M. and I saw Kathleen Battle perform a recital at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon. I was excited to see such a famous singer, but I was a little wary since I got the tickets for free. Was there some kind of back story here that I didn't know about? I thought I'd read something in passing about her getting fired from the Met Opera back in the day. But I honestly didn't do much research before seeing the concert.
To begin with, she was rather late arriving on stage - no brisk, on-time appearance from the wings followed by a swift downbeat the way you can often expect from, say, the New York Philharmonic. Strangely, the theorbist, who was to accompany her during songs by Henry Purcell of the English baroque on an instrument that looks like a long-necked lute, came out first and started strumming lightly for a little bit, as if he were some sort of impromptu opening act. Then about a minute or two later, Ms. Battle walked out to thunderous applause, even an ovation from some in the audience. M. turned to me and said, "She hasn't even sung a note yet." Sure, she's a diva, but shouldn't people do a little work to earn it. She was wearing a black dress with a cape-like pinkish train that began at her chest and trailed off behind her like a wedding dress. Except that she didn't have any attendants to lift up the train, so she kept having to kick it out of the way at intervals. Distracting to say the least. And it didn't end there.
Now, I don't go to a lot of vocal recitals, and apparently neither did a lot of the audience members, because they clapped after the first of three Purcell songs. M. told me later that you're supposed to withhold your clapping until the end of a set, even if it isn't an official prescribed song cycle. That set the tone for the rest of the performance, which seemed to make Ms. Battle even more uncomfortable than she already looked at times. She was hesitant to fully embrace the audience's ardor between songs of a set.
She sang a lot of art songs, which can be beautiful and moving, but weren't so much so during the first half. I enjoyed the Mendelssohn and Faure pieces after the intermission. Throughout, she had this habit of pausing for longer than necessary between songs, of turning her back on the audience literally and figuratively, of staring up at the ceiling as if searching for divine help. She reminded me of a batter stepping outside of the batter's box, gesturing to her accompanist, another musician who played the piano for most of the program, as if to the umpire and pitcher to give her another few seconds to compose her self. She adjusted her dress and kept kicking the train out of her way like one might tap his baseball bat against home plate and grab at the shoulders of a sweaty uniform.
Did she sing well? I guess so. She really didn't move me until her a capella version of the great Holy Week spiritual "Were You There?" The problem was, her body language was so distracting, I couldn't focus on her singing. Back at home, I read about how she had a reputation for being "difficult," and supposedly "unprofessional behavior" was the reason she got the pink slip from the little opera house down at Lincoln Center. It would seem she has the tendency to be her own worst enemy in terms of overall poor presentation detracting from her musicianship.
UPDATE: Just now reading the Times review of the recital. ... "More or less a re-entry recital." ... "Relative quiet was the rule on Sunday." ... "a few odd stage mannerisms." ... "Much of her music’s effect lay in the accompaniments." So, somewhat similar observations, I'd say. Although did the review get it wrong, saying that it was "Good News" that was unaccompanied? She went off program and slipped "Were You There?" in before the final two spirituals in the printed book, and I thought that was the one they went crazy over. Does someone need to brush up on their spirituals or am I not remembering correctly?