American soprano Kathleen Battle (born 1948) divided her career between the opera and concert singing. Her light, sweet voice and charming stage presence were especially suited to operatic ingénue roles.
Lyric coloratura soprano Kathleen Battle was born on August 13, 1948, in Portsmouth, Ohio. The youngest of seven children whose father was a steel worker, she attended public schools in a segregated school system. She remained relatively unexposed to opera until her teens and, no doubt aware of the limited opportunities afforded to African Americans, steered a practical course for herself, studying typing and shorthand in high school. Although she took the advice of a high school music teacher to study music at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory, she opted not for the performance curriculum but for an education degree, which would enable her to teach. Her voice teacher during her college years was Franklin Bens.
Having received a bachelor's degree in 1970 and a master's in 1971, Battle taught grades four through six for the next two years in the Cincinnati public school system. Meanwhile, she continued to take voice lessons and also to study German and acting while taking singing jobs in and around Cincinnati.
In 1972 she auditioned successfully for Thomas Shippers, then the director of both the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Spoleto Festival. He arranged for her professional debut that year in a performance of the Brahms Requiem in Spoleto. Her American debut followed as a repeat performance of the piece with the Cincinnati Orchestra later that year.
The following year Battle came to the attention of James Levine while singing at the Cincinnati May Festival. He immediately engaged her in his guest-conducting tour around the United States. Included in this tour was the Ravinia Festival, to which she returned for several summers as an artist in residence. She moved to New York in 1975 after an engagement in a Broadway production of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha.
She made her professional operatic debut as Rosina in Rossini's Barber of Seville with the Michigan Opera Theater, and her New York debut followed in 1976 with the City Opera as Susanna in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. But it was again Levine who brought her rapidly to stardom. In 1977 he offered her the role of the shepherdess in Wagner's Tannhauser at the Metropolitan Opera, where her debut took place on December 22, 1977. Battle's physical beauty, captivating stage presence, and a seemingly effortless virtuosity quickly made her a favorite there; and the following years secured her reputation.
Possessing a light, sweet voice of extreme agility, Battle wisely avoided the heavier operatic roles. Among composers she favored Mozart for his precision and clarity of line, his rhythmic vitality, and the appropriateness of the color and weight of his music to her voice. Mozart roles included Pamina in The Magic Flute, Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Despina in Cosi fan tutte, and Blonde in The Abduction from the Seraglio. Other important parts were Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos and Zdenka in Arabella, both by Richard Strauss, another favorite composer; Oskar in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera; and Norina in Donizetti's Don Pasquale.
Battle did not limit her career to the opera, but divided appearances rather equally between opera, song recitals, and performances of vocal works involving larger ensembles. She achieved much commercial success for recordings of her song recitals, which were additionally attractive in that they frequently offered music other than the standard fare. Among her most popular song recordings are those with the guitarist Christopher Parkening (The Pleasure of Their Company), the violinist Itzhak Perlman (The Bach Album), and the trumpeter Winton Marsalis (Baroque Duet). In 1990 she presented a concert of spirituals, also recorded, with Jessye Norman (Spirituals in Concert). Although the concert received some criticism for its "pseudo-Gershwin" arrangements, both singers triumphed over what could have been an inappropriate artificiality. Battle often closed song recitals with a group of spirituals.
Other popular recordings are Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart, Salzburg Recital, and At Carnegie Hall. In June 1986 she gave a command performance, nationally televised, for President Reagan at the White House. She was awarded an honorary Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati in 1983.
Battle's reputation as a temperamental singer was wellknown and was documented along with her rise to fame. In February 1994 she was dismissed from the Met's production of Donizetti's Fille du Régiment for what officials cited as her "unprofessional actions during rehearsals." At the same time the company withdrew all other offers for future engagements.
Battle has been pursuing other avenues through a variety of professional performances. In 1995, Battle's voice was heard on four albums, and she appeared on the television special An Evening with Kathleen Battle and Thomas Hampson. She opened Lincoln Center's 1995-96 jazz season with a concert, and has appeared on tour throughout the United States. With Christopher Parkening she released Angels Glory, a compilation of Christmas songs for the 1996 season. A Christmas Celebration was released in 1997, and also includes music for the holidays.
Further Reading on Kathleen Battle
One of the few opera singers to achieve commercial success, Kathleen Battle continued to be charted by all of the music magazines and journals, including Billboard, Stereo Review, and Opera News. Among the most substantial articles on Battle's career are "Fortune's Favorite: A Conversation with Kathleen Battle" in Opera News (March 13, 1982) and "The Sweet Song of Kathleen Battle" in Fanfare (1986). The circumstances surrounding her dismissal from the Met are detailed in The New York Times (February 8, 1994).