Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Jamie Barton: A Queer Opera Icon

Jamie Barton. Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus
Get to know the woman dubbed "Opera's Nose-Studded Rock Star" by The New York Times. Jamie Barton performs in Seattle Opera's Songs of Summer series at 7 p.m., June 18 with pianist Jonathan Easter. To watch, head to Seattle Opera's Facebook, YouTube, or website; the video will be available to view for two weeks after the premiere date.  

Critically acclaimed by virtually every major outlet covering classical music, American opera singer Jamie Barton is increasingly recognized for how she uses her powerful instrument offstage—lifting up women, queer people, and other marginalized communities. Her lively social media presence on Instagram and Twitter serves as a hub for conversations about body positivity, diet culture, LGBTQ+ rights, and other social justice issues.

Following the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, Barton took to her Instagram to record a video, where she said: "My white fragility can take a backseat right now, and so can all of my little cute posts. We owe it to the Black people in this country, to Indigenous people, to so many people who are not white, to pay attention, to have the conversation. This has to happen. Remember: Black Lives Matter."

Jamie has recently brought her perspective to The Guilty Feminist, Slate, Studio 360, Front Row Live, The Times, Observer | The Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle, and cover stories in Classical Music Magazine and BBC Music Magazine. She was named 2020 Personality of the Year at the BBC Music Magazine Awards.

How are you celebrating Pride month in quarantine? 
Well, there are definitely going to be some Pride-themed cocktail parties with my friends on Zoom! But I’m very lucky in that I’ve been sheltering-in-place with my chosen family, who happen to be some of my favorite queer people on earth. Maybe we’ll put on our own parade ... We could deck out one of our cars in rainbow streamers and drive around the neighborhood playing Brandi Carlile, Lady Gaga, and Queen as loud as we can, blessing our neighbors with the spirit of Pride.

Who are the LGBTQ+ elders, ancestors, or community members you pay homage to during Pride—people who may have come before you in the community and give you strength/inspiration? 

Growing up in the north Georgia hills, I didn't have a lot of queer presence in my life growing up—that I knew, that is. Now that I have a bit more perspective, I can look back and identify people in my life who may not have been out—a north Georgia farming community is not an easy place to be queer—but who still influenced me with their kindness and understanding, far before I understood this aspect of myself. So first and foremost, I want to pay homage to these people in my life. Even if they can’t live their queer lives out loud, they helped build the foundation of self-acceptance and love it took for me to understand my own queerness.

Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two legendary activists and drag performers worked with the LGBTQ+ community and those affected by HIV/AIDS.   
Then there are many people who came before me whom I didn’t know, but whose actions directly impact my own life. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and their pivotal roles in the Stonewall Uprising come to mind first—these brave women, who faced unimaginable bigotry just for their existence, changed the world for all queer people in the United States for the better. Incredible. 

Freddie Mercury is my original #bicon, Alan Cumming’s loud and proud bisexuality in the late 90s still strikes me as revolutionary, and the unflinchingly progressive Dan Savage helped me (via his podcast Savage Love) navigate the rocky waters of a divorce and helped me understand my own burgeoning queerness.

And then the myriad of queer leaders in the opera industry—company leaders, directors, conductors, and older singers who took me under their wings and gave me a new aspect of family when I came out. There are so many incredible people who deserve recognition and appreciation.

Barton refers to British singer/songwriter Freddie Mercury as one of her bisexual icons. 

Seattle Opera Scholar in Residence Naomi AndrĂ© talks about how opera is becoming a place of liberation for People of Color and folks with intersectional identities such as yourself. Do you also see opera as a space of liberation? Why or why not? 
I absolutely do see opera as a space of liberation—when that liberation is encouraged and fostered. The arts have traditionally been a safe space for people who don't adhere to societal norms, and so it makes sense that queer people feel that liberation. However, I do feel like we can do more as a whole. I'm so glad to hear that Naomi feels that opera is becoming a place of liberation for People of Color, and I want that to continue on. I've been trying to examine my own white filter, and in doing so, I recognize it more often in many places. Opera has long been operating under the white filter, as much of the world does... We are just now getting to a place where Black singers are being cast regularly in pieces that aren't just Porgy and Bess. I want to see more stories told that elevate Black people and other People of Color. I want more composers, administrators, singers, and audience members of color to feel like this is their art form without having to fight for their perspectives to be considered. I also want more age and body diversity represented on stage. I believe that humanity is a gorgeous, unique, and infinitely varied thing, and that audience members want to see themselves represented. If we hope for our art form to be truly inclusive, we must help our audience members feel seen. 

You previously said Carmen is not necessarily straight. Who are the queer heroes and heroines of opera we may be overlooking? 
I absolutely think Carmen is bi- or least that's my interpretation of the character! I could also see Eboli (from Don Carlo) being queer, and the same with Posa. I've played a Mere Marie in Dialogues des Carmelites who was undoubtedly queer, and I kind of love that. I'd love to see a major opera company stage an Orfeo where the Orfeo is a lesbian rather than a pants role. And I'd *love* to see that female Orfeo be super butch, too ... Why do all women on stage in romantic roles have to be of the femme variety?

Jamie waving the LGBTQ+ flag and a dress inspired by the bisexual pride flag. 
What message do you have for the LGBTQ+ youth who may be struggling with their own identities and confidence?

Using the words that Dan Savage and Terry Miller turned into an actual campaign ... it gets better. Trust me on this! I'm a 38-year-old woman who, as a teenager, thought life was always going to operate under the same circumstances as it did back then. Even if you feel like an outcast right now, you will find your community. And if you put in the work, you'll find love for yourself, too. That's the most beautiful and important thing—learning to love who you are for exactly who you are. Things seemed to fall into place for me after I started to radically love who I was ("flaws" and all!), and I really believe in this as a healing and universal truth.

When I think of the LGBTQ+ community, I think of resilience. What lessons of resilience have you gleaned from the LGBTQ+ community—how are those lessons helping you through the global pandemic? 
The pandemic is a truly terrifying thing on a lot of levels... there's no getting around that. But I find inspiration from the history of our LGBTQ+ community in every facet. I like to follow queer history accounts on social media—@lgbt_history on Instagram is one of my favorites—where you'll hear stories you didn't know existed and see the struggles of those who came before us. Listen to people older than you in the queer community and hear their stories of what life was like... It hasn't been easy. But we have made it through, and life is so much better for us now as a whole because we learned how to support each other. We will continue to support each other through this pandemic... every Zoom call, every moment of self-care, every moment of love that we share with or without physically touching is just another step in the direction of us being alright.