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Once upon an Opera

Versatile, unique mezzo-soprano premieres as Witch in 'Hansel and Gretel' Friday night


Friday night, a Southern farm girl will become a witch.

Jamie Barton, a 25-year-old mezzo-soprano, will move into her gingerbread house Friday night as the Witch in the IU Opera Theater production of "Hansel and Gretel." Before she came to IU as a graduate student in the renowned Jacobs School of Music opera department, Barton performed bluegrass music with her family on their farm in Rome, Ga.

"I also played the piano for nine years," she said, "but that doesn't mean anything stuck. I think honestly I took up classical music because it was different."

This love of classical music eventually led her to Shorter College, also in Rome, Ga., where she began voice lessons under Brian Horne, an IU alumnus.

"I first met Jamie when she was in eighth grade, and my wife was her music teacher in school," Horne said.

"I was delighted to take her on," he continued later. "She is very musical naturally, but we did work a great deal on her technique, and fortunately, the theater department at the time was very strong, and Jamie took an interest in that as well."

When it came time to find a graduate school, Barton found the Jacobs School of Music to be just one of many choices. Horne, who at the same time was offered a faculty appointment to IU, stepped in to champion his alma mater.

"My wife and I brought Jamie and her accompanist up here in the summer," he said. "I took them on the 'Brian Horne tour,' as I call it, which is entering the house of the Musical Arts Center through the orchestra pit, as though you are the maestro making his way to the podium."

Horne said he has yet to find anyone who can resist the appeal of that trip, and Barton did not change that record.

Barton has since spent a great deal of time in the MAC as a performer in the IU Opera Theater, which has been one of the school's claims to fame for decades.

The school performed several short operas and operettas in the first half of the 20th century -- including a 1942 production of "Hansel and Gretel." It was not until the first production of Richard Wagner's "Parsifal" in 1949, however, that opera became a regular fixture of the school's performance -- not to mention marketing -- structure. The presentation of "Parsifal" quickly became an annual event, prompting a Life magazine reviewer to claim that IU's "majestic settings and dynamic staging ... beat hands down the 'Parsifal' given by New York's Metropolitan (Opera)." The school has since attracted some of the greatest talent in the field -- from the late conductor Ernst Hoffman and stage director Hans Busch to celebrated sopranos Sylvia McNair and Carol Vaness.

This tradition was not lost on Barton as she made her decision to attend IU. She said the best part of being a singer at IU is the opportunity to work in such a high-caliber theater.

"We get used to it," she continued, "but I've seen regional theaters that aren't nearly the size of IU. My old school had 22 practice rooms, which was unheard of (in such a rural area). I used to give recitals in a carpeted chapel."

Horne said he finds IU's opera program to be of great benefit to voice students in Bloomington.

"The main strength, I think, for someone like Jamie is certainly the opera program and the MAC stage," he said. "We are one of the very few places that offer real opera with real orchestra and a real stage."

Professor Mary Ann Hart, chair of the voice department and Barton's teacher for the past year and a half, said she also feels the size of the opera program provides unique "real world" benefits to students.

"In the real world, you don't make every audition," she said. "In a smaller school, where there are fewer voice students, your turn (to sing a role) might come up more quickly."

Both her former and current teachers said they have high hopes for Barton's future. Hart said she can imagine Barton's voice in a number of roles, and Horne echoed that sentiment.

"I will say that I think Jamie's unique voice and the humanity she shows will earn a career for her," Horne said.

Barton, for her part, has already started her professional career. She recently won the district level for the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions, qualifying her to perform at the regional level in January. This past summer, she participated in the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' summer program and the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts, where she had the opportunity to sing for James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera and take lessons with renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw. Barton will return to St. Louis this summer to make her professional debut as Annina in Verdi's "La Traviata."

"Jamie is very fortunate in that she does have an amazing instrument," Hart said. "It's not typical; (it's an) individual sound, which is a huge, huge advantage in the real world. That's the kind of thing we're preparing our students to do ... you have to (have) something to say that will set you apart."

Those who can't wait until July to hear Barton's instrument, however, can see her Friday night as the Witch in Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel." Performances begin at 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Nov. 17 and 18.

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