WNO’s Princess Eboli: Jamie Barton

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has been having quite a year, one that isn’t about to stop.

Currently, she’s wowing audiences as Princess Eboli in Washington National Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” which runs through March 17 at the Kennedy Center.

Before that, she performed with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax at Tanglewood and had a “house debut” in Madrid, celebrating the Teatro Real’s bicentennial. In December, she performed as Adalgisa in David McVicar’s production of “Norma” at the Met.

She also made her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra, and will return this spring to Houston Grand Opera (returning also to Adalgisa). Not only that, but in June she will assay her first “Ring Cycle” as Fricka, Waltraute and the Second Norn with San Francisco Opera, in the production directed by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello.

Coming up after “Don Carlo” is a recital tour with pianist Kathleen Kelly that includes a world-premiere song cycle commissioned by Carnegie Hall.

You might note that, as in her voice, there is quite a bit of range and variety in her pursuits, opportunities and choices. “As a mezzo, you can reach for and tackle things you might not otherwise be able to do,” she says. “You can, if you want, get very low in the lower ranges and circle the soprano territory as well. I don’t like to get showy, where you end up with a diva effect in the dramatic soprano territory. I think of the range as a series of flavors, and there’s a spot — which I enjoy — I like to think of as really rich black chocolate. I can get within that range, and that’s beautiful.

“It’s funny, a lot of my friends are mezzos. We get together a lot,” she says. “Those are precious friendships. I know opera has a reputation for competition, but I don’t think it’s any more than any other endeavor.”

Talking with her — for too brief a time, I might add — that diversity also makes itself felt in pace, seriousness and feeling (not to mention laughter). Even when talking about roles, composers, taste and lifestyle, you get the sense of riding in a controlled but very fast car, one that takes unexpected curves smoothly.

A native of Georgia (a town in the mountains, but technically considered Rome), she comes by her eclectic ways honestly. Her parents were musical, but with tastes not usually associated with opera. “I heard bluegrass and rock and gospel hymns,” she says. “Sometimes I think of my folks as classic, old-time rock folks, and acquired some of that affinity from them. But I love bluegrass, Broadway show tunes.”

She grew up surrounded by arts and crafts and hymns and bluegrass, as well as by classic rock like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead, and by the nutty comedy of Monty Python and Mel Brooks.

She didn’t get to opera until her late high school years, but rose rapidly once she moved full speed ahead. “People never realize the training, the practice, the work involved. You have to love what you do passionately.”

Barton has gotten critical raves all over the world. The Los Angeles Times wrote of her performance in “Norma”: “Her sound is the darkly creamy lager that poured forth from altos of yore. Yet she displays the craft of a superior modern singer.” One critic said she had a “voice of blankets.”

She’s also been showered with awards, including the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World Award in 2013. Yet, you can’t help feeling relaxed talking with her about just any old thing.

In “Don Carlo,” Barton holds her own with a high-powered cast and high-profile characters. “Eboli,” she says of her character, “oh, man, she’s in an awkward position. She’s a princess, she loves this man whom she may lose. And she makes a big mistake because she is a good friend to her rival Elizabeth, but things just get out of hand and extreme. That makes it a tragedy.”

In the world of opera — audience-wise, critic-wise and artist-wise — there has historically always been a lot of talk centered on voices, the quality, the range, the super talents and, of course, the music and the great composers.

“The voice is a gift which you nurture and constantly work with and on,” she says. “But I see myself principally, my job, as a storyteller. You tell a story — whether it’s tragedy, drama or comedy — with the voice and with your ability to portray a character.”

She’s very much of the school that stresses the importance of acting ability, that ability to portray a character in convincing, moving fashion, as a critical factor in the success of an opera, an issue that still roils the world of opera.

When it comes to composers, Wagner is her man.

“I love Verdi, the musicality, the sheer beauty. And he’s just a joy to sing,” she says. “But Wagner, well, there’s nobody like him, in the total vision, in the ambition, in the range and the challenges.”

San Francisco is lovely in June, I hear.


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