a more varied and demanding repertoire. “The arias that I sing now are the ones that I was looking into for the first time thinking, ‘Holy hell, how do I do that?’” she says. “Now it’s quite easy, connecting that middle voice, being able to use the breath in a way that’s going to smooth over the passaggio.”

This improved technique gave her tremendous possibilities in choosing the repertoire for the Cardiff competition, which took some time to narrow down. Once again, she looked to the advice of trusted mentors. “When I first got the notice that I was being invited to represent the U.S.,” she says, “the first person I told was my husband, the second person I told was my manager, and then the third person I told was Matthew Epstein, who has been a part of that competition for years—used to judge in it.” Besides knowing the ins and outs of Cardiff, she credits Epstein as having an expert knowledge of repertoire. With his help, they had her main prize competition literature selected within a week.

The song prize repertoire, however, did not come quite so easily. “It actually took about a month and a half to seriously solidify because, luckily, I’ve done a lot of recital music.” In consulting with both her manager and Mary Ann Hart, they were together able to choose music that was best suited to her voice and fit the parameters of the competition.

“I needed arias that were going to put me out there and I needed art songs that would make people sit up and go ‘Wow!’ But, at the same time, I needed contrast,” she says. “That’s hard to plan, so I was grateful to have those people to help me do it.”

Horne is convinced that Barton’s choice of repertoire played a part in her bringing home both awards. “I believe the breadth of her repertoire and her ability to deliver it all was most extraordinary,” he says. “That she chose to feature everything from Purcell to Donizetti to Cilea, from English to French to Norwegian, showed guts and passion. She obviously has a voice for opera—and just as obviously has a passion for art song.”

Sharing her passion for song, Hart was particularly pleased that Barton won the competition’s song prize. “Although her career will be mostly on the opera stage,” Hart says, “I know that she will continue to explore song rep. She included orchestrated songs (not just arias) in her orchestral rounds, and I think this was appealing to the judges. Most tellingly, Jamie sang as a mature artist—I didn’t really detect a whiff of ‘competitor’ in her performance. It was a joy to hear, and I could not be more proud.”

Barton believes her ability to take on such diverse and demanding repertoire is a direct result of her efforts to keep her voice healthy and to find teachers who could help train it in a way that works in concert with its own physical growth. “All three of my teachers—Dr. Horne, Mary Ann Hart, and Stephen King—are pedagogues,” she says. “This is what they do; they are technical teachers. They are not former opera singers who are teaching you how to sing something they’ve sung, which absolutely has its merits. But for me, since I am kind of a pedagogical nerd, I prefer to have a teacher [who] can say, ‘This is what needs to happen. This is how we get there.’”

Beyond her technical progress, Barton has grown just as much as an artist. “Jamie loves to act and is such a generous performer,” says Hart. “Her backstories for songs and arias (not that she shared them all with me!) are very clear and theatrical. This is not an academic exercise for her! I think Jamie looks at each poem, text, or role as an alternative universe that she is going to inhabit for a few minutes or hours.”

It is no mystery to Horne where this theatrical background originated, knowing how active Barton was in theatre during her undergraduate years. “While I was sometimes concerned about what the time spent on those endeavors would do to her grades,” he says, “I also knew that time spent in the theatre would help her delivery of song.”

He also appreciates the personal aspects she brings to her performing. “Jamie has always been a sincere and deeply thoughtful person,” he says. “When she approaches a text, she has a completely natural way of delivering that text. She has had many along her way who have helped her understand how to do that, but it is a very organic experience. She seems to be telling each member of the audience a very personal story because, in a way, she is. She isn’t ‘acting’—she is sharing part of her soul.”

Barton attributes this ability to envision a scene through music to her early training in recitals. “I think doing recitals and coming from a recital background more so than an opera background has made me a better storyteller. With recitals, what I love is the fact that, over the course of about an hour, you get to tell however many different stories and inhabit so many different characters.”

Finding an engaging character has always been an intentional emphasis in her performing. Despite frequent reviews highlighting the “warm,” “rich,” and “powerful” nature of her voice, Barton is more pleased when audience members find something entertaining in her performance. “There’s got to be a reason that people want to get out of their homes and stop watching Glee and actually come see something live,” she says. “What’s going to make them come back is if they walk away entertained—actually, truly entertained.”

While acknowledging the many people and opportunities that helped her get to this point in her career, Barton also encourages other singers to take time with the process, like she did, and to go through the necessary steps that will give success an honest chance. “Give yourself about five to seven years of seriously committing yourself to it,” she says. “Keep working at it, but don’t feel like there’s a huge rush. Do the competitions, but do them when you’re ready.”

She also wholeheartedly admits to being the recipient of tremendous good fortune. “I’m having a lot of really wonderful, lucky success,” she says. “I’ve worked for it and I believe I have the talent behind it, for sure, but there’s a lot that goes into it. There are a lot of people who are phenomenally talented who just haven’t had the breaks that I’ve had.”

Knowing that some aspects of success are simply beyond a singer’s control, she emphasizes the importance of knowing when to choose another path. “If it doesn’t happen, then hopefully you walked into the career with another idea of something else you could do that makes you happy.”

But even if success does come, Barton advises singers to keep close tabs on making sure their efforts continue to bring fulfillment. For this, she follows the advice of her friend Joyce DiDonato. “She’s having the career of a lifetime right now,” Barton says. “She keeps on saying, though, ‘If it ever doesn’t make me happy—if singing actually, seriously doesn’t make me happy—then I’ve got to be willing to walk away, because what’s the point?’”

This perspective has guided Barton’s journey so far, and she keeps it in mind when looking to the future. “Whether you walk away because of that [or] whether you walk away because it’s just not happening for whatever reason, not making it the end-all-be-all of your existence I think is a very important thing. You’ve got to have a life!”

This outlook is one of several undeniable aspects of Barton’s personality that her teachers believe have contributed to her success. “She brings great joy to singing and life in general,” says Hart. “She seems to have a great balance of being social—a down-to-earth and very loyal friend—and seems to be able to balance this with the privacy she needs for herself and her husband and the work of learning music. This is a great gift.”

Horne relates a story that further demonstrates Barton’s compassionate worldview. “When I went to see her at the Met Audition semifinals in 2007,” he says, “she had me meet her at the stage door and took me backstage to her dressing room. That was a great experience in itself—but along the way, Jamie said hello and greeted each security guard and maintenance worker by name. They all knew her, and she knew them. Even though it was quite possible that she would never see them again, she took the time and care to meet them. She’s been that way the entire 18 years that I’ve known her.”

By watching Barton grow over that time, Horne is certain these traits are permanently rooted. “Despite her rapidly developing reputation, her ever-increasing circle of influential friends, and the amount of money she garners for a performance, she is still a kind-hearted, loyal, sincere young woman from Georgia. I have no doubt that she will always be.”

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /