In this month's National City Bank (now a part of PNC) Artist of the Month, Kathleen Battle's last name has been an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy most of her career. Ms. Battle's career began promisingly enough with an education at one of the world's most prestigious conservatories of music, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory. There she attained both her bachelor and master's degrees. While teaching the 5th and 6th grades at an inner city public school in Cincinnati, she had an opportunity to sing before the great conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, Thomas Schippers. On the spot, he engaged her for the soprano solos in Brahms' "Ein Deutsches Requiem". Schippers introduced her to James Levine who selected Battle to sing the Mater Glorioso in Mahler's Symphony number eight in the 1974 Cincinnati May Festival. It was the beginning of a friendship and close professional association between Battle and Levine that would last for years and resulted in several recordings and performances in recital and concert performances, including engagements in Salzburg, Ravinia, and Carnegie Hall.
Battle made her professional operatic debut in 1975 as Rosina in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia with the Michigan Opera Theatre. She made her New York City Opera debut the following year as Susanna in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, and in 1977 made both her San Francisco Opera debut as Oscar in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera and her Metropolitan Opera debut as the Shepherd in Wagner's Tannhäuser. The latter performance was conducted by James Levine. Battle made her Glyndebourne Festival debut (and UK debut) singing Nerina in Haydn's La fedeltà premiata in 1979.
Throughout the next two decades Battle performed in recitals, choral works and opera. Her work continued to take her around the world to the most prestigious venues. She received three Grammy awards for her recordings: Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart, Salzburg Recital, and Ariadne auf Naxos. In 1985, Time Magazine pronounced her "the best coloratura soprano in the world".
In 1990, the contralto, Marion Anderson, who had ended her farewell tour with a recital at Carnegie Hall in April 1965, was in the audience that night as Battle dedicated Rachmaninoff's "In Silence of the Secret Night" to here. The recording of the recital earned Battle her fourth Grammy award. Another first came in January 1992 when Battle premiered André Previn's song cycle Honey with Rue with lyrics by Nobel Laureate in Literature Toni Morrison. The work was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and composed specifically for Battle.
Although Battle gave several well-received performances at the Met in the early 1990s, her relationship with the company's management showed increasing signs of strain during that time. It was becoming obvious to the management that as her status grew, so did her difficult behavior. In October of 1992, when Miss Battle opened the Boston Symphony Orchestra season, she reportedly banned an assistant conductor and other musicians from her rehearsals, changed hotels several times, and left behind what a report in The Boston Globe called a 'froth of ill will'. Finally, in February of 1994, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera Joseph Volpe called Battle's conduct "profoundly detrimental to the artistic collaboration among all the cast members" (of La fille du régiment) and indicated that he had "canceled all offers that have been made for the future". It was reported that the cast of La fille du régiment applauded when it was told during rehearsal that Battle had been fired.
In a statement released by her management, Columbia Artists, Battle said, "I was not told by anyone at the Met about any unprofessional actions. To my knowledge, we were working out the artistic problems in the rehearsals, and I don't know the reason behind this unexpected dismissal. All I can say is I am saddened by this decision." Since then Battle has not performed in opera.
From 2000 to the present Battle has continued to pursue a number of diverse projects including works of composers who are not associated with traditional classical music, performing the works of Vangelis, Stevie Wonder, and George Gershwin. On recent engagements she has sung arrangements of The Lord's Prayer for Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of his Papal State visit to the White House and on November 23, 2008, she performed "Superwoman" on the American Music Awards with Alicia Keys and Queen Latifah.
Kathleen Battle will be featured on The Black Arts on Wednesday, October 28th at 10.00 p.m.
The Black Arts-National City Artist of the Month is presented with the sponsorship of National City, now a part of PNC, dedicated to supporting the communities they serve.
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