Mezzo-Soprano Jamie Barton’s Rich Storytelling Through Song

By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
December 11, 2016 Updated: December 11, 2016

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s career has seemed to kick off seamlessly, from winning a Metropolitan Opera competition almost immediately once she committed to opera, to just last year winning the 2015 Richard Tucker Award. She is beloved by fans and critics for her engaging stage presence and remarkable tone. 

While Barton has always loved the stage, discovering opera and finding her voice as a mezzo-soprano took commitment, confidence, and hard work. 

At a recent conversation hosted by Opera America, Barton discussed how she fell in love with opera, found her voice, and the importance of committing to good storytelling.

Finding Your Truth

Commitment makes all the difference in an artist. Barton remembers being in the audience hearing one of her own opera idols and the impact she felt: she believed every single word for every single second, and forgot everything else.

Barton says an artist needs to “look for the truth inside of yourself that you’re telling.”

The audience can tell when you’re not being truthful, Barton said, and it’s this little hook into the truth that captivates them. 

“Our job is not to be an opera singer; it’s to be a storyteller,” Barton said. “We just happen to have a palette that includes music.”

“I love the stories, and how the music feeds those stories. The best of composers’ music brought the stories to godlike heights,” said Barton. This season she returns to the Met Opera as Jezibaba, opposite Kristine Opolais in “Rusalka”; appears in the Met’s Live in HD series as Fenena in “Nabucco”; and sings as Princess Eboli in “Don Carlo” in her Deutsche Oper Berlin debut, along with other appearances. 

While Barton loves to sink her teeth into a character, she’s thankful for the many recital opportunities she’s had in the past few seasons. 

A recital gives her the opportunity to not only control every aspect of what she’s singing and how, but what Barton loves most is that each three- or five-minute piece is a small story. “It’s like story hour,” she said with a laugh.

Recitals give a singer a lot of autonomy, which then “feeds who you are as an opera singer.” Once you go back to the stringent set of costumes and cues within an opera production, that freedom allows creativity, which in turn gives the audience a unique telling of a story we’ve heard many times before, she said.

Training and Advice

Barton’s advice for aspiring opera singers is to “take your time.”

“Figure out who you are as an artist. Anyone can look up anything on YouTube and the goal isn’t to be that [what you see in another singer], the goal is to tell these stories in your own way,” Barton said. “This is a marathon of a career.”

She still takes voice lessons and says it’s essential, no matter what stage of your career you’re in. “It doesn’t matter if you own a Maserati, you still need a tune up every once in a while,” Barton says.

Barton credits the voice teachers she’s had along the way tremendously. They’re the people she calls up if she needs a tune up. 

Barton went to Indiana University and then moved on to the young artist program at the Houston Grand Opera Studio. The program really took a chance on her, she said, because the mezzo-soprano voice type is quite specialized and she was just starting to understand it herself. 

At the beginning, “I was a little shy about [opera],” Barton said. As an undergraduate, she started out studying music education and very quickly realized that was not what she wanted to be doing. Barton, who had a background in musical theater, said it was her first voice teacher who helped her discover she was a mezzo-soprano.

“I was so scared of the higher part of my voice,” Barton said. “As a mezzo you have a different range of flavors … actually I didn’t really get comfortable [with that] until my last year of Houston Grand Opera Studio.” 

The mezzo-soprano is a niche voice, which lies between the soprano and contralto, and has fewer roles. When the HGO took Barton on, they said in terms of productions there would just be one small role for her, but the studio would help her gain the experience she wanted and enter competitions.

The mezzo roles are typically secondary characters, with the exception of a handful of title roles like Bizet’s “Carmen.” But there is also a dramatic flair associated with these roles that storytellers like Barton can dive right into.

As she learned more and more about singing opera, she came to really love the art form, but it wasn’t until she built confidence in own her voice that she could combine her natural stage presence with the music. 

The last year of school was “intense, and it was magical,” Barton said.