singer Jamie Barton: “I’m no longer interested in the roles created by the patriarchy” | Classical music
IIt’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the classical music world fell in love with Jamie Barton. Perhaps it was the Cardiff Singer of the World 2013 competition, when as a rising mezzo-soprano from Rome, Georgia, she won both the top prize and the song prize – the first woman to do it. It was certainly a business in its own right by the time of the last night of the 2019 balls, when, dressed in the blue, pink and purple of the bisexual pride flag, she happily waves a rainbow flag on stage as she sang Rule, Britannia !. And to be in his recital at Wigmore Hall that fall was to witness an audience reaction inspired not by mere affection or respect, but by genuine love.
Now it’s Thanksgiving morning, and as her family in the United States prepares to celebrate, she is recovering from jet lag in an apartment in Amsterdam. This year, she didn’t want it to be any other way – like so many of her colleagues in the music world, the chance to work internationally again is worth celebrating.
The recital program she is in Europe to perform, with the composer Jake heggie as a pianist, is a jubilant response to the return to live music (although the announcement of the new variant, which erupts right after we’ve spoken, may mean that hopes of a full return to normalcy are premature. ). Besides songs by Purcell, Schubert, Brahms and Florence Price, it features plenty of music by Heggie himself, one of America’s most prolific song and operatic composers – Barton sang Sister Helen Prejean in his opera dead man walking. The recital includes several works from the CD she and Heggie made together in 2019, Unexpected Shadows, recently nominated for a Grammy; there’s also the UK premiere of a new song cycle, What I Miss the Most.
The idea for the latter, she said, came from Heggie. “About a month after the start of the pandemic, Jake suggested that we ask others to tell us what they missed the most. Between ourselves, we solicited responses from around 30 to 40 people, a whole range – from my mom to Patti LuPone! The five answers he ended up giving are the ones that really caught the eye. One of them was the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “What she said was exactly the heart of what brought this recital together: ‘What I miss most is the music. Music made by many… Music in unison. ‘ As she was passionate about classical music and opera, and a woman who changed the world in the best possible way, being able to have her voice heard is a true honor.
“Music made by many” may be back with caution, but the great operas of Verdi and Wagner to which Barton’s full-bodied voice is so well suited are still scarce, in part because of the size of the forces they demand. . Barton characteristically thinks there is a silver lining. “What I’m already seeing happening, and I’m really interested in being a part of it, is telling new stories that bring to light perspectives that haven’t been highlighted before. You see all kinds of stories written about life right now, and I love it. It’s such a necessary part of the way forward, a part that opens doors for more people. “
Opening these doors does not necessarily mean creating new works. In September, in concert in Chicago, Barton sings Carmen for the first time; the role is ideal for her voice, but as a tall woman she had never been offered. Her Don José was Stephanie Blythe, who after a long career as a mezzo-soprano began singing tenor roles – she describes herself as “a straight cis woman with a flowing voice” – and who played dressed as a man, with a beard. “The response has been just overwhelming,” Barton says, “the messages I got from people, saying, ‘I never thought I would see a body like mine play a role like that,’ or: “I never thought I was not – a binary or a trans person would see something that presents a non-normative voice.” We were touching people in a real, big way, and you can do it with the classics.
“I’ve been saying for so long, ‘Can I do an Orfeo where it’s a lesbian love story? Can we do a Don Carlo where Eboli or Rodrigo are queer? Can we open the doors to representation so that the vast majority of our black artists don’t just do Porgy and Bess? Can we open the doors to storytelling and make it as inclusive as possible? And I see it as something moving forward. I think the world has changed so much that we can’t go back – and thank goodness because we are better off on the path we are now on. “
Her own path has changed direction slightly too, she thinks. “I’m not going to say I’m never gonna sing them again, but I’ve spent a lot of years doing third-person roles in a love triangle, which is still perpetuated by humans, and the lead soprano almost always has to kill himself to be ‘redeemed’, and these are stories 1000% created by patriarchy, and I’m no longer interested in them. Now give me a director who can take this story and make it less tragic for the women involved – that’s what I’m here for.
Barton has become a poster child for inclusiveness and diversity in the classical music scene, with potentially the power to push this world in a more progressive direction. Is it ever a burden? “There was a point in my career after Trump’s vote, when I asked myself, ‘Is what I’m doing is important enough? Should I stop this and go work in the social justice field, in something that really has an impact? It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do, and it boiled down to how lucky I was to have a platform where people literally want to listen to my voice.
Not everyone was in favor. Barton in particular remembers the title of a blog post before his appearance at the 2019 Proms: “BBC Proms End When Bisexual Fat Lady Sings.” “Five years ago, if someone had written these words about me, it would’ve brought me down. But the first thing that came to my mind was, damn it, yeah, they’re right – that’s is not finished until the fat bisexual lady sang! Just by being my weird, fat, feminine self and having no apologies for any of those words, I can present myself to others where they don’t feel like being introduced. It’s the only pressure I feel – to present myself in the best possible way to the people in my life and those who follow me.