Though plenty of famous opera singers have claimed Rome, Italy, as their hometowns, not so many have come out of Rome, Ga. Nonetheless, the town of 36,000 in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains can now proudly claim not just any opera singer, but one of the best in the world.
Last June, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who grew up in Rome, was crowned the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, one of the opera world’s most prestigious honors. The contest is referred to as the “Olympics of opera” because it occurs every two years and each singer represents their country. Barton, 32, also walked away with the competition’s other most coveted award, the World Song Prize, a top-title double-win that’s extremely rare in the contest’s 30-year history.
On the heels of her triumph at Cardiff, Barton returns to Georgia for a homecoming concert at Spivey Hall at Clayton State University Nov. 17.
“There was nothing about me at age 15 that would have made anyone think I was going to be an opera singer,” Barton said in a phone interview from New York, where she was preparing to sing the role of Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma” at the Metropolitan Opera. “Sophomore year of high school, I would have never said, ‘I love opera.’”
Barton grew up on her family’s farm. When he wasn’t raising cattle or vegetables for the family, her father worked a variety of blue-collar and factory jobs. Her parents were fans of classic rock, not classical music, and her dad’s side of the family played bluegrass, not Bellini.
“I came from a very different kind of musical background, but my family loved music, so that love was instilled in me at an early age,” she says. “I remember my great aunt Imogene, they would have pickin’s up at her house. It was something the entire valley would show up for. It was basically a giant jam session with kids running around and a potluck dinner. It’s just what we did on Saturday nights.”
But like a lot of kids as they enter their teen years, Barton began looking for ways to move away from what she’d known as a child.
“I decided I wanted to have something in my life that was very different from my parents, from where I grew up,” she says. “It’s the silliest teenage rebellion you’ve ever heard of, but I started listening to Chopin.”
Barton began attending plays, concerts and her first opera at nearby Shorter College, now Shorter University, a small Baptist liberal arts college. After high school she enrolled there and began contemplating a career as a professional singer.
“I wanted to do musical theater, but I couldn’t dance to save my life, so I kind of thought, well, what’s the next thing that would allow me to be on stage and sing and not have to dance? That’s opera.”
She admits she initially was not a motivated student.
One day her voice teacher, Dr. Brian Horne, pulled her into his office and told her she had a potentially great career ahead of her if she could get serious about her studies, and he threatened to drop her from his studio if she couldn’t focus.
“These days, many people just aren’t mature enough to receive that message,” says Horne. “If you don’t respect their ‘greatness,’ they’ll walk and find someone else. Even as a freshman, Jamie was mature and wise beyond her years. She knew I was right.”
It was the wake-up call Barton needed. She dug into her practice and has never looked back.
Barton followed Horne to the prestigiousIndiana University Jacobs School of Music, where she pursued a master’s degree. While at Indiana, she participated in the Met Council Auditions, a nationwide competition for young singers that ends on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Barton was a Grand Prize finalist, a career-making turn in almost any year, but the year she participated, 2007, also happened to be the year award-winning filmmaker Susan Froemke created a full-length documentary about the grueling, nerve-wracking process called “The Audition.”
Barton made her official Met debut in 2009 in “The Magic Flute.” The London Guardian has called her “a great artist” with “an imperturbable steadiness of tone, and a nobility of utterance that invites comparison not so much with her contemporaries as with mid-20th century greats.” The New York Times has rhapsodized about her “big, rich voice from the top to the bottom of its range.” With the win at Cardiff, she has crossed the line from talented newcomer to bankable star.
“Jamie’s win at Cardiff and her recent triumphant performances at the Metropolitan and elsewhere reflect that the priorities are in the right place in classical singing,” says Horne. “Jamie’s singing is not ‘trendy’; she’s not being rewarded for anything other than her voluptuous, rich tone, her old-fashioned artistry and her work ethic.”
Thanks to her success, Barton spends a lot of time jetting off to the world’s great stages. But when she’s home with her husband, Darryl Taylor, in Roswell, she seldom listens to opera. She prefers music more in line with her heritage.
“If you look at my iPod, it’s a hodgepodge, but bluegrass definitely plays a big part of it.”
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