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Is Battle Fatigue Over? The Met Rehires A Banned Soprano

A Feb. 8, 1994 New York Times headline reads: " The Met Drops Kathleen Battle, Citing 'Unprofessional Actions'."

A Times headline from Monday reads: " You're Unfired: Kathleen Battle Is Returning to the Met After 22 years."

The Metropolitan Opera announced yesterday that on Nov. 13, Battle will sing a program of spirituals called Kathleen Battle: Underground Railroad — A Spiritual Journey. She is also performing the program in Richmond, Ky. on Apr. 16 and in Toronto May 29.

For more than two decades, Battle has been as well known for her public dismissal as for her considerable artistry. Her voice, an agile, glimmering lyric soprano with touches of cream and smoke, was one of the most acclaimed in the opera world in the 1980s. The videos here give a sense of what was lost when the Grammy-winning singer got the ax.

Temperamental divas have been around as long as opera has. In 1727, two rival sopranos in Handel's employ fought onstage — in front of the Princess of Wales, no less. And closer to our own time, the once-married team of soprano Angela Gheorghiu and tenor Roberto Alagna were dubbed by director Jonathan Miller the "Bonnie and Clyde of opera" for their tantrums and demands. Alagna walked off the stage at Milan's famed La Scala in 2006 during a season-opening performance of Aida after a series of boos from the audience.

But Battle seemed to take the pejorative connotations of the word diva to new extremes. Stories abound.

Like the time she got into a tiff with conductor Christian Thielemann, as the New York Times reported, and walked out of a Met rehearsal of Der Rosenkavalierin a huff. She threatened to quit if she didn't meet immediately with Metropolitan Opera General Manager Joseph Volpe; he didn't come to her dressing room and she didn't return to the production. In Boston, she reportedly banned musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from her rehearsals and left in what the Boston Globe described as "a froth of ill will."

"Kathleen Battle's unprofessional actions during rehearsals for the revival of La Fille du Regiment were profoundly detrimental to the artistic collaboration among all the cast members," Joseph Volpe said in a statement at the time of her firing. "I could not allow the quality of the performance to be jeopardized." When the cast was informed, they reportedly cheered.

After Battle was fired, the New York Times reports her as saying, "I was not told by anyone at the Met about any unprofessional actions." As of then, she was essentially banned from the opera business, although she continued to give recitals.

"My sense is that Battle had a whole constellation of problems," says Washington Post Classical Music Critic Anne Midgette. "The firing was one symptom." Midgette calls it a decisive turning point in the soprano's career.

But what does this new development — that Battle will sing a recital of spirituals at the Met — mean for the 67-year-old singer?

"Depending on how it goes," Midgette says, "the new Met announcement will signal to the world that she's employable," though as a different type of soprano. "This is obviously a whole new stage of her vocal life."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.