Kathleen Battle: A Virtuostic Legacy Denied by the Mortal Sin of Hubris
The Classical Music world in NYC throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s worked in a manner nearly identical to the school system of my childhood. Each year everything shut down for Summer Recess, with all musical parties vacating the island of Manhattan during the latter half of June and throughout the months of July and August in their entirety. Immediately following Labor Day Weekend everything would resume full steam ahead in early September.
Needless to say, New York City became a practical ghost town during the summer months, most especially on the weekends.
I say practically a ghost town but not completely.
The art of live performance wasn’t thoroughly absent during those summers long ago in NYC, one just had to know where to seek it out.
And during the summer of 1989, I sought and truly conquered by seeing some of the most memorable live performances in my life – the greatest from that time period being a recital given by a then not so well known soprano named Kathleen Battle.
A Little Lincoln Center 101
For those not familiar with the Big Apple, New York’s main cultural “hub” is called Lincoln Center located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, just above and to the west of the northern-most reaches of Central Park. As many might think, Lincoln Center is not one central building, it is made of three massive theaters that all face each other on a central plaza with a multi- torrented giant water fountain at its central point.
The three theaters have been the main site where the majority of performances take place for New York City’s official opera companies, ballet troupes, and symphony orchestras. They are as follows:
Lincoln Center Left: The New York State Theater, home theater to the no longer existing opera company that’s greatly mourned by your author, The New York City Opera.
Lincoln Center Right: Alice Tully Hall, where a goodly portion of NYC’s recitals and symphony orchestras perform
Lincoln Center’s Center: The greatest theater in the world, The Metropolitan Opera Theater, otherwise known as “The Met”.
With the exception of some nightly ballet performances during the week, throughout the summer the Metropolitan Opera Theater was for the most part closed and blacked out until the official opera season began in late September, leaving most tourists (and New Yorkers for that matter) to presume that all of Lincoln Center was closed for the duration of the summer.
Not so with The New York State Theater.
New York City’s cultural hub – Lincoln Center with its water fountained Plaza located in the center. The building pictured center is the theater your Author considers to be the greatest of its kind in the world: The Metropolitan Opera Theater, which New Yorkers refer to simply as “The Met”.
The Metropolitan Opera’s stage may have been closed all summer but back then the N.Y. State Theater on the other hand remained open. In fact, when it still existed, The New York City Opera’s performance schedule extended well beyond The Met’s traditional opera season. Not only did the City Opera perform during those long ago summer days but on Saturdays throughout the summer the company held matinees as well as evening performances.
One Saturday in the summer of ’89 was particularly magical given I attended the City Opera’s matinee of Puccini’s tragedy, “Madama Butterfly” and at the intermission ran into an acquaintance of mine who insisted that I take his tickets for the Saturday night performance later that same evening which he was unable to attend. When I actually looked to see where the seats were located, I was thrilled to discover I would be seeing Arrigo Boito’s opera about Heaven and Hell entitled “Mefistofele” in the central orchestra section, 5th row from center stage.
The casts for both productions were truly exceptional and I was so emotionally moved by two singers in particular from each performance that I managed to meet them both backstage to personally thank them – a mezzo-soprano named Jane Shaulis whose portrayal as Madame Butterfly’s loyal servant Suzuki made me sob just as much as the opera’s title character and the basso-profundo from the Corn Belt who left me speechless singing the title role of the Devil himself named John Cheek.
Because my classical music performance luck factor was so exceptional that day, it was during the small window of time following the City Opera matinee and before their evening performance that I inquisitively sauntered across Lincoln Center Plaza to Alice Tully Hall to see if there were perchance any summertime recitals I might be interested in seeing.
And Luck be a leading lady on the following Saturday night, I hit the classical performance jackpot.
“There is an evening of Mozart selections that is mostly instrumental next Saturday night” the woman behind the ticket booth window for Alice Tully Hall informed me before adding, “however, the recital will end with a soprano singing the Mozart Allelujah. And her name is ”……squinting eyes behind her reading glasses to relay the proper name listed “ah yes, here we are, the soprano soloist’s name is Kathleen Battle.”
She then said “And I just had a ticket open up due to a subscriber being unable to attend. It’s front row, last seat on the extreme left but it’s only a single sea-“
“I’ll take it.”
Thus my introduction to hear the great Kathleen Battle sing in what would turn out to be the first of numerous live performances was secured.
The Origins Behind Mozart’s “Exsultate Jubilate”
In his day, the man whom many believe to be the greatest composer of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had the crème de la crème of singers at his disposal to perform his vocal compositions of concert pieces, art songs, and of course opera arias. This included those choice members from that group of vocalists considered to be the rock stars of the Baroque Age – the castrati.
Summing Up the Vocal Treachery Behind Mozart’s Composition for Voice, K. 165, the “Exsultate Jubilate”
Mozart was so impressed by the vocal virtuosity of the castrato lead singer of his opera “Lucio Silla” named Venanzio Rauzzini, the Maestro wrote a concert piece of the most demanding vocal fireworks specifically for Rauzzini, called the “Exsultate Jubilate”.
Although the music from this piece is written by Mozart’s hand, it’s widely believed its lyrics were composed by none other than Rauzzini, himself. The second half of the piece, known as the “Allelujah” section focuses on the singer’s vocal prowess with the remainder of the work being sung with the repetition of a single word, “Allelujah”. The high degree of difficulty presented through its lightning fast tempi and coloratura passages make K.165 a tour de force for those singers confident their capabilities can adequately perform one of the most notoriously challenging compositions ever written for the human voice.
Kathleen Battle performs “Exsultate Jubilate” K. 165 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at NYC’s Alice Tully Hall, early August, 1989
The evening’s program was unusually short, with it lasting roughly about 42 minutes in length, overall.
I had heard Kathleen Battle’s recording of Mozart’s “Exsultate Jubilate” but never in a live venue, so my excitement was palpable.
However nothing could have informed me what I was about to witness would be the stuff of classical music legend.
Much like the summer classical concert series known as “Mostly Mozart”, the program consisted of instrumental works by the composer culminating with his vocal extravaganza “Exsultate Jubilate”.
When the time came for the conductor to retrieve his soloist for the sung portion of the program, I was rendered dumbstruck before a single note had been played.
Kathleen Battle made her entrance onstage wearing a chic evening gown of form fitting black silk framed by a stole that was absolutely gargantuan colored a vibrantly bright yellow. Her majestic image appeared as if she were an Empress Bee who ruled over the furthest reaches of the known Universe.
Personally, I have never been fond of front row seating in a classical live performance because the audio purist in me believes the fullness of the sound produced in a live venue is always compromised. But even with that said, the view provided by my extreme seating added so much to the specialness of the evening, it far outweighed any deficiencies of sound.
This same seating scenario would repeat itself for me seven years later at the Metropolitan Opera in 1994 when I attended a televised performance of the incomparable soprano Hildegard Behrens sing the title role of Strauss’ hyper-dramatic rendition of the ancient Greek tragedy “Elektra”. Although located in a different Lincoln Center Theater, the location of seating was identical being the furthest left in the front row which allowed me a clear side view of the singer’s reactions to the audience’s unexpected outpouring of lavish praise for the level of near perfect performance they had been given.
Returning to the Lincoln Center of the late 80’s once more.
After making her entrance on stage in a breathtaking ensemble of black and brilliant yellow, Kathleen Battle proceeded to then nod with a smile to the conductor indicating she was ready to begin.
All I can describe in words that barely cover that evening’s magical electricity was that Ms. Battle’s interpretations of Mozart’s “Exsultate Jubilate” and “Allelujah” were nothing short of flawless, and the audience was fully aware of that fact before the orchestra could even complete the last note of the piece.
The response was a wall of sound of roaring applause.
Roaring applause that went unabated even after the usual range of 4 or so minutes had passed with that high level of fervored intensity not stopping.
In short, the audience simply wouldn’t or couldn’t stop.
Ms. Battle smiled in grateful recognition to the audience’s frenzied response while giving her best diva bow that is something akin to a royal curtsy but when the applause didn’t let up, from my seated perspective I could see the soprano’s smile begin to transform into a furrowed brow of worry. I then observed the conductor lean over to the singer whispering something in the form of two questions. The first of which she shook her head in response. The second inquiry she briefly considered then responded with the type of shoulder shrugging smile that translated to “I’m game if you are.”
Considering the vocal piece was the final part of the evening’s program I can almost guarantee the conductor had asked his soloist if she had any kind of impromptu encore that could be performed off the cuff. Even if that were the case it could be inferred that nothing had been rehearsed with the orchestra, which despite how spontaneous they may appear at times, encores are always gone over in advance between a singer and the members of the orchestra she is to perform with.
Upon Ms. Battle giving her nod of agreement to the conductor’s inaudible suggestion, with the audience still applauding, the orchestra began to play the Mozart “Exsultate Jubilate” and “Allelujah” straight from the top all over again.
In the classical world, repeating the same piece of music as an encore is quite the rare and risky undertaking. It’s assumed the piece that was just performed would be repeated verbatim all over again but now with something “different” that would make it stand out, as if a new piece was being played.
And indeed, Kathleen Battle took a piece that was already considered one of the most challenging for the human voice and transformed it into something altogether different by turning the already fiendishly high degree of vocal difficulty in on its ear!
Rather than look nervous or even slightly more intense due to the level of challenge going through the proverbial roof, Kathleen Battle appeared relaxed as if she were adding vocal icing to an already perfectly made cake and was thoroughly enjoying every bit of musical flourish she improvised.
All of K.165 was performed a second time but with extended vocal ornamentations throughout. Battle masterfully inserted added touches of vocal flair such as elongated runs, additional trills, and interpolated high notes not just to a choice passage or two, but to the entire work. This extremely rare, brilliantly improvised repeated encore ended with the soprano interpolating an E flat above high C.
Just as when it was initially performed, the audience began applauding before the last note of the piece had been completed, but this second time around the entire hall was on its feet responding with a thunderous cheering even more deafening than before as if everyone present that night was in disbelief they had just bore witness to such an extraordinary feat of vocal virtuosity.
Along with seeing her perform at the Metropolitan in operas such as “The Magic Flute”, “The Elixir of Love” and “Ariadne auf Naxos” I always associated Kathleen Battle with the near-perfect interpretations she consistently delivered of the ingenue heroines she portrayed.
Apparently my presumptions were mistaken.
The singer who performed the perpetually bright, ever-perky lyric soprano roles supposedly developed quite the reputation for coming across as anything but that in person. The higher Kathleen Battle’s prominence rose, the darker and tempestuously petty her behavior became – from not allowing other cast members to look at her, to banning various musicians to be on stage when she was present, to taking everything within a fellow colleague’s dressing room she deemed to be larger than hers and tossing it all out the window.
It all culminated in February 1994 when Ms. Battle was unceremoniously fired from the Met along with all of her future singing engagements with the greatest theater in the world being cancelled. When it was announced that she had been fired, every cast and crew member involved in the production she was in broke into applause and after her performances were completed at the prestigious San Francisco Opera during that same time, crew members there wore T-shirts which read “I survived the Battle”.
Kathleen Battle has not sung in a staged opera ever since.
Knowing first hand what an astounding performer she was, I cannot think of a greater shame that Kathleen Battle’s vocal legacy will be denied. The virtuostic glory of her artistry as one of classical music’s very best singers seems doomed to fade with each year that follows her fall from grace nearly thirty years ago among those who had the pleasure of experiencing her in person, myself included.
*Brad Kronen has written numerous books which focus on the role Astrology plays in each of our lives. His most recent published work is a series of 12 astrological dating guides tailor made for each sign of the Zodiac entitled “Love in the Stars”. In honor of the sign Kathleen Battle was born beneath, the Leo edition of “Love in the Stars”is listed below and can be purchased at amazon.com. Just click on the link below to see a complete listing of Brad’s published work: