Kathleen Battle: A Powerful Story, As Yet Not Told

About four years ago, one year into the beginning of my love of opera, I was making my morning commute to work at NIH.  Heading out of Vienna onto the Beltway, I switched from weather and traffic reporting to Met Opera radio, and Donizetti’s Elisir D’Amore had just begun, a good, frisky opera to get you ready for a workday.  I was pleased, and I recognized Pavarotti right away, such a distinctive voice, but who was the lead soprano?  What a voice!  I should add that I am very much into voices.  If I don’t like the voice, I find it hard to enjoy the singing no matter how technically correct.  This soprano’s voice was like ice cream, sweet and flavorful.  She moved through the scale effortlessly without revealing any strain; even in the highest registers, the voice always maintained its flavor.  As soon as I was able, I tracked down the performance and identified the soprano – Kathleen Deanna Battle, highly acclaimed lyric coloratura soprano.  I became a big fan, eager to find recordings of other operas in which she had performed.  It turned out the supply was surprisingly limited.

Some facts from Wikipedia and a number of news reports (list available on request):  Born in 1948, she grew up in Ohio, the youngest of seven children.  Her father was a steelworker and her mother sang gospel music at church.  Her talent was recognized as a child and mentors moved her in the direction of music.  She chose to study music education at the University of Cincinnati and taught 5th and 6th grades for awhile.  Her professional singing debut was in 1972 at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, which she garnered though an audition.  Her early singing career involved touring with major orchestras.  Her operatic debut was in 1975 with the Michigan Opera singing Rosina in The Barber of Seville.  Her first appearance at the Met Opera was in 1977 with James Levine conducting, still principal conductor of the Met orchestra today.  She had been befriended by Mr. Levine earlier in her career, beginning a relationship that has apparently endured.  She became a mainstay at the Met during the 1980s, performing over 224 times in 14 different operas.  She was also featured at many other top opera houses in the U.S. and world.  Early she was criticized for having a light voice in terms of power, but her voice grew with experience.  You can listen here to her sing a famous aria from The Barber of Seville, titled “Una voce poca fa.”

During the nineties her reputation for diva behavior grew even as demand for her performances surged.  She recorded many albums of songs and arias and did recitals of different types of music in addition to appearing in operas.  However, reports of her being difficult to work with circulated widely.  She was reported to have thrown another soprano’s clothes into the hallway because she wanted that particular dressing room.  She apparently became highly critical of staff and other performers, even banning some from rehearsals.  Staff at the San Francisco Opera were reported to have worn T-shirts that stated, “I survived the Battle.” It was said that in rehearsals for a performance at the Met in February 1994, she refused to let the other performer look at her mouth during duets.  She was often late or failed to appear.  She had quit a production at the Met a year earlier when the Met manager did not appear at her demand.  This highly critical and odd behavior finally caused Met management to act that February, and she was dismissed, fired, for “unprofessional actions” in rehearsals, an extraordinary act for Met Opera, especially since this was her last performance under contract at the time with the Met. 

Ms. Battle never owned up to any unprofessional behavior on her part then or later, no apology to anyone that I have seen.  An official response at the time from her management company claimed that no one told her about any unprofessional behavior and that she regretted the decision.  She went on to a very successful concert and recording career to the present day, singing a variety of music.  She has won a total of five Grammies and several other awards.  However, Ms. Battle never appeared in an opera on stage again!  What a stunning course of events!

Reading about all of this as part of my search for recordings of her opera performances solved the puzzle of why relatively few were available.  One of the most acclaimed sopranos of her day had voluntarily cut her opera career short, or possibly had been shut out of the system.  But nowhere was I able to read why it happened. I have looked in vain for a biography or any in depth explanation.  The NY Times suggested that being 45 at the time she could no longer play the ingénue roles, but 45 is not old for an opera singer.  In regard to suggestions that the opera houses would not hire her, I find it unlikely a talent this major could not have found one that would.  It would be one of the most effective blackballs ever.  Especially when you consider that she and James Levine, the head conductor and a man of considerable influence in the opera world, were friends and later business partners.  And at the time, management would not rule out a possible return.  It is also notable that I have not seen reports of diva behavior for her since the Met dismissal.  Maybe because of my early affection for her voice I have gotten too emotionally involved on some level, distorting my judgment.  Maybe it was simply that her ego got out of hand; she was fired; she got good offers for other types of performances and was mad at opera; maybe when she wanted to return, it was too late.  Maybe.  But, I think the inner workings of this personality have yet to be revealed.

What might she have achieved in opera if she had continued?  Surely, she would be a legend even now during her own time.  Up until I heard Renata Scotto play Cio Cio San in Madama Butterfly, Ms. Battle was my favorite opera voice; she is still number two.  I think everyone has a right to be who they are and live their life as it suits them, but as an opera fan I feel sad and deprived, much as I did when Whitney Houston stopped developing her talent.  And I truly long for revelations that will satisfy my need to understand what happened, whatever the truth is.  If anyone can shed further light, please comment.

At the age of 68, Ms. Battle will return to the stage at The Metropolitan Opera this coming Nov 13 for the first time in 22 years.  Her concert is titled, “Kathleen Battle: Underground Railroad — A Spiritual Journey.”  Her interest in spirituals is long standing, undoubtedly influenced by her mother; she paired with opera star Jessye Norman and Levine in 1991 to release a successful album titled, “Spirituals In Concert”and has other albums of spirituals.  She was finally lured back, after many attempts over several years, by Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager.  Maybe she wanted to work one last time at the Met with Levine who is nearing the end of his career as principal conductor.  We will see if the wounds have healed enough for there to be some reconciliation with opera professionals and with opera fans.  I think it is potentially one of the most powerful stories yet to be told; Academy Awards will result.