A Boy and His Diva

Once upon a time, when a Supreme Court Justice was asked to define pornography, he replied: I can’t. But I know it when I see it. Well, then, that’s how I define a diva. Take two parts Diana Ross in Mahogany to one part Grace Moore singing Ciribiribin, and add a dash of Leona Helmsley for flavor. What you get is Kathleen Battle. Difficult? Maybe. Demanding? Sure! But all diva, all the time.

Take Me Home Again, Kathleen: My love affair with Kathleen Battle’s voice began when I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin with the purchase of her first Mozart album. Yes, an album...it was the twilight of the LP era. Her pure crystalline voice enchanted me the first time I listened to it: her “Exsultate Jubilate” was truly jubilant; and Susanna’s aria “Un moto di gioia” was genuinely joyful. Soon to follow were the Salzburg recital album with James Levine, and “Pleasures of their Company” with Christopher Parkening. So in love with Kathleen Battle had I become, that I think subconsciously that I wanted to be her..or just have her voice. I couldn’t understand why my voice teacher laughed at me when I told him I wanted to sing Susanna’s aria, “Un moto di gioia”. I guess I’m a leggiero at heart! But I wasn’t the only one at UT who had fallen under the spell of la Battle’s voice: “Music for a While” became the audition piece of choice for local divettes, while one of my other friends looked into graduate study at Battle’s alma mater. My friends and I listened for hours to those three Kathleen Battle recordings. I made tapes for the ones who couldn’t afford to buy the albums. (I was not about to lend them out.) We were young and in love with a beautiful voice.

The Diva comes Forth: You can imagine the commotion in the Music Dept. when it was announced that our diva, Kathleen Battle was coming to sing at UT. As to be expected, there was a long line for student rush tickets that evening. I wasn’t disappointed in the first recital I ever attended. La Battle made her entrance and conquered the audience without ever singing a note. By her carriage and the way she stood out in her off-the-shoulder red hoop skirt gown, the audience knew they were seeing an opera STAR. The highlight of the evening was when la Battle changed her program to include the Waltz Song from Romeo et Juliette since the Music Department was doing that production that semester. The concert was great fun, but I kinda got sick afterwards of hearing every “white girl” voice major saying she wanted to do spirituals for her junior recital. We all went back stage to greet the diva. My bitchy countertenor friend had warned me to beware: “you know, she made Kiri te Kanawa cry”. But Kathleen Battle was very gracious and she signed my program. She did look a little peeved at me though when I came through the line again to have a program signed for a friend who had to work that night! I think I got to see the real Kathleen Battle that night as well. At the concert, I was sitting next to some people who knew La Battle “back in the day”. They went backstage as well. As we were leaving the Green Room, la Battle did a little jig of joy for them and they all posed for a group picture. No diva was present in that snapshot I’m sure, just Kathy Battle with some old friends.

‘Ach, ich fuhl’s”: It took me a while, but I finally got to the Mecca of American Opera, the Metropolitan in New York, in 1993. One of the highlights of a perfect trip was seeing my beloved Kathleen Battle as Pamina in Hockney’s production of Die Zauberflote. Again, anti-Battleites had warned me that I wouldn’t be able to hear her in the cavernous Metropolitan; however, I had no problem hearing La Battle or her always perfect diction. [When I told my bitchy OQ friends this, they assured me she must have been wearing a body-mike.] In the vibrant Hockney production, La Battle portrayed Pamina as a headstrong daughter (after all she IS the daughter of the Queen of the Night) and her “Ach, ich fuhl’s” moved me to tears. As it turned out, I was very fortunate to see Kathleen Battle at the Metropolitan when I did: that production was the last time (possibly, forever) that she graced that house’s stage.

The Diva Does Dallas: I got to see Kathleen Battle in recital ten years after my first encounter: in 1997, Kathleen Battle came to the Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas. She was under the spell of some malady so the second recital cannot compare with the vocal splendor of the first. However, again, everyone in the audience knew they were seeing somebody. It’s common knowledge that in Dallas, we love BIG hair (“the higher the hair, the closer to Jesus”) and la Battle didn’t not disappoint us: her hair was piled HIGH up on her head in some kind of curly phallic “do”. Let’s just say I don’t think it was all her hair. And the dress! Gold lame’ off-the-shoulder hoop skirt with shawl. In fact, the most dramatic moment of the recital came when, during a bow, her accompanist stepped on her shawl and didn’t notice it. Given her reputation, the audience held it’s breath and even, giggled. I made a mental note: if you want to work with divas, rule #1 is don’t ever step on their gowns. Poor guy’s probably giving piano lessons to five- year-olds now. And, while la Battle may not have been in vocal prime that night, she brought the house down with a group of unaccompanied spirituals. Now that I’m going on my second decade of opera listening now, my tastes may have become more eclectic as I’ve explored the many different varieties of opera. Today, I may have moved on to bigger, more temperamental voices than Battle’s. But when I want to go “home,” to return to those wonderful sunny days when I was first discovering what opera had to offer, I put on a Kathleen Battle CD and remember.

— Roy Wood