Life

“I’m So Proud to Be Doing It”

Star opera singer Jamie Barton on queering classical music, idolizing drag queens, and showing pride at the Proms.

Jamie Barton mezzo-soprano
Mezzo-soprano, Jamie Barton gets the Last Night of the Proms celebrations off to a flying start, alongside the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers under conductor Sakari Oramo. Barton performed Bizet, Saint-Saëns and Verdi.
BBC/Chris Christodoulou

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

On Saturday, openly queer American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton took to the stage for the final part of her featured performance at the Last Night of the Proms in a dress inspired by the bisexual pride flag. This was more than just a fashion choice. The Proms is Britain’s biggest classical music festival, and Barton is an artist at the top of her profession—this fall she will play Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In Barton’s hands, bi visibility got the diva treatment.

In the lead-up to the big evening, I spoke with her about her success, being an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights and body positivity, and what it means to queer the Proms. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

June Thomas: Opera is famously queer-friendly as far as the audience goes. Is it queer-friendly for performers? 

Jamie Barton: Oh, yes. The classical music industry is super queer and has been for centuries. It’s one of the reasons that I found a home in classical music. I very quickly identified my people. I came out later in life, and the coming-out process, which I would say I went through fairly quickly, was something that I had very little fear about because I knew that the people surrounding me both in my job and also in my family, logical and biological, were going to support me. I was very lucky.

You’re going to be performing at the Last Night of the Proms which, for casual fans at least, is the classical music event of the year in Britain. How do you bring Jamie Barton to the Last Night of the Proms?

Well, thank goodness, the BBC has been entirely on board with me being me. There were two very big things that I wanted to touch on with my guest appearance: one was my own walk with body positivity. And the other is bi visibility, pride, particularly with this year being the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. It just made every bit of sense to me that when I walk out for “Rule Britannia,” I’m going to have a Pride flag when the audience is going to have Union Jacks.

First, I’m going to be singing three arias by characters that I have a hard time getting cast as because of my size: Carmen [from Carmen], Delilah [from Samson and Delilah], and Eboli from Don Carlo. I wanted to get out there and show that a good storyteller is not defined by their size. And I can sing the snot out of those arias.

The second group is a short set of Judy Garland–inspired songs. I’m going to be doing “I Got Rhythm” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” of course. I am coming back out for “Rule Britannia” in a dress that was inspired by the bisexual flag and doing my own little queering of the Proms.

That was what I was really called to do. I’m sitting in a meeting with the BBC last October, and I have purple hair and a side shave and a nose ring, and I’m wondering, are they going to want me to grow my hair out? How conservative do I need to be for this? And from the first moment I said, “You know, the flag that I feel I can get behind and wave during ‘Rule Britannia’ is the Pride flag.” They were like, yes absolutely. So we’re going with the idea of unity and inclusion. These are two very important things to me. I think they are healing things. So I’m proud to be doing it.

I know you love RuPaul’s Drag Race and drag generally. There are many fun selfies of you with drag queens on Instagram. I can see some parallels between drag and classical singing, especially around performed exaggeration. Is that part of the appeal for you?

Absolutely. If I were a man, I’d be a drag queen. I have such respect for the drag community, in particular for the way it came together in the 1980s, creating families where families were letting go of their blood relatives because of AIDS. The drag community is why people survived. RuPaul is amazing. I’m also really big into support[ing] your local drag queens. I am also a huge fan of some performers that are “bio drag”; they are women who are doing drag performances. (Creme Fatale, I love you so much!)

There is a direct parallel between what I do and what they do. When I’m getting ready for recitals, I call it getting into concert drag. I’m doing a kind of stylized makeup that you would never see me out at the mall in.

When I’m doing an opera, we’re getting into costumes, we’re in wigs, we’re in heavy makeup. Drag is an inspiring step in terms of performance because it really does put the onus of creation on the performer. I just love it. I love it so much.

What’s the queerest role you can imagine playing at the opera?

I really want to do an Orfeo where Orfeo is not a pants role, but where Orfeo is actually a woman—a two-women love story.

But, you know, I look at stock characters like Carmen as super queer. For me, she’s not necessarily straight. When I flirt with the audience as Carmen, I really am flirting with every person out there because I think that’s who she is. I think she’s pansexual on some level. It just takes reimagining.