San Francisco Opera | Talking Pride with Mezzo-Soprano Jamie Barton

Talking Pride with Mezzo-Soprano Jamie Barton

The cancellations decimated her calendar. Suddenly there were no concerts. No operas. No in-person engagements at all through the end of August. The coronavirus pandemic, and the subsequent need for social isolation, had claimed them all.

Performance is mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s bread and butter. Winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, the Richard Tucker Award, and the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions —three of the biggest honors in the opera world — Barton is one of the most in-demand opera singers in the United States today.

And yet, suddenly Barton joined the millions of Americans facing instability and unemployment. She counts herself among the lucky, though. During the quarantine, she’s found work teaching and offering Zoom performances. As she hunkers down in her apartment in Atlanta, Georgia, she’s using her newly liberated time to explore interests outside of singing.

“If I weren’t a singer, I would be a chef,” she says by phone. Now that travel is virtually nonexistent, her home kitchen is finally getting a workout — and so is her king-sized Tempur-Pedic bed.

Offstage, Barton continues to lead conversations about inclusivity in opera, something inspired by her own journey as a queer woman. Divorce led her to realize she was pansexual, and ever since, she has advocated for greater visibility and acceptance in the arts.

In honor of Pride Month, the annual celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, Barton spoke to San Francisco Opera about her decision to be outspoken and how her unconventional upbringing drove her to classical music.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How have you been dealing with the recent cancellations?

BARTON: It was difficult in the beginning. I was in Dallas about a week into rehearsals with a concert performance of Don Carlo. It was hard to lose that because quite honestly, we had a really magical cast situation and creative team. So that was difficult.

I would say actually the more difficult aspect of all this was not knowing what things were going to go away. We were all going, “Okay, is it just the month of March? Or maybe just March and April? Are there still going to be jobs?” To a certain extent that still exists, this not knowing.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How have you been relieving stress during this time period?

BARTON: Well, sleep. A lot of sleep. For me, disconnecting has been a really major part of that. Connection is a wonderful thing right up until it gets overwhelming. I haven’t been on social media beyond my professional accounts. The connections that I’m making are personal connections. They’re reaching out to friends and family, either texting or calling, that sort of thing.

I’m really removing myself from the side of the world where there’s a lot of speculation. I read some news. I like personally NPR and BBC World News, stuff like that, which always feels a lot less speculative.

And then quite honestly, I’ve got a great wine collection. That has been key.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did you go from growing up in a bluegrass-loving family in north Georgia to loving classical music?

BARTON: I grew up on a farm. And the farm, I should say, was not a professional farm. It was one for our family. But my grandparents owned about 150 acres and eventually willed all of that out to their children, my dad and my aunt and uncle. So we lived on the land.

I grew up with two parental units who were absolutely hippies. Which is perhaps not entirely normal in the north Georgia hills. But they were really into music, and that spanned several different genres. I think it instilled a love for music in me.

I grew up in a trailer, and my dad happens to have a really great album collection. And when you are listening to albums, trust me: You cannot be running around the house if you live in a trailer, because the album will skip if you’re trying to listen to music.

Sitting and listening to music was something we loved. I found classical music when I was a teenager through listening to the NPR station out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. And it was something I would listen to late at night when I was on my way to sleep. The DJ who ran that station really loved Chopin, so Chopin was the first composer who I was like: “Holy crap, I love this guy.”

I was already into performance at that point. There was a performance element in the bluegrass community. We would get together and have what they would call “pickins and grinnins,” just a community event gathering at somebody’s house. Everybody brings potluck. All the kids are running around outside and everybody with an instrument is sitting in the living room just jamming.

It was really kind of hearing this classical music come across the airwaves late at night in my teenage years that hooked me into it. And it was something so very opposite from where I came from that, hilariously enough, it absolutely became my teenage rebellion.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: The theme of rebellion seems to be a theme through your career.

BARTON: I’ve literally never heard anybody put it like that, but that is absolutely fair. [Barton laughs.]

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: But being open about your sexuality in the South and in classical music can be a risk. How did you come to the decision to be vocal about things like sexuality and inclusion?

BARTON: When I really thought about coming out publicly, there just wasn’t a question in my mind for two reasons: Mainly, I had the support, which I’m so lucky that I had.

But also, number two, bisexuality even within the queer community has been viewed in the past as something that isn’t valid. That might be one of the reasons I didn’t consider bisexuality for a long time actually. I remember hearing even from my queer friends, “Oh bisexuality, that’s not a thing. You’re either on the road to gay or you’re greedy.” Which is just not the case at all. And I think in 2020 we can really accept that.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Have there been any unexpected reactions or pushback?

BARTON: Honestly most of the reactions, if they haven’t been entirely positive, then they’ve been totally expected on some level. There is this weird thing when you say you’re bisexual, some people just automatically think you’re going to be attracted to everyone. I’m like, “No.” [Barton laughs.] “You’re very nice. I’m not attracted to you.”

There definitely has been pushback. Particularly when I did the Proms [concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall] which was last year. Because it was the 50th year anniversary of Stonewall and because the Last Night of the Proms’ guest tends to bring an aspect of who they are to that performance, I made the decision to bring the queer part of myself.

So I raised the Pride flag at one point and I wore a dress that had an element that was based on the bisexual flag. I was so happy and so proud of doing that. But I remember distinctly there being an article.

It came out in a paper called The Conservative Woman, so let’s not have high expectations here in terms of progressive qualities. The name of the article, which I did not read, was “The Last Night of the Proms isn’t over until the fat bisexual lady sings.”

In one way, that might literally have been one of my greatest fears earlier in life, to have a publication being mean about my size and my sexuality. But quite honestly, at this point in my life, I was like, “F*** yes. Yes. That is actually the truth. The last night of the Proms is not over until this fat bisexual woman sings. That is actually truth.” I own who I am. It’s a part of me. I love who I am.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How well is today’s classical music world living up to ideals of inclusion?

BARTON: When it comes to a lot of elements of inclusion, it’s doing well. And with others, it’s not. I think the arts have always been a safe haven for queer people and they continue to be, for sure. But they have been a safe haven for white queer people. And there’s a lot more diversity that I’d like to see within the art form, not just on stage but also within the administrative offices.

I want to see the stories of more queer people being told. I want to see more stories of people of color being told. It’s so, so, so important in so many respects. Whenever I do any sort of leading romantic role, I can’t tell you how many people I have reaching out, usually via Instagram or Twitter, saying, “I’m so glad I saw you do this, because it made me feel like I could be the romantic lead.” And that’s a beautiful thing for people to feel like they have a place.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What has been the opera-related moment, on stage or off, that has moved you the most?

BARTON: Honestly there are a handful! The first one that comes to mind is the Proms this past year. It was a marrying of two really important things to me personally: classical music at the highest degree and my queer family being celebrated.

The response, it was just overwhelming. That’s the honest good word for it. I literally woke up the next morning and I tried to scroll through Twitter, and Twitter wouldn’t actually let me load all the comments. There were too many.

The first group of stuff that I sang was actually three arias that I got to choose. And I specifically chose three powerful women, three powerful female characters, who are generally and not usually cast with a plus-sized singer. I sang Delilah, “Mon Coeur.” I sang Eboli from Don Carlo. And I sang Carmen, the Habanera.

I have never even been asked to sing Carmen before. It’s because of my size. I know this. I could sing the snot out of that whole thing. People haven’t cast me, and it’s because I’m a plus-sized woman. There’s this image that you have to be a certain size and look to be able to pull it off. Which I completely disagree with.

Pushing against the idea that you have to be a certain size or a certain sexuality; celebrating those who do not fit within a box; and getting to do all that on live international television? God, that was just: Take Jamie to a playground and let her play. It was just one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.

 

Learn more about mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton by visiting her website or following her on social media.

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