Growing up, Jamie Barton always loved music, but she didn’t realize she could make a living as a singer until later in life. Now she’s one of the most admired voices in opera. Barton performs at Spivey Hall this weekend.
The openly bisexual performer, a mezzo-soprano, grew up north of Rome and started performing when she was six years old at a talent show. She also sang at church, but there was nothing formal until she was in high school, where she auditioned with the Rome Little Theatre.
Her first role there was in “The Sound of Music.” Later, she attended Shorter College and then got a master’s degree from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. “I didn’t always know that I wanted to get into music for a career,” she admits. “I did know that I loved music, from the earliest age. I think I figured out in high school that I could go into music education. The idea of going to college for a performance degree was an intimidating one because I didn’t have that much experience and I didn’t know what kind of music I wanted to do. I loved musical theater but I also knew I couldn’t dance.” Eventually, though, she discovered that vocal performance was a reality.
She was first exposed to opera as a high school student. “To be quite honest, I didn’t love it but I loved the singers in it,” she says. She started seeing as many operas as she could and eventually gravitated towards it. Her first professional role, while she was in grad school, was in “La Traviata” at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
From there she started performing around the country and made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2009. The experience is one she’ll never forget. “As a very young singer, it was an amazing opportunity. It was my first gig out of my training program. I was very proud of it but it was overwhelming. When you hear people applauding at the end, it sounds like a football stadium.”
Barton discovered she was bisexual five years ago. “I was one of those later-in-life people. I didn’t realize I was bisexual until I fell in love with a woman. I was going through a divorce at the time and here came this woman and I was totally attracted and in love with her. It surprised me, but it felt right.” Her mother was the first person she told, then friends. Sometime later, for 2014’s National Coming Day, she announced it to the world. “I came out and haven’t looked back since.”
Earlier this year she (and her dress) made headlines at BBC’s Last Night at the Proms event. “I am a very openly queer singer,” she says. “I thought, the most unifying flag I can sing with is the Pride Flag. I decided to wave it to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall in honor of the audience. It represents love, acceptance, and inclusion. With my dress, I wanted to do a statement on bisexuality. Quite honestly I feel there is an issue in the queer community with visibility and bisexual acceptance. I had a gown designed by one of my favorite costume designers and she designed it with a cape with the bi flag on it. Stepping out was like stepping into a party where you are the guest of honor.”
Going back to Spivey Hall is very special for her. “I have done one recital there,” she says. “To go back to do a solo recital, it’s like looking into my living room, seeing people that I know and love from every point in my life from childhood to now. I get to bring this program that I love – a celebration of women. I wanted to highlight female composers and poets. Half the program is women. It’s great to show how women – once considered a lesser class – were just as talented and moving in their storytelling. It speaks to my heart.”