Critic’s Notebook: Kathleen Battle, Julia Bullock and the saga of opera singers of color

Music Critic

A year from now we will celebrate the 80th anniversary of one of the most important concerts in American history. Richard Powers set the scene in his epic novel, “The Time of Our Singing,” by noting that democracy had not been on the program when, in 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow one of the greatest classical singers of her era, Marian Anderson, to sing at Constitution Hall in our nation’s segregated capital because she was African American.

A huge protest followed, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spearheaded a recital by Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, attracting a crowd of 75,000 on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939.

Even so, opera was not integrated overnight. It took an additional 16 years for Anderson to break the color barrier at American’s most important opera company. That finally happened when she starred in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” at the Metropolitan Opera.


It was her only appearance at the Met, but the breakthrough of singers of color had begun. A year earlier, the 27-year-old Leontyne Price, who would become one of the most celebrated sopranos of her generation, made her recital debut at New York’s Town Hall singing Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs.” The rest pretty much is history. But is it?

The world of opera today would simply be unimaginable without singers of color. One great artist after another has illuminated the lyric stage. An art form built upon the suspension of disbelief, opera is uniquely equipped for colorblindness.

Tuesday night at Hahn Hall in Santa Barbara, a young African American singer happened to sing “Hermit Songs” in what is the first major recital program of her career. Julia Bullock is being hailed as the rising star of her generation.

You only need look around you to understand there is nothing post-racial about our society. Nor, it turns out, is Bullock even close to rising anymore. She has risen, and to dizzying heights. She’s completely aware of and making exceptional use of her identity.

John Adams wrote a starring role for her in his new opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” about the California Gold Rush, and she is its radiant center. But this recital Tuesday proved something beyond even that.

Note for note, the singing was sensational. Bullock’s voice is deeply rich and richly deep, with both the qualities of Anderson’s expressive contralto and Price’s electrifying climaxes. Meaning was, word for word, expressed through not only her exacting vocal inflection and her precise facial expression, but even the slightest movement of her hands. Her eyes made contact. Communication was on every level direct.


Beyond this was a sense of artistic identity, Bullock’s awareness, as a singer and woman of color, of the music world she comes from and the one she lives in.

The traditional way African American singers have asserted their identity is through singing spirituals. Anderson brought to them the intensity of Bach’s most profound arias. Jessye Norman began her career as an awkward singer, a commanding voice but not enough dramatic stage presence to seem as though she would have a significant career in opera.

But when Robert Wilson directed her in a program of spirituals, “Great Day in the Morning,” in Paris in 1982, she found her center. From then on, she became a force of operatic nature like none other. The remarkable young baritone Davóne Tines, who is regular partner with Bullock and who also memorably stared with her in “Girls of the Golden West,” happens to be spellbinding singer of spirituals.

For the most part, the history of African American singers in opera and on the concert stage has been spirituals and maybe a little jazz on the side. And sure, there was always “Porgy and Bess,” George and Ira Gershwin insisting that this be an opera exclusively for black singers. But standing operatic repertory, concert music or Lieder, that was a time for color blindness.

No singer personified that better than Kathleen Battle, who became a star in the 1980s as a spectacular coloratura soprano. Like others before her, race wasn’t an issue when she sang Mozart or Donizetti at the Met. But she did elsewhere explore her own identity with spirituals. André Previn wrote a song cycle for her, “Honey and Rue,” with texts by Toni Morrison.

Fired by the Met in 1994 for what the company called unprofessional behavior, effectively ending her opera career, Battle has struggled with an artistic identity ever since. Four days before Bullock’s recital, Battle brought a program she’s been touring, “Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey,” to the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts at Cal State Northridge.


She sang in a voice that no longer projects strongly, but high notes and agility are well intact. Angela Bassett read from the writings of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and others, describing not so much the suffering of slaves seeking freedom as the their struggle with outsider status, with emphasis on the plight of women.

Spirituals accompanied by Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers and pianist Joel A. Martin added context. What was most moving, though, was Battle as a battle-scarred singer. Still known for being difficult, she forbade photographers (as if her fans didn’t have phone cameras) and came onstage 35 minutes late. Bassett was placed behind a high lectern, lest she upstage the soprano, and seated off to the side when she wasn’t reading.

For most of what turned out to be a three-hour program, Battle made little contact with the audience. But as the evening wore on, she warmed up. By the time of her encores, you couldn’t get her off the stage. She even decided to sing a spiritual that she hadn’t rehearsed. She dismissed her pianist, rehearsed the chorus herself at keyboard and proceeded with “Little David, Play on Your Harp.” It was as if Battle were putting the pieces of her art and personality together on the spot.

Which brings us back to Bullock. She is a complete, empowered singer who has been able to take advantage of all who have struggled before her and to remind us of what the struggle has meant. Her recital was on some levels autobiographical. It was also very much about the empowerment of women, whether in songs by Schubert or Nina Simone.

She made a personal selection from Fauré’s cycle “La Chanson d’Ève” where she just wanted the songs of Eve’s voice, the flowering of a woman, not those of a narrator or God. She sang of the black experience, through songs sung (and written by) Billie Holiday, Cora “Lovie” Austin, Alberta Hunter and Pat Castleton. She turned Simone’s “Revolution” into a kind of a cappella protest spiritual of intense anger and her “Four Women” into the most powerful expression of black women mattering imaginable.

But she did all this with love, not anger. She warmly put her hand on the back of her fine pianist, John Arida. She addressed the audience with laughter. She graciously invited us into her world and then showed how there was no one way of interpreting anything. On a single word, her face could show several emotions — sly, happy, sad, disturbed, OK, not OK. She made, to a degree that I think is new in classical music, the black experience a universal one.


Democracy was, exceptionally, on the program.