I went home with two crystal trophies, and a sonic screwdriver kit: Jamie Barton on Cardiff Singer of the World

My life changed a decade ago. Winning the song prize and main prize at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in June 2013 was a turning point in my career – and my life. I’m one of only three people to win both prizes; maybe this, the competition’s 40th year, will see another singer claim the double?

It’s a long process, with many stages of auditions to whittle down hundreds of singers from around the world hoping for a place at the in-person competition in Wales. My personal process was longer because it took me several years of trying before I made it to the final stage. As a burgeoning dramatic mezzo, those extra years to learn and grow were a blessing in disguise.

In 2013 (the competition is held every two years), I finally made it to Cardiff, one of 20 finalists competing alongside singers from countries including Ukraine, Argentina, Egypt and China. It was a fantastically badass roster of competitors. I knew, or knew of, a couple of the singers already, Daniela Mack and Ben Johnson come to mind, and on day one I was quaking in my boots, but we all quickly bonded, and I formed some lasting and valued friendships.

As soon as I heard I’d been chosen to represent the US my first priority was to programme what I was going to sing. This was a monumental and extremely important task – you want to go into the competition with sets that show off all the facets of your musical strengths and who you are as an artist.

In Cardiff, there are four heats with one winner from each going into the final. Double this if you’ve opted to also compete in the song prize competition. There isn’t a pre-ordained number of arias or songs you must do (although the song-prize set has to have at least one German lied in it), but whatever you perform has to fit within the time allotted for your performance. Thus I had to plan four different sets, and submit exact details of these for approval many months beforehand.

Deciding on the programmes took almost as long as choosing and commissioning the competition dresses, as I needed a different gown for each performance. I put on two recitals at home in Georgia before I left to test out my competition repertoire in front of an audience – and to try performing in those new dresses and shoes. (I was raised in the country by hippy parents, and I think it shocked people in my home town that I wasn’t barefoot or wearing flip-flops.)

I arrived in Cardiff with two huge suitcases – it’s impossible to travel light as a competing singer! I had to buy one more before I left, to transport my Welsh crystal trophies home safely. (Don’t worry, they came with me in my hand luggage.) I got there several days before the start of the competition not only to get over jet lag, but also because I knew that Bryn Terfel was giving a concert in St David’s Hall, the competition venue. It was an opportunity to experience how the hall sounds from the audience’s side, and also to hear one of my favourite singers, and Cardiff song prize legend, live in concert.

One of the competition staff offered to take me to meet Bryn backstage. Once I got the fangirl panic out of my system, we chatted and he gave me an invaluable piece of advice: “Go to the pharmacy, and get yourself some zinc. You’re about to stress your entire body, brain and spirit out with this competition, and you need to make sure your immune system has extra support.” Several of my fellow competitors fell ill during the intense two-weeks of rehearsals, interviews and performing. If Bryn and I ever end up in the same place at the same time again, I owe him a pint.

I had never been to Wales before and was ridiculously excited to be in the city where Torchwood was filmed. One of the entrances to the Torchwood HQ is right outside the Millennium Centre, the home of Welsh National Opera – I was going to stand in that exact spot. What I didn’t anticipate was how excited people at the BBC and in Cardiff would be to find out I had even heard of Doctor Who or Torchwood. I was given tickets to the Doctor Who Experience, which was incredible; a BBC producer somehow got John Barrowman to sign a headshot for me (OMG OMG OMG!!); and I was also given a kids’ “build it yourself” Sonic Screwdriver kit, still proudly on display on my living room shelves today. But perhaps the most extraordinary moment of all was when the BBC National Orchestra of Wales surprised me one morning during a main prize rehearsal by playing the Doctor Who theme music as congratulations for winning the song prize the evening before. I burst into tears, I was so overwhelmed! (Did I just watch the video of that again right now and tear up? Yes I did.)

As Bryn had warned, the competition was a tricky balance between staying present with my health and energy reserves and knowing how to navigate the moments when I felt like my battery was empty but still needed to show up and show off. If you make it to the finals for both the song prize and the main prize, you will have done four competitions, each with different programmes of music in front of a live audience and broadcast around the world. You will have done a multitude of interviews, from BBC content for the competition to radio and print, not to mention fielding press requests from your home country.

But, at the same time, you will be swimming in love and support – from the BBC team to your own community of friends, family, colleagues. People will appear from all corners of your life to cheer you on when you do a competition as major as Cardiff and I’ve yet to experience another outpouring of love as overwhelming as that, and that’s saying something, given how wonderful my support system is and how lucky I have found myself in my career since.

My win at Cardiff meant I went from being an auditioning singer scrambling to figure out how to pay my bills to having offers pour in nearly daily, and now I was starting to be asked what I wanted to sing – what a luxury! I learned how to say “no” more often, a lesson I find needs revisiting on occasion, and I was able to accept roles on the basis that they would be interesting and intriguing and/or be stepping stones in a long and sustainable career.

What advice do I have for this year’s singers? Prepare to within an inch of your life, and then go out there and be the best storyteller you can be. Whatever songs and arias you chose, sell them like you would sell performing your favourite role at your dream opera house. And after the competition, know that even the most blessed careers bring challenges. For me, the biggest is how much time I spend on the road – there have been seasons when I have been home fewer than 30 days in the year. But I wouldn’t change a thing – my life took a massive turn a decade ago this June, and the real gift of winning was the chance it gave me to be the artist I dreamed of becoming.

• The BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2023 competition ends on 18 June with coverage all week on Radio 3 and BBC Four. The main prize final is live on BBC Four and Radio 3 at 5pm. Jamie Barton sings the role of Azucena in Il Trovatore at the Royal Opera House, London until 2 July.