Bloody Battle at the Met.: prima donna / chief female singer in opera; temperamentally self-important person

Peter Pringle
Thursday 17 February 1994 00:02 GMT

No difficult diva has ever been dismissed in quite such terse and uncompromising language. Kathleen Battle, the statement from New York's Metropolitan Opera said, had engaged in 'unprofessional actions' that were 'profoundly detrimental to the artistic collaboration among all cast members'.

Not even Nellie Melba, who declared her Covent Garden dressing room off-limits even when she wasn't in England, nor Maria Callas, who was fired by the Met in 1958 because she didn't like one of their productions, nor any other opera star, male or female, who was famous for a fiery temperament and terrible tantrums caused their masters to be so harsh. Never before had there been such a public chastisement.

It was an astonishing and also a deeply sad moment for the beautiful black woman from Portsmouth, Ohio, an elementary schoolteacher whom everyone had once loved and who had risen from nothing, or not very much, through the bitchy world of insufferable egos to become one of its superstars.

Those who followed Kathleen Battle's advance through this overwhelmingly white domain marvelled at how she had done it - as they admired the rise to stardom of other black singers such as Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman. In the beginning, Battle was much beloved because her singing was so fresh and clear and wholesome. They admired her artistry, and they loved her, too - but only in the beginning.

By the time the announcement was made last week to the Met's cast for Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment, there was not a drop of sympathy left; only rejoicing. A great cheer echoed round the empty opera house at the Lincoln Centre. Kathleen Battle, who has one of the loveliest voices in opera today but who off-stage had rocked the forces of decorum and rectitude at the Met for more than a decade, had been banished.

Out came the stories of how Ms Battle had taken to stardom - which was not very well as it turned out. In the manner of some who get a special lift in life from an innate advantage, a guardian angel, a stroke of good fortune, or simply hard work, Ms Battle was swept away by the pomposity and grandeur of it all and forgot even those who had helped her to climb the last and most difficult steps near the top. 'The people who do the hardest work in our business,' said the head of one big city opera company (not the Met), 'the make-up people, the stage hands, they hate her. They don't just dislike her, they hate her.'

If even one of the stories about her is true, it's easy to see why these small people turned against her - and then how the enmity spread upward to the management of the Met. The stories are all so juicy, it's hard to choose which one to tell first. Should it be the one about how, in 1985, she threw the soprano Carol Vaness's clothes out of Dressing Room No 1, which she wanted for herself, during the Met's production of Le Nozze di Figaro?

Or that while touring she constantly switches hotel rooms, seeking another view or another colour combination? Or that before opening night with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1992 she demanded to change hotels because the one she was in put peas in her pasta?

Or should it be the time when, feeling chilly while riding in an air-conditioned limousine in southern California, she used the cellular phone to call her management company (or, as also reported, her dressmaker), to get them to call the limousine service to tell the driver to turn down the air


Or, the wildest of them all, when she held up the release of a record for six months because she didn't like the way her breasts looked on the cover. It cost the record company dollars 50,000, a sum that a frustrated executive observed would have been enough to have them surgically lifted and attached to her ears.

Ms Battle, on the advice of her agent, is saying nothing about the firing, but others cannot keep their mouths shut. 'It was,' whispered one of several anonymous Met sources to emerge in recent days, 'a succession of events - she came late to rehearsals, left others early, asked several people who had legitimate cause to be at the rehearsals to leave, had her usual fits, was rude to everybody.' After appearances in San Francisco this season, the backstage crew sported T-shirts that read: 'I Survived The Battle'.

No one seems to know for sure which of these stories are true and which made up to fit the stereotype of a successful black woman in a white person's world. Backstage at the Met, so they say, Ms Battle was known by some as the 'UN', or 'uppity nigger'.

Upset the underlings and embarrass the hand that feeds you and, however good you are, you are vulnerable. It is not possible to run an opera production that depends on 500 people around the whims of one artist, no matter how good that artist is. Even so, this was an agonising dismissal for the Metropolitan Opera, the nation's grandest opera company, and a gentlemanly organisation. Born in 1883, its performances are traditional for the most part and its permanent fans are some of the most sophisticated in the world. The management shuns open controversy in favour of patrician diplomacy. Veteran critics, like Tim Page of New York's Newsday, long for more adventurous productions and something beyond the showcase of proven masters and masterworks - such as, perhaps, 'the spirit of the ENO and the Welsh National Opera, where things are out there and exciting'.

For the mercurial Battle the line was crossed, apparently, in January last year during a rehearsal for the Met's Der Rosenkavalier, in which she was singing with Pavarotti. She withdrew from rehearsals only days before it was due to open in New York because she was upset with the leadership of the young German conductor Christian Thielemann. Battle demanded that the Met's general manager, Joseph Volpe, report to her immediately in her dressing room, but Volpe took his time - and then backed Thielemann. It took many hours of backstage diplomacy to persuade Ms Battle to return, and the Met endured her shenanigans only because the company had already sold all the tickets for a Japanese tour.

From that day, however, it was only a matter of time before Ms Battle was fired, the experts say. The moment arrived when she was rehearsing the part of Marie, the young orphan adopted by a French regiment in Donizetti's opera. Her treatment of the cast was the same as ever. Battle reportedly turned up two-and-a-half hours late for a three-hour rehearsal that had already been rearranged to accommodate her. At one point she is said to have complained about another singer 'looking at my mouth'.

In one scene Marie is being coached to sing by the Marquise of Berkenfield, played by Rosalind Elias, who is 64 and a locally beloved mezzo. Elias plays the piano on stage, but her touch was not to Battle's liking. The diva wanted the music played in the orchestra pit. 'Enough is enough,' said Volpe, and fired her.

At 45, Battle is perhaps more beautiful than ever, but past her prime as a singer of the ingenue roles she mastered. She is still a major talent, however: her records sell in vast numbers and she now has a public reputation that only adds excitement for many lovers of the grand old art. When her replacement, Harolyn Blackwell, sang on Monday night to lukewarm reviews, some missed the tension as much as Battle's music. Like Callas, she may well return in triumph. As one fan put it: 'Who cares if she's nasty?'

(Photograph omitted)

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