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An appreciation of KATHLEEN BATTLE, who sings a recital at the Met this month.
by Jennifer Melick. 

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Stopping the show in Semele at Carnegie Hall, 1985, with Marilyn Horne and conductor John Nelson
© Steve J. Sherman
“I know he watches me” seems almost inhumanly perfect in execution.
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Semele curtain call, 1985
© Steve J. Sherman

HAS THERE EVER BEEN A SINGER  who projected youth and beauty better than Kathleen Battle? The pure, sparkling timbre, the athletic coloratura precision, pitches that always land in the absolute center, the breathtaking pianissimo high notes and a love of the music so forceful that it jumps out at you—these are what made Battle’s portrayals of Mozart’s Pamina and Zerlina, Strauss’s Sophie and Donizetti’s Adinafeel new, fresh, exciting. Battle at her peak is the most charming, accomplished beauty you have ever witnessed. She exudes supreme confidence and full awareness of her power and allure, and she shows no nerves.  

Take Handel’s Semele, captured on a 1990 studio recording and performed live at Carnegie Hall in 1985. There’s that breathy thing she does occasionally that sounds just like every teenage girl you know—for example, at the word “panting” in Semele’s aria “With fond desiring.” But you must hear the whole aria to appreciate the astonishing instrumental precision of her unison with the violins, which she achieves over and over with not one miss. The instrument she most resembles here is probably a piccolo trumpet, which may be why the breathiness pops out so well in contrast. In “Myself I shall adore,” amid a sea of arpeggios, turns and trills, listen to the way she plays around with the word “gazing,” sometimes sliding up to it for emphasis. But there is nothing sloppy about the way she slides: if it is possible to slide precisely up to a note at a regulated speed, that is what she does, arriving exactly at the right moment, never disturbing the underlying pulse. The final phrase, in which she twists and turns and struts her way up to a high C on “gazing,” is jaw-dropping: you imagine yourself in the room with the vocal equivalent of Liszt, or perhaps Paganini or Heifetz. No wonder audiences went bonkers over that Semele at Carnegie Hall. It’s worth noting that despite the difficulty of these arias, her studio and live versions of Semele are nearly identical in quality. But in the live version, you can feel her feeding on the crowd, giving the performance an electric edge. 

Battle is least successful in her lower range, below an E above middle C, where her timbre can turn little-girlish. And with this singer, spontaneity is not a prime consideration; her best work comes from deep preparation, with every word and phrase carefully thought through and rehearsed. For some listeners, this can come across as mannered, and her insistence on doing things exactly her way was surely at the root of many of the widely reported backstage troubles with colleagues. But at her best, this level of preparedness gives her the freedom to approach a rare perfection. 

One of Battle’s signature achievements has been American spirituals, which she has performed live and in recorded versions, on her own and with Jessye Norman. Her recital at the Metropolitan Opera this month—“Kathleen Battle: Underground Railroad—A Spiritual Journey”—will be her first performance at the house in more than twenty years. Battle’s DG recital album with James Levine, recorded live at Salzburg in 1984, features four spirituals, including “His Name So Sweet.” In the line “I’ve just come from the fountain,” she sounds like a delighted young girl skipping down the street, on her way home to tell her mother what she’s just seen. The whooping shout she does is where you picture her jumping in the air. Compare it to Leontyne Price’s powerful 1965 Carnegie Hall version of the same spiritual, which is more about shouting the news to the world. Battle’s is much smaller-scale; she is singing to herself in amazement, to convince herself it’s true. 

One of Battle’s best spirituals, floating around on YouTube, is her 1983 live performance from Vienna of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” in a soupy orchestration conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Standing in a flouncy, off-the-shoulder white dress in front of a sea of white male orchestra musicians, Battle seems to be the songbird herself. There’s the little tripping turn she does at “I sing because I’m happy,” the ecstatic, soaring high D at “I sing because I’m free.” If you’ve ever watched a wren singing, that is just what she evokes: they really do seem to sing for no other reason than because they’re happy, and they turn their heads upward at the very last millisecond of a long bubbling trill. The hushed final B-flat pianissimo at “I know he watches me” seems almost inhumanly perfect in execution, but it’s also a vivid display of her connection with the words, of faith and certainty, and of hope. 

Battle’s Met recital of spirituals comes less than a week after the presidential election in a deeply divided U.S., during a year marked by violence, protests and racial division. Though this could not have been contemplated when the recital was first scheduled, Battle’s performance may turn out to provide something beyond music—healing and hope. spacer 

Jennifer Melick is the managing editor of Symphony magazine. 

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