In Defense of Kathleen Battle

I’m going to be taking a brief break from critiquing religion today so I can talk about an issue that’s on the minds of everyone these days: opera and the women who sing it.

About a month ago, I trekked to the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia to hear a concert by the diva-licious Kathleen Battle. I use the verb “trek,” because at the time I had a full-body rash/hives from a bad allergic reaction, could barely walk, and was in excruciating pain. But who cares about things like “health” and “safety,” when an opportunity to see the Divine Ms. B presents itself?

Any discussion about Kathleen Battle inevitably focuses on her mercurial temperament, as well as her dramatic (and very public) firing from the Metropolitan Opera in 1994, both of which led to her subsequent shunning from the opera world. Most of the comments on her YouTube videos are running arguments about whether she was/is really as bad as some people claim. The fact that Ms. Battle has shunned the media since the early 1990s and has never presented her side of the story hasn’t helped.

Despite this bad reputation, I’ve always felt a sense of simpatico with Kathleen Battle, and feel like she’s misunderstood. From what I’ve been able to gather, it seems like she is/was suffering from some sort of mental illness, since half the stuff she’s accused of doing doesn’t even make sense (e.g., the infamous cellphone call to her agent to complain about the A/C in her limo, complaining about the carpets in hotel rooms and peas in her pasta). This sounds less like “diva” and more like “I’ve just made a break with reality.” I know what it’s like to be “that woman,” to be a minority in a super-white environment, to be the one who’s perceived to have a volatile personality, when I barely getting through the day. Did it ever occur to anyone at the Met (or anywhere else), that maybe Ms. Battle needed a friend and possibly some Lithium?

I think that much of the negative reaction to Ms. Battle stems from the fact that whites can get away with things that blacks can’t. For example, think about the different ways in which the media treated Trayvon Martin and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The fact that Martin had been suspended from school for a marijuana baggie and had THC in his system when he died fueled the belief that he was “thug” who “got what was coming to him,” whereas the fact that Tsarnaev was a habitual stoner made him “chill” and “Americanized.” Martin had plans for a mainstream future and was acting towards them, unlike Tsarnaev, who was not only a stoner but a full-time drug dealer who wasn’t afraid to use violence to settle a score. Or consider that the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were arrested for stealing stuff out of a van and sent to a “youth diversion program.” Despite having actually killed people, I have noticed considerably more sympathy for Tsarnaev, Harris, and Klebold in many quarters than for Martin, Michael Brown, or Eric Garner.

Similarly, white artists can get away with bad behavior that would get their black peers labeled as unprofessional. From its inception, the opera world has enabled, if not tacitly encouraged, diva-like behavior among its performers. Its hypocritical that Maria Callas’ bitchiness is just shrugged off as her being “an artist,” whereas Ms. Battle is just written off as a crazy, entitled, bitch. I’ve also heard stories about how Pavoratti didn’t like people looking at him either, not to mention his eleventy member entourage, but you’ll never find anyone to say a bad word about him. The question then becomes when does being colorfully bitchy cross the line into being “unprofessional”?

Despite her banishment from the opera world, Ms. Battle has managed to keep on keeping on, determined to exercise her artistry, regardless of what the world thinks. As one article I read mentioned, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be known as “The Scarlet Lady of Lincoln Center” if you’re trying to sell tickets, which Ms. Battle does quite well.

But even if the real Kathleen Battle is banned from Lincoln Center, the Met doesn’t have any problem with profiting off her digital likeness, as you can buy DVDs of her performances in Die Zauberflote, Ariadne auf Naxos, The Barber of Seville, etc. from its online and physical storefront. Several years ago, I visited the Metropolitan Opera Store in New York City, and overheard the following conversation between a store employee and an elderly couple loading up on opera DVDs:

Elderly Man: We’re looking for DVDs from the 1980s and 1990s.

Employee: Why don’t you get The Magic Flute with Kathleen Battle? (sees the woman looking at a DVD of something starring Deborah Voight). Oh, you don’t want to hear Deborah Voight. She’s terrible!

And there you have it.

(Note: I have nothing against Deborah Voight, I’m just reporting what I heard.)

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