This interview was conducted in collaboration with Francisco Salazar.
Everyone knows what Jamie Barton can do.
And if you don’t…
The mezzo-soprano has firmly established herself over the past few years as one of the finest singing actresses on the planet, stealing scenes and garnering show-stopping applause with her incredible instrument and dramatic interpretation. She’s pulled off some historic feats along the way in major competitions and has sung at virtually every major opera company there is.
For years she’s brought out the best in bel canto repertoire while slowly transitioning into heavier repertoire of Verdi and Wagner. And now, she’s ready to pull off a full Ring Cycle at San Francisco this summer as Fricka, Waltraute, 2nd Norn, followed by one at the Metropolitan Opera next summer as Fricka. She has performed the roles across the different operas before, but now she will take them on consecutively across a full cycle.
OperaWire recently chatted with the self-proclaimed “Wagner nut” about the gargantuan task of taking on numerous roles in opera’s Magnus opus, “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”
OperaWire: How do you pace yourself when you are taking on a number of roles across a single week?
Jamie Barton: Sleep for me is a big one. It sounds a bit basic, but for me, in general with my career, if I am getting the sleep I need, I tend to be okay. It is when I don’t get sleep that I get vocally exhausted or even sick.
One of the downsides of the career is that when I come to a beautiful city like San Francisco, I am probably going to be a nun. Especially during the performances because there are so many. I might not be doing Brünnhilde, but the effort of going to the opera house and doing all those characters is definitely a challenge.
OW: Of the three operas, which presents the greatest vocal challenge for you?
JB: I would probably say Fricka in “Walküre.” She’s in a scene that has a lot of layers vocally. She has to do everything from yell at Wotan to whisper at him at certain points. And the vocal range is quite extensive as well. I have to really pay attention to what I am doing to save myself for everything I want to do.
OW: One of the unique features of these roles is that they basically appear in a few scenes and then disappear. What are the particular challenges for making a strong impression with the limited time you have?
JB: To me, it is about quality. I have to really plan. This Fricka has to make a major impression just by the pure nature of the music and the drama. There really is a lot built into that scene. For me, the challenge is being very specific. Fricka is being specific in negotiating this conversation. She has been waiting for very irrefutable evidence, so she knows that she is the winner. She knows she is going to come out on top, but she needs Wotan to agree to the contract. It’s like 15 minutes of music that she has to argue with him. And in this staging, they are in his office. It’s this boardroom and this married couple that has a lot of baggage and history meeting head to head.
OW: What challenges does Waltraute present in “Götterdämmerung?
JB: It is very similar in a lot of ways to Fricka. She is pleading for one direction. The big difference is that she doesn’t win the argument. She walks away empty-handed. In that one, it is less of a logical argument. She is coming to plead that her sister give her the ring to return to the Rhinemaidens. She thinks Brünnhilde is going to save her family. But she finds a Brünnhilde that is human. Someone that has been sleeping on a rock for 20 years. And I have to come around to the understanding that she is not the sister I had and that she is not going to save her family. They didn’t come to her rescue when she was on a rock. So she loves the one that did come to save her. As Jamie, I completely understand Brünnhilde. As Waltraute, I come to understand that this is the end of the Gods and the end of me and my family. The stakes are quite high.
OW: This production is renowned for being a feminist take on the Ring. What are your views?
JB: It is very much a feminist production. I love at the end of “Götterdämmerung” how the men’s chorus and main male characters are taken down by the female chorus. And how a young girl comes back with a tree to replant the earth. As a woman and a feminist, I love being in an environment run by women. Much of the stage management, assistant directors, and Francesca are women. In the rehearsal room, we are getting the same work done otherwise. Women are just as capable. It doesn’t read as a feminist staff. It just reads as an efficient team getting the job done. They are just the right people for the job. It is so important as far as the hiring practices of the opera world at large and this Ring cycle. And I think people will get that from watching this Ring.
OW: Speaking of Francesca, what has it been like to work with her?
JB: She’s amazing. I love working with her. To really have the stamp of approval of someone whose vision you trust is amazing. She is very supportive and also, at the same time, very clear of what she wants. She knows what works for the individual actors. My portrayal of Fricka is different from Betsy Bishops’. I learned a lot from her when I covered her in DC. She’s a brilliant actress. But we are so different and the staging changes. But Francesca guides us through what works and what doesn’t. It is so cool to have her come in and do that polish work.
OW: Which of the “Ring” operas is your favorite?
JB: That is like asking a painter what his favorite color is. It’s unfair. Maybe my favorite of the four is “Walküre.” In many ways, for the Fricka-Wotan scene, I think it is one of the most exciting scenes of the work and it is so brilliantly written. But to hear Wotan sing the “Abscheid” at the end of the opera, it is some of my favorite music of opera ever. But then the Waltraute scene [in "Götterdämmerung”] is amazing. I love these two women who come in and try to change the course of events. It is one of the things I love about Wagner. For as awful of a human being as he was, and there is irrefutable evidence to that, he still had a knack for writing strong female characters. It is so interesting that the hero that Wotan is trying to find over four operas is actually Brünnhilde. I am a Wagner nut and I love them all. It’s impossible to answer that question.
OW: Next season, of course, you do the “Ring” in New York at the Met Opera. What excites you most about that project?
JB: So many things. Quite honestly, one of my first Ring experiences was in a movie theater when I was in Houston and watching “Das Rheingold.” And Eric Owens, being a favorite in Houston, the audience was cheering for his Alberich. There was electricity in the air. And seeing that production from that standpoint was just amazing. I am so looking forward to it. How cool is it that I get to ride in on a chariot with rams’ heads. I am really looking forward to seeing what that machine is like up close and being Fricka on that one. I didn’t see any in the house, so I don’t really know what it’s like for an audience. And Greer Grimsley, if you would have told me I would be singing with him in this opera at the Met and San Fran years ago, I would have told you that you were crazy. It is literally living the dream.
OW: Singing this repertoire is really demanding on the voice. What are the keys from a long-term standpoint?
JB: Keeping variety in the projects I do keeps me mentally and vocally fresh. I try to keep bel canto and baroque in my schedule because I don’t have a voice that does Mozart. So that being the case, I want to do what is best for my voice. I love the fact that singing Wagner is very comfortable for me. But that being said, doing Wagner all the time is like going to the gym and doing legs every day. They are going to be swollen. And for me, bel canto and baroque helps me keep that lean and clean vocal health going. It’s a necessary part of investing in the longevity of my career. It also makes me happy. It keeps me on my toes.
OW: Lately, you have been immersing yourself more in Verdi’s operas as well. How does that compare with singing Wagner? Is it harder or easier for you?
JB: Wagner is, in many ways, very Italianate. Verdi, for me, is one of those composers that is much harder to do than Wagner. If you are built to sing Wagner and you have the cannon in your voice, then it works. My voice works for it. When you hear Wagner’s music, he writes the vocal line to ride over the thick orchestral line. You let your voice be what it is and Wagner was smart enough to let it work. Verdi is different. I wish I could meet the ladies he was writing for. They must have been freaks of nature. These mezzo roles have extensive ranges. You literally have to go from a high C to a low G in Azucena. You have to be able to cut through the orchestra in the middle of your voice. There are so many register shifts and emotional outbursts. So much extra goes into Verdi. I find it immensely more difficult to sing. I do put them in the same camp in terms of energy and vocal output. It’s all about managing and planning ahead in a way that I don’t have to do as Adalgisa or baroque roles.