Artist of the Year:
Jamie Barton: Agent of Change

By Heidi Waleson

Today, Barton has left that self-effacing Southern girl behind. A steady stream of successes, like winning Cardiff Singer of the World and becoming a regular presence at major opera houses, has given her a platform. Now, Barton uses her visibility to speak out about things that matter to her.

2021 Muscial America Artist of the Year:<br>Jamie Barton: Agent of Change
© Bree Anne Clowdus

Among the constellation of stars who appeared in the four-hour Metropolitan Opera At-Home Gala on April 25, Jamie Barton’s performance of “O don fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo was a supernova explosion. Barton’s huge, gleaming mezzo and impassioned delivery seemed to expand past the walls of her small room in Atlanta, reaching through the ether to demand our full attention and comprehension.

That commanding presence, and Barton’s sense of her own authority and right to speak, developed over time. Growing up in the mountains of rural Georgia, she absorbed the communal expectations of behavior for Southern women, who are “encouraged to placate, to play nice, to mediate,” she says. “They are not encouraged to feel their anger, or to voice opposition.” At the same time, her “hippie-ish, liberal” parents encouraged and supported her without reservation, whether the issue was pursuing a career as an opera singer or coming out as bisexual in 2014. For Barton, “My journey to finding the voice that was strong enough to speak out against things that are not right comes with knowing I could turn to my parents at any point and find open arms.”

Today, Barton has left that self-effacing Southern girl behind. A steady stream of successes, like winning Cardiff Singer of the World in 2013 and becoming a regular presence at major opera houses, including the Met, where she sang the title role in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice in 2019, have given her a platform. Now, Barton uses her visibility to speak out about things that matter to her.

She is vocal, for example, about her own queerness and gay rights, proudly waving a Pride flag as she performed “Rule Britannia” at the Last Night of the Proms in 2019. To the Twitter posts that call that “offensive,” she responds, “It makes me smile. #makegoodtrouble.” And Barton has especially powerful feelings about the insidious nature of diet culture. In July 2019, in a lengthy post on Twitter, com she explained why and how she walked away from years of trying to force her body to conform to a societal expectation of thinness. Dieting was making her sick; with the help of a therapist and dietician she acquired new tools to learn how to listen to her body. She calls it “the best health decision I made in my life.”

Though Barton was prepared for online trolls, her Twitter discussion provoked only outpourings of support and appreciation, and she was gratified that her example could help others with similar struggles. “I speak out about things that affect me directly,” she says. “This has revolutionized my life. It’s important enough to me to put it out there because there is so much messaging telling people, especially women, that they need to fix themselves when that’s not the case.”

Barton’s stance also counters the notoriously fat-phobic world of opera. During her training years, singers were expected to be “HD-ready”—that is, thin and white. As one of the six winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2007, she was at first disappointed to receive so little airtime in Susan Froemke’s documentary The Audition. When she then watched the scene in which the judges questioned the wisdom of choosing the splendid but full-figured Angela Meade as a winner, Barton was glad not to have been singled out.

Such conversations still happen. “It’s an incredibly antiquated thing. And size diversity is just one of the many indicators of whether a company is interested in representing more points of view than just the thin white one.” Still, Barton believes things are slowly changing, with American houses farther ahead than European ones. While no one has asked her to sing Carmen yet, she believes that “the day will come when audiences will want to see a story about a woman that doesn’t say all her magnetism and power is wrapped up in her body size.”

In the pandemic shutdown, Barton especially misses performing characters like Azucena and Fricka. “I feel powerful when I sing them,” she says. “There’s something about what is required to be able to put that sound out, to feel the vibrations of making that music through your body.”

Meanwhile, she has enthusiastically embraced technology during the hiatus. There was the YouTube “Coronadämmerung,” a comic riff on Das Rheingold with baritone Ryan McKinny; a film of Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appetit, in which she plays Julia Child baking a cake,
will be part of Houston Grand Opera’s digital season. Barton also returned to her signature hairdo—purple dye and a side shave—which she had let go for her Met Orfeo. The purple hair (plus a nose piercing) was originally an act of rebellion against the image she thought was necessary for her life and career. “It’s nice to feel back to normal,” she says. “I used to pretend I was more mainstream. Now I’m just myself and it’s a lot more comfortable.”

Looking ahead, Barton believes that the enforced pause of the pandemic and the attendant soul-searching will result in significant change in the opera world, starting with better representation—onstage and off—of people of all shapes, sizes, colors, abilities, and backgrounds. She also sees the formation of the Atlanta Opera Company Players, a 12-member cadre of paid, locally based singers who are helping to reimagine the company’s 2020-21 season, as an exciting step forward. Barton and her colleagues will be company employees—with health insurance—in an American take on the German Fest model. “They are investing in the artists. They are trying to find a way, not only to ensure the survival of the company, but also that of the people who would be up onstage making it happen.” And Barton will keep talking about that, and why it matters. •

 Heidi Waleson is opera critic of the Wall Street Journal and the author of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2018).