BATTLE: SOPRANO IN HER PRIME
Kathleen Battle, the American soprano who returns to sing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday, would seem to be in her prime as a singer and operatic performer.
At the Metropolitan Opera and in Europe she commands the limelight and the roles she specializes in: Susanna in “Le Nozze di Figaro,” Zerbinetta in “Ariadne auf Naxos,” Sophie in “Der Rosenkavalier,” among others. She sings as much as she wants--50 to 60 times a year is the number of performances specified. She alternates her singing between opera, recitals and orchestral appearances, according to her own wishes. And she records, it seems, constantly, a new Battle album emerging, it would appear, practically every six months.
And, according to the 38-year-old soprano, her ambitions do not go beyond this--admittedly very high--plateau.
Speaking in a high, somewhat adolescent-sounding voice from her apartment in New York (she also owns a home on Long Island, where she gardens), she said, “I am not searching for more operatic roles.
“If I did not do so many recitals and concerts, if they didn’t take up two-thirds of my schedule, I would certainly be searching out new roles. But as it is, it is my pleasure and joy to be looking for more repertoire for the recitals.”
A native Ohioan, Battle was trained at the Cincinnati Conservatory, where, she says, “we have a long tradition of choral music and oratorio. That’s where I began.” And that is where, she says, her ambition stops.
“From the very beginning,” she recalls--and her career began with mentors like the late Thomas Schippers and James Levine (still her mentor, as well as artistic director at the Met)--"we all knew, and accepted, that my physical abilities would not allow me to sing Tosca.
“In fact, very early on, there was no question that my voice and talent had a certain, and limited, scope. That’s why I’m not unhappy singing what I sing. I started out with less taxing roles, and gradually took on those that were more difficult.”
Indeed, Battle acknowledges, she did not start out with all the vocal and musical resources she has today.
“When I was 20, many people urged me to sing Zerbinetta. But I wasn’t ready. I looked at it, tried it out, and could see I could not yet sing it. I looked at it for six or seven years before I felt I was ready. Every few months, I would take it out and check on it.
“Sometimes people want to push you faster than you should go. But what’s the point of doing something if you yourself are not satisfied? Maybe it was my ego, or my pride. I’m the one who has to be pleased, first.”
It was the same with Sophie in “Rosenkavalier,” Battle says. “At the beginning, I was able to sing the ‘Werther’ Sophie, but not the ‘Rosenkavalier’ Sophie. So I waited. I always knew I could do it. With Sophie, in particular, I knew it was, you might say, in my body. I just had to work and wait.
“I’ve always been patient.”
Today, the soprano reports, “I have much more stamina, much more staying power and vocal strength, than I had 10 years ago. I guess that proves I’m healthy, vocally. I am certainly blessed with good health, otherwise.”
Protecting oneself may account for good health of any kind, of course. Battle’s patience and willingness to wait have certainly not hurt her, it seems. She mentions, for instance, that her performances with the Philharmonic this week involve singing on four consecutive days, Thursday through Sunday.
“That’s unusual, though every orchestra has a different setup of subscription concerts. Sometimes there’s a break of one day between concerts.
“But I don’t really mind. Usually, my part of the concert is only around 20 minutes. Of course, in the opera house we never have back-to-back performances.”
Because the world of opera also operates on far-distant planning, how does Battle control her own schedule? When does she vacation?
“Well, because we are usually planning three to four years in advance, I will map out vacations, rest periods, study periods and recording periods a couple of seasons ahead.
“I don’t usually take four-week vacations, but go for two or three weeks. And a vacation means: no singing. I may take a score to look at, but do not sing. Time for rest and time for study are separate.”
Will there ever be time for Tosca? The singers laughs before answering.
“Oh, no. I have no interest in that.” She pauses.
“Oh, I suppose, there is in me some--shall we say unvoiced?--desire to sing one of those roles. But it wouldn’t be Tosca. Perhaps . . . Violetta (in ‘Traviata’). . . . " Another pause.
“But I still won’t do it.”