My First Opera: Jamie Barton
Growing up on a small farm in the northwest Georgia mountains, “music” meant many things to me — bluegrass, classic rock, church hymns — but never in a million years did I imagine that classical music would become a defining element in my life. Middle school choir and piano lessons gave me a glimpse into this foreign soundscape. But it wasn’t until I was 16 and someone got me a compilation CD called Chopin and Champagne that I fell head over heels in love with classical music.
The disc, which I’m sure was purchased from the Blockbuster Music bargain bin, featured Claudio Arrau. I listened to him breathe with the music, feeling the emotions well up in his chest and come out in exhales. I didn’t really get into classical vocal music until a family member gave me a compilation album titled Italian Opera’s Greatest Hits. It included many wonderful artists, but it was Anna Moffo singing “Una voce poco fa” that I put on repeat. Later, someone gave me a huge 12-CD set of the greatest composers, and the Queen of the Night’s aria on the Mozart disc absolutely blew my mind. I had heard high notes before (hello, Mariah Carey!), but hearing a trained classical voice sing something that virtuosic made the wheels start turning in my brain. What is this? Could I do this with my voice, too?
I knew I wanted to get a music degree in college, but I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do with it. I knew people liked to hear me sing (I was voted “most talented” at Armuchee High School, class of 2000!), and I knew I liked to perform, especially in music theater. I decided to go to Shorter College — a local college with fabulous musical theater and classical music programs — as a music education major. That decision lasted about a month into my first semester, when I figured out that one-on-one voice lessons were the only teaching I was interested in doing. So I switched my major to vocal performance. (I had considered going into music theater, but anxiety about having to wear a unitard in an 8:00 a.m. ballet class scared me off.)
My first few years of classical vocal study were simultaneously inspiring and overwhelming. The music opened my ears to worlds I had never dreamt existed. But I had a very steep hill to climb in order to catch up to most of my classmates, and I nearly quit. My knowledge of music theory was almost nonexistent (I ended up failing a semester of that in my sophomore year), and I had absolutely no basis for understanding foreign languages. What I did have were wonderful teachers who would accept nothing less than excellent effort. They believed in me, but they weren’t going to tolerate laziness. When my voice teacher, Dr. Brian Horne — who was, and still is, very much my second father — saw that I was beginning to shirk my student responsibilities in favor of the social scene, he told me that if I didn’t buckle down and work, he was going to boot me from his studio. It was the kick in the pants I needed.
It was during college that I went to Atlanta Opera with a group of friends to see Indra Thomas, a Shorter alum, in Aida. I was thrilled to be seeing my very first professional opera, but I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to behold. The production was one of those grand opera spectacles that we all know and love. And the Amneris, Nina Terentieva, absolutely floored me. I didn’t know that mezzos could have high notes like that, or that a chest voice could literally rattle the audience. In seeing this performance, I was learning the possibilities of my fach — possibilities that eventually became realities.
My life as both a fan and a performer of classical music has been full of moments like these: moments of stumbling on discoveries that help propel me to the next level of understanding. I’ve never been part of a sports team, but I feel like being a classical singer is akin to playing Olympic-level sports. I get to spend the rest of my life challenging my body to its furthest possibilities. The learning never stops, and I absolutely love that!
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, a winner of both the Richard Tucker and Beverly Sills Awards, will sing the title role of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Metropolitan Opera this fall.