A dutiful hometown girl, Jamie Barton sang “Tender Shepherd” from Peter Pan in a benefit for the city’s venerable DeSoto Theatre. The song holds sentimental, full-circle meaning for Barton, who had trilled it decades earlier in a first-grade talent show—the first time she ever performed onstage for the public. Barton, 34, has been singing for increasingly cosmopolitan and exacting audiences ever since, and the local Glee aspirants who turned out for this show cheered her wildly because her meteoric example gives them hope. They knew that Barton’s next gig would take her back to the celebrated Metropolitan Opera in New York, where her mezzo-soprano has established her as a must-see regular.
“Every time Jamie is onstage, we have learned to wait for several minutes before we come on because the ovations for her always last so long,” says Timothy Breese Miller, a chorus member at the Met, where Barton most recently played the role of Jane Seymour in Anna Bolena. “It’s extraordinary that she has come so far, so fast. This kind of acclaim and following is usually reserved for older, more seasoned artists.”
Barton may have earned this status precisely because she sounds so richly experienced, so old-school, with a coloratura that is pure Technicolor, in arias that evoke some sort of empyrean birdsong in a three-octave range. The New Yorker has lauded her “once-in-a-generation talent,” and other reviews have joined the chorus of praise.
In November the prodigy performed at Lincoln Center for a program televised on PBS, and this month she plays Cornelia in Giulio Cesare in Frankfurt. Then it’s on to Iceland, Moscow, and Washington before returning to the Met for the juicy part of the witch in Dvorak’s Rusalka. “The travel is the hardest part of being an opera singer,” says Barton, who hangs her hat in a Reynoldstown loft between shows. “I miss my cat and my family.”
She grew up in Rome—Georgia, not Italy—where she was exposed to the sounds of the Grand Ole Opry more than La Scala.
“I got into opera basically because I wanted to be in musical theater,” she says, “but I couldn’t dance. My family plays bluegrass—mandolin, fiddle, and banjo—but I could never play a stringed instrument. Still, my Georgia roots influenced and created me. I’ve always loved performing at the DeSoto.”
Barton studied music at nearby Shorter College and then Indiana University. To build her repertory, she started the Met’s National Council of Auditions process and became one of the winners in 2007.
“I’ll never forget hearing her rehearse a Brahms rhapsody to be performed at Spivey Hall,” says Martha Shaw, who was Shorter’s director of choral activities at the time. “Even then, it was this enormous, otherworldly instrument full of presence. But like an old pro, she had an innate sense of just when to rein it in. All we could do was marvel.”
Barton may be an artistic throwback in some ways, but she does not adhere to its accompanying stereotype: She’s no diva.
“Jamie is very much an unassuming, thoughtful, down-home girl who is very supportive of other artists,” Shaw says. “She doesn’t expect to be treated differently or for people even to recognize her name. Instead, she’s the life of the party, with an uproarious sense of humor.”
When she is not getting trussed and cantilevered into Tudor bodices, Barton likes to unwind in Grateful Dead T-shirts, flip-flops, and a nose ring, while cooking, reading, and watching cat videos.
“I think that’s Jamie’s secret,” Shaw says. “That underneath her dazzling technique, there is this very real, unpretentious, genuine person who is reaching out with humility. The sincerity of her emotions is what moves an audience.”
Plus, Barton finds a sense of entitlement annoying.
“The diva mentality is very antiquated and has no place in modern opera,” she says. “It’s a distance that’s selfish to your colleagues and your audience members. I prefer to think of us as a big community, a family of people, and you don’t hold your family at arm’s length.”
Last year she won the Richard Tucker Award, which is often called the “Heisman Trophy” of opera and is recognized for anointing an American singer on the threshold of a major international career.
At this stage, Barton has nothing to prove but everything to offer. The next time she sings at the DeSoto, try to hear her while you can.
This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue under the headline “From Banjos to Bizet”