Singer Jamie Barton: ‘Can we do a queer Don Carlo? Or a lesbian Orfeo?’

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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the classical music world fell in love with Jamie Barton. Perhaps it was the 2013 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, when as an up-and-coming mezzo-soprano from Rome, Georgia, she carried off both first prize and the song prize – the first woman to do so. It was certainly a full-blown affair by the time of the 2019 Last Night of the Proms, when, dressed in the blue, pink and purple of the bisexual pride flag, she gleefully brandished a rainbow flag on stage as she sang Rule, Britannia!. And to be in her Wigmore Hall recital that autumn was to witness an audience reaction inspired not by mere affection or respect, but by actual love.

Now, it’s the morning of Thanksgiving, and while her family back home in the US are preparing to celebrate, she is getting over jetlag in an apartment in Amsterdam. This year, she wouldn’t have it any other way – as for so many of her colleagues in the music world, the chance to work internationally again is worthy of its own celebration.

The recital programme she’s in Europe to perform, with the composer Jake Heggie as pianist, is a jubilant response to the return to live music (even if news of the new variant, breaking just after we speak, may mean hopes of a full return to normality are premature). Alongside songs by Purcell, Schubert, Brahms and Florence Price, it showcases plenty of music by Heggie himself, one of the US’s most prolific composers of song and opera – Barton has sung 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 says, came from Heggie. “A month or so into the pandemic, Jake suggested we ask others to tell us what they missed the most. Between us we solicited replies from about 30 to 40 people, a whole gamut – from my mother to Patti LuPone! The five responses he ended up setting were the ones that really called to him.” One of those was from the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “What she said was exactly the core of what brought this recital together: ‘What I miss the most is music. Music made by many … Music in unison.’ As she was such a lover of classical music and opera, and a woman who changed the world in the best sort of way, to be able to have her voice in this is a real honour.”

“Music made by many” might be cautiously going again, but the big Verdi and Wagner operas to which Barton’s full-bodied voice is so well suited are still thin on the ground, due in part to the sheer size of the forces they demand. Barton, characteristically, thinks there’s a silver lining. “What I do see already happening, and am really interested in being a part of, is telling new stories that highlight perspectives that haven’t been highlighted before. You’re seeing all sort of stories being written about life right now, and I love that. This is such a necessary part of the way forward, one that opens the doors to more people.”

I’ve been saying for so long: ‘Can I please do an Orfeo where it’s a lesbian love story? Can we do a Don Carlo where Eboli or Rodrigo are queer?’

Opening those doors doesn’t have to mean creating new works. In September, in concert in Chicago, Barton sang Carmen for the first time; the role is ideal for her voice but as a plus-size woman she had never been offered it. Her Don José was Stephanie Blythe, who after a long career as a mezzo-soprano has begun singing tenor roles – she describes herself as “a straight, cis woman with a genderfluid voice” – and who performed dressed as a man, complete with beard. “The response was just overwhelming,” says Barton: “the messages I got from people, saying, ‘I never thought that I would see a body like mine playing a role like that,’ or, ‘I never thought I as a non-binary or a trans person would see something that showcased a non-normative voice.’ We were touching people in a real way, an important way, and you can do that with the classics.

“I’ve been saying for so long: ‘Can I please 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 up the doors of representation so that the vast majority of our Black artists aren’t just doing Porgy and Bess? Can we open the doors of storytelling and make it as inclusive as is possible?’ And I do see that as something going forward out of this. I think the world has changed in such a way that we can’t go back – and thank God, because we are better off on the path we’re on now.”

Barton (left) and Kristine Opelais in Dvořák’s Rusalka at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2017.
Barton (left) and Kristine Opelais in Dvořák’s Rusalka at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2017. Photograph: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Her own path has changed direction slightly too, she feels. “I’m not going to say that I’m never going to sing them again, but I’ve spent a lot of years doing roles where I’m the third person in a love triangle, which is always perpetuated by the man, and the lead soprano almost always has to kill herself in order to be ‘redeemed’, and those are stories that are 1,000% created by the patriarchy, and I’m not interested in them any more. Now, give me a director who can take that storyline and make it less tragic for the women involved – I’m here for that.”

Barton has become a poster girl for inclusivity and diversity on the classical music stage, with potentially the power to nudge that world in a more progressive direction. Is that ever a burden? “There was a point in my career after Trump was voted in when I asked myself: ‘Is what I’m doing important enough? Do I need to quit this and go work in social justice, in something that really has an impact?’ It took me a long time to suss out what I wanted to do, and what it came down to was how lucky I was to be given a platform where people literally want to listen to my voice.”

Not everyone has been supportive. Barton remembers particularly the headline of a blog post in advance of her 2019 Proms appearance: “BBC Proms are over when the fat bisexual lady sings.” “Five years prior to that, if somebody had written those words about me, it would have sent me into a tailspin. But the first thing that came to my mind was: heck, yes, they are correct – it is not over until the fat bisexual lady sings! Just by being my queer, fat, womanly self and by being unapologetic about any one of those words, I can show up for others where they don’t feel like they’re showed up for. That’s the only pressure I feel – to show up in the best way I can for the people in my life and the people who are following me.”

• Jamie Barton and Jake Heggie are in recital at Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden on 3 December and at the Barbican, London on 5 December.

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