Born August 13, 1948, in Portsmouth, OH; daughter of a steel worker, the youngest of seven children. Education: University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory, B.A., 1970, M.A., 1971. Former inner-city elementary school music teacher. Opera and concert singer. Has toured and recorded extensively, and appeared on Grammy Awards shows. Debuted with the Michigan Opera Theatre, 1976; has since appeared in major festivals, including Festival of Two Worlds, Spoleto, Italy, 1972; May Festival, Cincinnati, OH, 1974; New York City Opera, 1976; Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 1978--; Salzburg Festival, 1984; has appeared with major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, and Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"She won't do Tosca or Mimi, but concentrates on the coquettish '-ettas' and '-inas' of the opera repertoire. Next to those like Jessye Norman's, her voice sounds small. But that sound is so ravishing, the intonations so true, the voice so flexible, and the timbre so pure, that Kathleen Battle is one of our most adored divas, reigning as the finest coloratura soprano of her generation," wrote Michael Kimmelman in a Vogue profile of the diminutive, black opera star in 1986. An attractive woman dubbed "the undisputed best-dressed concert performer in the business" by Time, Battle confines her roles to the soubrette and coloratura repertoires which accommodate her range. "I won't stretch or pull my voice beyond its capacity and capability," the renowned artist with numerous Grammy nominations said to Heidi Waleson in Opera News. "And I know what the limit is."
Battle was born August 13, 1948, in Portsmouth, Ohio. The daughter of a steelworker, originally from Alabama, and the youngest of seven children, she was reared in a musical household. "I learned to sing listening to my father," Battle told Bernard Holland in a New York Times Magazine interview. "He was a singer in a gospel quartet. My sister taught me how to read music.... The piano I kind of picked up, getting a fingering here, a chord there, looking over people's shoulders." Her first audience was the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Battle sang from a tabletop at civic functions, banquets, and church affairs. Charles Varney, a Portsmouth High School music teacher and mentor to the adolescent Battle, related to Time reporter Michael Walsh his wonder at first hearing "this tiny little thing singing so beautifully," referring to the eight-year-old Battle. "I went to her later," Varney recalled, "and told her God had blessed her, and she must always sing."
Battle was an excellent student in school, and wavered between a career in math or music. Pressure from Varney persuaded her to pursue music after her graduation from Portsmouth High School in 1966. The winner of a National Achievement Scholarship, she enrolled at the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati, but hesitated to get a degree in performance. She opted for a more secure route in music education, where she took a B.A. in 1970 and an M.A. in 1971. "I never would have dreamed of being a performance major," Battle explained in Opera News. "Still, I was feeling my way in college. I took art, dance, piano, and languages. I kept promising myself I'd take more math. It gives me a comfortable feeling to keep my options open."
The next two years after graduation Battle taught music to inner-city elementary students while taking private voice studies at the College-Conservatory. In 1972 she auditioned for Thomas Schippers, the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony. Schippers chose Battle to perform Brahm's Ein Deutsches Requiem at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, that year. By 1973 Battle had resigned her teaching position to concentrate on performing music full-time, and soon was introduced to James Levine. The music director and principal conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera, Levine was a native of Cincinnati who had come home to be the visiting director at the orchestra's renowned May Festival. He auditioned Battle. "Blown away" by what he heard, he related to Holland, he chose Battle to sing a short soprano role in Mahler's Eighth Symphony at the festival the following year. "Some singers have little instinct but do have the intellect to balance technical and musical issues. Some have instinct and a beautiful voice but less intellect," Levine told Holland. "I had never come across a more complete talent than hers."
Levine became Battle's career mentor, encouraging her to develop a repertoire which included sacred music and emphasized Mozart. With performances throughout the United States enhancing her reputation, Battle went to New York when she was offered an understudy part in Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha. After making her operatic debut at the Michigan Opera Theatre in 1976, she was summoned back quickly to the Big Apple that same year to debut as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro with the New York City Opera. Then came an audition at the Metropolitan Opera where, two years later on September 18, 1978, she made her debut under Levine's direction as the shepherd in Wagner's Tannhauser.
Critical response to Battle's performances has rarely varied throughout the ensuing years following her debut. Time magazine, among others, pronounced her "the best lyric coloratura soprano in the world" in 1985. Restricting her lyric fare to the Adinas, Despinas, Norinas, Zerlinas, Paminas, and Rosinas typical of coloratura opera singers, Battle has also added spirituals and suitable works by Schubert, Duparc, Brahms, Haydn, Mahler, and Bach. Her recital at Alice Tully Hall in New York was sold out months in advance in 1986. Averaging sixty performances a year, the artist whose most memorable roles have been the young servants (soubrettes) and heroines of Mozart is not dismayed by the few critics who lament her limitations. The consensus among many critics is akin to Holland who wrote that her "relatively confined set of roles may actually concentrate her talents." Terry Teachout in High Fidelity was baffled by the criticism of the soprano's voice as "a vocal fragment" in 1987. In his review of her album Salzburg Recital, he stated, "Artists like Battle should be cherished, and not dismissed with a vulgar sneer."
"Those who have found her occasionally difficult," noted Holland in his response to the tag "temperamental" attached to Battle's reputation, "usually agree that her skirmishes are fought in the name of the music rather than personal aggrandizement." Battle first earned the tag during rehearsals with opera diva Kiri Te Kawana. They were appearing together in Strauss's Arabella in 1983 when Battle objected to cuts to her part as Zdenka. Acting on the advice of members of the production staff, she requested her part be restored, but Te Kawana denied her request. The relationship between the two stars subsequently deteriorated, and Battle's image as "difficult" has persisted to the present. Matthew A. Epstein gave his perspective of the singer in the New York Times Magazine. The producer of Handel's Semele at Carnegie Hall--in which Battle starred to huge success--said, "She is not a pushover; she's a professional liberated woman."
Unmarried, Battle keeps a home in Quogue, Long Island. Eventually, she would like to teach at the conservatory level, or commission music composed for soprano and small orchestra. Performances in all the great opera houses of the world still await the stellar vocalist who has not bent to pressures placed upon her by prestigious conductors to take roles beyond her range. "I've accepted my reality," she declared to Holland. "I was meant to sound the way I do."
by Marjorie Burgess
Kathleen Battle's Career
Kathleen Battle's Awards
National Achievement Scholarship; numerous awards and Grammy nominations, including one for Salzburg Recital; honorary doctorate, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory, 1983.
- Selective Works
- Lulu Suite, 1983.
- Symphony no. 2 in C "Resurrection," 1983.
- A German Requiem, 1984.
- Arias (Mozart), 1986.
- Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart, 1986.
- Papst Johannes Paul II, 1986.
- Salzburg Recital, 1986.
- Pleasures of Their Company, 1986.
- A Christmas Celebration, 1986.
- Ariadne auf Naxos, op. 60, 1987.
- Lieder (Schubert), 1988.
- Live in Tokyo 1988, 1989.
- Symphony no. 4 (Mahler), 1989.
- Arias (Handel), 1990.
- High Fidelity, November 1987.
- Jet, February 1, 1988.
- New York Times, January 26, 1986.
- New York Times Magazine, November 17, 1985.
- Opera News, March 13, 1982; February 14, 1987.
- People, March 7, 1983.
- Stereo Review, November 1986.
- Time, November 11, 1985.
- Vogue, February 1986.