It took no more than a dozen notes, one line of text, to recognize that Jamie Barton possesses a rare voice.
As one of the opera world's rising stars, the mezzo-soprano from the Atlanta area has earned such praise before, but the opening moments of Wednesday's Schubert Club International Artist Series recital showed her also to be a musician of great confidence and courage. With her powerful mezzo-soprano voice unaccompanied, she sang of a prisoner on death row rediscovering his love of music.
At the piano was the song's composer, Jake Heggie, best known for the most popular of 21st-century operas, "Dead Man Walking." Yet to call this livestreamed recital from an empty Ordway Concert Hall a celebration of music itself sounds too frivolous for what was on offer. This was an evening of songs that spoke not only of a love of music, but of a passionate connection to it, an urgent need for it, a painful separation from it.
Yes, it was "virtual," but the concert's emotional impact was disarmingly palpable. Designed by Barton and Heggie to address much of what the pandemic has taken from us, it was a warm and intimate evening with two artists who clearly enjoy working together. There was humor, playfulness, captivating drama and touching grief. And the chief delivery device was Barton's magnificent voice.
Hers is an instrument with exceptional range, and she can seemingly employ power or delicacy from its highest point to its lowest. Franz Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" became a miniature opera in Barton's fierce interpretation, the narrator recounting a seduction with desperation and yearning. And four songs by 20th-century American composer Florence Price — who's experiencing a welcome renaissance — were fine showcases for Barton's storytelling skills and impeccable vocal control.
The songs of Johannes Brahms helped Barton win the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2013, and it was easy to hear why in her melancholy "Unbewegte laue Luft" and the masterfully rendered "Von ewiger Liebe" that closed the concert's first half.
But the most memorable performances came after intermission, when the repertoire was entirely by Heggie. Receiving its second performance (premiered two nights earlier) was his "What I Miss the Most," a collection of five songs with texts from five women asked by Heggie early in the pandemic to describe precisely what the title says.
Musical theater star Patti LuPone's "Time" proved a lovely reflection on having more of that, yet the song with the fewest words proved the most compelling.
Shortly before her death, opera-loving Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote to Heggie about how much she missed live music. He and Barton turned it into something that grows from melancholy to mournful.
Similar in grief-soaked tone was one of four songs by Heggie and lyricist Gene Scheer inspired by visiting the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and finding artifacts left behind by the wives of U.S. presidents. Mary Todd Lincoln's imagined encounter with the hat her husband wore on the day of his death was made breathtaking by Barton's openhearted interpretation.
With no audience to shout for an encore, virtual concerts rarely feature one, but this one did. Perhaps one too many opera stars has ended an evening with Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow," but Barton made it a gently wistful wind-down to a deeply involving evening.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org
Jamie Barton and Jake Heggie
What: Songs by Heggie, Franz Schubert, Florence Price and Johannes Brahms.
Where: Streaming through June 12 for free at schubert.org