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America’s Last Night of the Proms Queen

Mezzo Soprano Jamie Barton prepares to perform at the iconic British finale to the Proms

Published on August 19, 2019
First published in the September/October 2019 edition of The American magazine
Jamie Barton Jamie Barton. Photo © BreeAnne Clowdus

Thank you so much for your time Jamie. Our traditional opening question, where in the States are you from?

I'm from a rural farming community north of Rome, Georgia, in the northwest GA mountains... the locals call it "The Pocket" because it's a valley where two mountains come together.

How did you first become interested in singing? Do you have family who helped influence your career?

My whole family is quite musical, but more into classic rock and bluegrass than classical music. It was pretty common to hear music in our household – anything from the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix, to June Carter and Doc Watson! But it was my father who really helped influence my interest in music... I have very fond memories of him teaching me how to hear and sing harmony during hymns at church. I can absolutely thank him for my musical ear!

One of your big moments in opera was winning the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World prize in 2013. How did it feel to be given such recognition, and has the UK played a big part in your career?

Winning BBC Cardiff Singer of the World absolutely changed my life. I had a pretty decent emerging career happening before that competition, but it skyrocketed afterward! I honestly still have a difficult time putting that experience into words – it was overwhelming in the best sort of ways. But yes, the UK has played a big part in my career, not only because of the work I've been invited to do since Cardiff, but also because of the interactions I still have with music lovers from the UK! I don't think there's an engagement I go to where someone doesn't mention having seen me do the competition back in 2013. The reach of that competition is absolutely massive. It's still one of my proudest achievements, and the fact that I have such warm and wonderful fans in the UK is just the best sort of prize to me.

We'll get to the big news early  - you're singing at the Last Night of the Proms this September, congratulations! How did you become involved, and how are you feeling about performing at the Royal Albert Hall?

First of all, thank you! I am absolutely delighted to be singing at the Last Night of the Proms! It's an honor I didn't even consider dreaming about before they asked me to do it this year. Some of my greatest musical heroes have participated – Joyce DiDonato, Sarah Walker, Sarah Connolly, just to name a few of my mezzo heroes! – and just to be named along with them is the highest of honors to me. I had the pleasure of singing Brahms' 'Alto Rhapsody' at the Proms back in 2015 with Marin Alsop, and I remember the energy of the crowd nearly bowling me over when I walked out! I think I could have reached out and literally touched some of the people in the standing section of the crowd directly in front of me – it's an event that is simultaneously intimate and absolutely massive at the same time. I'm just so looking forward to returning to Royal Albert Hall, and to getting to have an evening with that audience again. I've been told it's something I will never forget!

Which songs from the Last Night are you most looking forward to singing?

We've got a great set of Judy Garland inspired songs happening this year, and I am so looking forward to singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'. It's a song that is near and dear to my heart on a lot of levels. Of course, we all know and love The Wizard of Oz, but as a queer person, it's also really special to me that I get to sing something that nods to my LGBTQIA+ family. And this year is the 50th anniversary not only of the Stonewall Riots in NYC that really pushed social justice rights forward for queer people in the United States, but also the death of Judy Garland, who passed away just days before the Stonewall Riots. The fact that I get to sing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' at the Last Night of the Proms on the 50th anniversary of such a monumental time in queer history is just so special to me, and I have the BBC to thank for being a supportive partner in making that dream a reality.

In recent years, particularly for 'Rule Britannia', there have been some interesting costume choices for performers! What's your wardrobe looking like for the evening?

I'm so excited about the dress I have planned for this! In keeping with the LGBTQIA+ pride theme, I'm going to be stepping out onstage for 'Rule Britannia' in a dress that is inspired by the bisexual pride flag. It's going to have some dramatic flair, and my hope is that it sings its own tune of bisexual pride loud and clear, as the message of bisexual visibility is very important to me. 

The proms are such a key part of the British season - how do you feel as an American taking up the important role of leading the Last Night?

Quite honestly, I feel honored! I know there have been guest artists from all over the world at previous Last Nights, and I also feel like the world is in a place of serious upheaval right now. For the BBC to have asked a bisexual girl from the US to lead the Last Night of the Proms is not only an honor, but shows me that the BBC is committed to a message that I very much believe in: promoting and celebrating the message of love in all of its forms. I truly believe that inclusivity and love are healing things, and I am proud to stand by that message at such a global event.

You bring such a positive aura to your performances, what's the most enjoyable aspect of singing for you?

I absolutely love storytelling and connecting with audiences. To me, there's nothing quite like looking at a sea of people - mostly people I do not know personally - and connecting over music. I think we all love that to an extent – how many times have you sent music or YouTube videos to friends because something touched you or made you feel something extraordinary? Getting to share music I love with my voice and immediately see how that hits the audience is almost addictive – in the best sort of way!

What are some of your favorite things to do when in London and the UK?

I'm a bit of a homebody, but I love exploring areas that are new to me. Most of the time in London or Cardiff, you might find me wandering the streets and enjoying some local shops and restaurants. 

What's next on the horizon for you after the Proms?

Directly after the Proms, I head to New York City to sing my very first pants role AND my very first title role at the Metropolitan Opera: Orfeo!

Finally, what's the best thing about being Jamie Barton?

Would it be weird if I said that it's getting asked questions like this one? :)

The Last Night of the Proms takes place on September 14, 2019, live from the Royal Albert Hall in London. Coverage starts on BBC Two at 7:15pm, whilst the second half of the evening will be broadcast on BBC One. Find out more details on timings at https://www.bbc.co.uk/proms


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