Isabel Barbato, From Stetson to Yale

Isabel Barbato '24
Isabel Barbato '24
Isabel Barbato graduated with a bachelor’s in Vocal Performance and will start her master’s degree in Music at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music in the fall.

Note: Isabel Barbato is part of a small group of high-achieving seniors to be highlighted in the 2024 Hatter Headliners series.

Music has been a lifelong passion for Stetson graduate Isabel Barbato ’24, who received her bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance Friday, May 10, at the Spec Martin Memorial Stadium in DeLand. This fall, she will be pursuing a master’s of Music at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music (ISM).

Isabel Barbato in Janáček’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” as the Fox.

“I’ve been singing since I was very young, but I have always dealt with stage fright,” she said. “I remember not being able to sing in front of my mom and dad. My sister encouraged me to join choir in high school (at Winter Park High School), so I joined my freshman year and I fell in love with everything about music, not just singing.”

For Barbato, it is the hidden things — like sight reading, music analysis, and the history — in music that elevate her love for it, as well as the way she has gotten to find herself through it over the years.

“It’s taught me a lot as a person, having to put myself out there and be vulnerable by sharing this very personal thing that is my voice,” she said. “I don’t know where I would be without music.”

A Diverse, Recognized Singer

During her time at Stetson, Barbato has earned several accolades. Most recently, she won first place at the SERNATS vocal competition. Through her musical career as a student, Barbato has performed diverse leading roles in the Stetson Opera Theatre’s productions of Janáček’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” as the Fox and Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus” as Adele.

Karen Coker-Merritt, DM

“Her instrument is crystalline and agile, with a unique color that is perfectly suited to a variety of styles,” said Karen Coker-Merritt, DM, associate professor of music, voice. “This ability to shape-shift perfectly into many styles is perhaps her hallmark; I have heard her sing all of the following music as if she was born to sing it: Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, avant-garde new music, and musical theater.”

Last year, Barbato was one of two Stetson students to be selected as an apprentice for the Opera Orlando Apprenticeship, an opportunity that allowed her to perform in Puccini’s Tosca at Steinmetz Hall in downtown Orlando. Among other recognitions, Barbato remained on the Dean’s List through her time at Stetson, received the annual Stetson School of Music Presser Scholar Award and, as a junior, she won the Maris Prize for Best Junior Recital at Stetson Showcase in 2023.

“I took an immersive, story-like approach, outlining the story of Eurydice from the Greek myth of Orpheus in the Underworld and relating it to my own personal struggle with cancer,” she said. “I found this narrative style of recital programming to be an incredible expressive outlet that allowed the audience to relate on a human level. I am hoping to expand upon this concept in my graduate studies and continue to explore other creative ways to engage audiences.”

Becoming Izzy, From Perfect to Human

In December 2021, Barbato’s life took a 180-degree turn when she was diagnosed with lymphoma. After the diagnosis, she made the decision to withdraw from Stetson for a year to focus on her treatment. She is now cancer-free.

Isabel Barbato’s journey has been unexpected. Through it, she has learned there is light even in the darkest of places.

“I decided to come back to Stetson,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have made that decision if I hadn’t had the experience I had the first couple of years here and the support I felt not only in those first years but in the year I left. People were always checking on me, making sure I was doing well. They were doing the little things just to let me know that I was thought of here, even though I wasn’t here.”

Upon her return to school after undergoing treatment, Barbato was welcomed back to the Stetson Community with a benefit concert in her name, with the purpose of raising funds to aid other people battling lymphoma.

“It was an amazing night and I felt so loved,” she said. “I was sitting in the middle of Lee Chapel and they all were looking at me while they were singing. I cried the whole time. It was incredible.”

Despite the unexpected turn, when Barbato looks back to that year — the year she battled cancer — she now sees that within the darkness that surrounded her, there was also light.

“I think before I was diagnosed, I was a very one-track-minded student,” she said. “We can really get in our heads about being perfect all the time. I would be really hard on myself if I didn’t get all As, or if I didn’t hit the right note in a performance, and dwell in the things that weren’t perfect. Now, I think this helped me realize that those small things don’t matter at all.”

Barbato turned music into her refuge and an outlet for her emotions and, eventually, she understood that being human — without the worry of being perfect — allowed her to share the best version of herself when on stage.

Isabel Barbato: “I started having much more successful performances because I wasn’t just focused on getting everything exactly right. I could allow myself to be more vulnerable and more myself.”

“Being at school, music became more academic to me,” she said. “I was able to take a step back from the academic side of music and just let myself be enveloped by the emotion and creativity, so it really changed my perspective a ton. Coming back to Stetson, I let go of being perfect and do everything right. I started having much more successful performances because I wasn’t just focused on getting everything exactly right. I could allow myself to be more vulnerable and more myself.”

Barbato is beyond excited to start her master’s education at the ISM — a joint venture between the Yale School of Music and Yale Divinity School — as it will provide her the opportunity to further her academic development and continue growing as a professional singer. Her dream? Changing the world for the better, one performance at a time.

“She has inspiring ideas about the intersection of music and medicine, born amidst the year she spent receiving chemotherapy for lymphoma,” Coker-Merritt said. “She is literally changing the world for the better, and if anyone can do it, it will be her.”

Barbato’s Q&A

Isabel Barbato practicing the unofficial Stetson sport that is Hammocking.

One thing you learned at Stetson that you’ll take with you forever. 
I’ve learned to be open to everything. I could have never imagined that I would fall in love with this place, or get diagnosed with cancer in this place, or make the strong friendships I have in this place. I will always be grateful to Stetson for teaching me so much about myself, and for helping me realize that although life is unpredictable, there is a certain kind of peace that comes with that. I’ve learned to take things as they come and be grateful for every second of it.

What is your favorite memory at Stetson? 
Taking a nap on the Stetson Green. The incredible times spent with my first roommate Lindsey. Jumping into the fountain (oops!). Meeting lifelong friends in the School of Music. Playing a fox in “The Cunning Little Vixen” and a maid in “Die Fledermaus.” Late nights exploring downtown and Bingo nights at Persimmon Hollow. Coming to fall in love with DeLand. The time spent studying with friends in the library. The insane amount of bagels I’ve consumed at Einstein’s. The beautiful music I’ve had the honor of creating with my School of Music family.

– Andrea Mujica