The luminous voice of the Grammy Award winning soprano Kathleen Battle has been heralded throughout the world. After witnessing the major milestones in her illustrious career, critics have been unified in singing her praises. Words like spellbinding, magical, mesmerizing have been used to describe her performances from the stages of the world’s leading opera houses and major concert halls. She has scanned the heights of the classical musical world with her unmistakable sound performing with leading orchestras world wide. And now this sensational talent will be bring her consummate gifts to the West Hampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) this Saturday night July 19th for one performance only at 8:30 PM.
I caught up with Ms. Battle by phone about 10 days before her scheduled appearance. Few people are even aware Kathleen Battle calls Quogue her home or rather home away from her New York City home on the Upper West Side. When she isn’t on the road performing or being paged for a high profile charity event, Battle can be found either in Quogue or NYC. “She could get the urge to come out East at one in the morning,” she said, adding “The area is a stark contrast to the city,” and reminds her of Ohio. She is a native of Portsmouth, where she grew up the youngest of seven children. “I love Quogue, and my roots to the community make it all the more special,” she said.
Kathleen Battle was introduced to the area more than 20 years ago by her late manager at Columbia Artists Samuel Neifeld, who had a home there. A short time later, she purchased a spec house from Bill Hautmann, a retired police office, who has since passed away. But Diane, his wife, remains her house watcher/caretaker and Battle is still with Columbia Artists.
About 10 years ago her friend, a voluntary fireman and prominent architect, Jaye Sears, did an addition to her home in Quogue. “He is a pillar of the community and it’s the special spirit of people like him that make Quogue such a treasure to me,” she said. To further nurture that spirit she hosted a Gospel Brunch at her home not too long ago. She would like them to become a tradition, where amazing talents might be unleashed.
Although 58 years old, her voice retains the quality of a twenty-something filled with youthful enthusiasm as she spoke. “I am excited about the evening. I had never been there (WHBPAC) until recently. I was walking down the street in shorts and stumbled into the theater.”
Kathleen Battle, however, has been to the White House. She was the featured soloist for the Pope Benedict XVI visit there this past April. A Protestant, who sang in church as a child and envisioned her future as a music teacher, she is now an international star. Singing the Lord’s Prayer (a request of Mrs. Bush) in front of the largest gathering ever for such a White House event was a heady experience. Two years earlier Mrs. Bush had heard Battle sing spirituals. Battle believes this is why she got the call for the televised event, which she described as “The most exciting, heaven sent occasion of pageantry in her entire life.”
Mind you this is coming from the woman, who has distinguished herself with a concert of Mozart’s Coronation Mass, which was televised and recorded live from the Vatican with the previous Pope John Paul II. The mass was conducted by the renowned Herbert von Karajan and is available on CD and home video. Kathleen Battle has a wide range of releases that encompass not only complete operas, but many of her memorable concerts as well solo albums featuring her diverse range.
Battle has been a busy woman. Just three days before her televised gig with the President and the Pope, she performed a Carnegie Hall concert, where incidentally before even opening her mouth, she was greeted with a 5 minute standing ovation by simply walking on stage. And about a week earlier, she sang for Sting and Trudie Styler at their Carnegie Hall Rainforest Foundation Benefit. The evening, a tribute to Luciano Pavarotti, was underwritten by billionaire financier Ronald O. Perelman and featured Pop royalty that included Billy Joel, James Taylor, and Brian Wilson. Just this past fall at the Black Ball Battle was one of “Only two performers capable of matching Alicia Keys’ mettle” said Rolling Stone. “Battle joined Keys for a haunting rendition of the semi-obscure U2/Parvarotti collaboration ‘Miss Sarajevo.’ ”
Battle said she wasn’t quite sure what she would sing on Saturday, but it will definitely be “high flying and all over the place.” The people at the Performing Arts Center have made the theater available to her all week for rehearsals. When she gets there she will “sing a few bars” to get the feel for the acoustics. Adapt at relying on her God given instincts and natural intelligence, she has a rich repertoire that runs the gamut from opera to jazz, spanning three centuries from the Baroque era to contemporary works.
Although she promises 40 to 50 percent of the music will come from her Spring Carnegie Hall recital, she is planning on some folk and contemporary music, as well as singing in Italian, Spanish and German. Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” and Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” from his 1971 album Where I’m Coming From are classics she is considering. Judy Garland of course immortalized the first and Stevie once coached Battle over the phone on how to interpret his song.
I wanted to speak to her about her inspiration and how she attains the magical bond that she creates with the music and the audience. “After she makes certain her technical approach is correct,” she said “First I look at the text – the music and the words for the spirit and heart – I approach a song as if I wrote the original to find the heart feelings.”
She is apparently riding the high from all the accolades of her recent performances. I’m sure the accumulation of the energy will make for a memorable evening. A thought crossed my mind as I was ruminating on Kathleen Battle’s remarkable career and her early childhood, when she envisioned herself becoming a teacher. Artists hold the mirror for us to view ourselves and the world. She has been awarded seven honorary doctoral degrees, to go along with her Bachelor and Master degrees in music. I thought of the reaching power of her artistry and realized with some of the most illustrious venues in the world as her classroom, Battle has become a teacher of the highest order by being the embodiment of her own teachings.
By: Patrick Christiano