Today we celebrate the life of Kathleen Battle. Kathleen Deanna Battle is an American operatic light lyric-coloratura soprano singer. Battle initially became known for her work within the concert repertoire through performances with major orchestras during the early and mid-1970s. She made her opera debut in 1975. Battle expanded her repertoire into lyric soprano and coloratura soprano roles during the 1980s and early 1990s. Everyday is Back History.
Battle was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, Battle attended Portsmouth High School. She was then awarded a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music where she studied voice with Franklin Bens and also worked with Italo Tajo. There she majored in music education for her undergraduate degree. Battle went on to gain her master’s degree in Music Education as well. In 1971 Battle embarked on a teaching career in Cincinnati, taking a position at a Cincinnati inner-city public school. While teaching 5th and 6th grade music, she continued to study voice privately. She later studied singing with Daniel Ferro in New York.
In 1972, she was still teaching and per the advice of a friend auditioned for the conductor Thomas Schippers in Cincinnati. Her performance there on July 9, 1972 marked the beginning of her professional career. During the next several years, Battle would go on to sing in several more orchestral concerts in New York, Los Angeles, and Cleveland. In 1973 she was awarded a grant from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music to support her career.
Thomas Schippers then introduced Kathleen Battle to his fellow conductor James Levine who selected Battle to sing in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s May Festival in 1974. This was the beginning of a friendship and close professional association between Battle and Levine. Their relationship would last for 20 years and resulted in several recordings and performances in recital and concert performances, including engagements in Salzburg, Ravinia, and Carnegie Hall. Battle made her professional operatic debut in 1975 as Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville with the Michigan Opera Theatre. She made her New York City Opera debut the following year as Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and in 1977 made both her San Francisco Opera debut as Oscar in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and her Metropolitan Opera debut as the Shepherd in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The latter performance was conducted by James Levine. Battle made her Glyndebourne Festival debut (and UK debut) singing Nerina in Haydn’s La fedeltà premiata in 1979.
Throughout the 1980s, Battle performed in recitals, choral works and opera. Her work continued to take her to performance venues around the world. In 1980 she made her Zürich Opera debut as Adina in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. In 1982, she made her Salzburg Festival debut in Così fan tutte, followed three days later by an appearance in one of the Festival’s Mozart Matinee concerts. In 1985, she was the soprano soloist in Mozart’s Coronation Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. That same year she made her Royal Opera debut as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. In 1987 Karajan invited Battle to sing Johann Strauss’ Voices of Spring for the Vienna New Year’s Day concert, the only time Karajan conducted the internationally televised annual event, and the first time a singer had been engaged for such a contribution. In opera she sang a variety of roles including Oscar at Lyric Opera of Chicago and a highly acclaimed Semele at Carnegie Hall.
During this period, she received three Grammy awards for her recordings: Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart (1986), Salzburg Recital (1987), and Ariadne auf Naxos (1987). Battle’s 1986 collaboration with guitarist Christopher Parkening entitled Pleasures of Their Company was nominated for the Classical Album of the Year Grammy award. She also received the Laurence Olivier Award (1985) for her stage performance as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos at the Royal Opera House, London. Critical response to Battle’s performances had rarely varied throughout the years following her debut. In 1985, Time Magazine, pronounced her “the best lyric coloratura soprano in the world”
The 1990s saw projects ranging from a concert program and a CD devoted to spirituals to a recording of baroque music, from performances of complete operas to recitals and recordings with jazz musicians. In 1990, Battle and Jessye Norman performed a program of spirituals at Carnegie Hall with James Levine conducting. In the same year, she returned to Covent Garden to sing Norina in Don Pasquale and performed in a series of solo recitals in California, as well as appearing at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic”. Battle’s Carnegie Hall solo recital debut came on April 27, 1991 as part of the hall’s Centennial Festival. Accompanied by pianist Margo Garrett, she sang arias and songs by Handel, Mozart, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Gershwin and Richard Strauss, as well as several traditional spirituals. The contralto Marian Anderson, who had ended her farewell tour with a recital at Carnegie Hall in April 1965, was in the audience that night as Battle dedicated Rachmaninoff’s “In the Silence of the Secret Night” to her. The recording of the recital earned Battle her fourth Grammy award. Another first came in January 1992 when Battle premiered André Previn’s song cycle Honey and Rue with lyrics by Toni Morrison. The work was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and composed specifically for Battle.
For the remainder of the decade, she worked extensively in the recording studio and on the concert stage. She was a featured guest artist on the May 1994 album Tenderness, singing a duet, My Favorite Things, with Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Al Jarreau. In 1995 she presented a program of opera arias and popular songs at Lincoln Center with baritone Thomas Hampson, conductor John Nelson, and the Orchestra of St. Lukes. She also released two albums in 1995: So Many Stars a collection of folk songs, lullabies, and spirituals (with accompanying live concert performances) with Christian McBride and Grover Washington, Jr. (with whom she had performed in Carnegie Hall the previous year and Angels’ Glory, a Christmas album with guitarist Christopher Parkening, a frequent collaborator.[In 1997 came the release of the albums Mozart Opera Arias and Grace, a collection of sacred songs. In October 1998, she joined jazz pianist Herbie Hancock on his album Gershwin’s World in an arrangement of Gershwin’s Prelude in C♯ minor. December 1999 saw the release of Fantasia 2000 where she is the featured soprano in Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conducted by long-time collaborator James Levine. In solo recitals she performed in cities including Los Angeles, New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago in programs that featured art songs from a variety of eras and regions, opera arias, and spirituals.
Battle has continued to pursue a number of diverse projects including the works of composers who are not associated with traditional classical music, performing the works of Vangelis, Stevie Wonder, and George Gershwin. In August 2000, she performed an all-Schubert program at Ravinia. In June 2001, she and frequent collaborator soprano Jessye Norman, performed Vangelis’ Mythodea at the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, Greece. In July 2003 she performed at the Ravinia Chicago Symphony Orchestra Gala with Bobby McFerrin and Denyce Graves. In 2006 she and James Ingram sang the song They Won’t Go When I Go in a Tribute to Stevie Wonder and she began including Wonder’s music in her recitals. In July 2007 she debuted at the Aspen Music Festival performing an all-Gershwin program as part of a season benefit. In October 2007, at a fundraiser for the Keep a Child Alive Charity, Kathleen Battle and Alicia Keys performed the song Miss Sarajevo written by U2’s Bono.
On April 16, 2008, she sang an arrangement of The Lord’s Prayer for Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of his Papal State visit to the White House. This marks the second time she sang for a pope. (She first sang for Pope John Paul II in 1985 as soprano soloist in Mozart’s Coronation Mass.) Later that year, she performed “Superwoman” on the American Music Awards with Alicia Keys and Queen Latifah. Since that time she has appeared in the occasional piano-voice recital, including a recital of works by Schubert, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff in Costa Mesa, California accompanied by Olga Kern (February 2010) and a recital in Carmel, Indiana accompanied by Joel A. Martin (April 2013).
Battle has received six honorary doctorates from American universities. They include: the University of Cincinnati, Westminster Choir College, Ohio University, Xavier University, Amherst College, and Seton Hall University. She also received a NAACP Image Award – Hall of Fame Award, 1999.
Kathleen Battle is an accomplished woman. She is another black women who shows with her accomplishments that no goal is far from our reach. She is a woman who knows her worth. Her talent and all she has gained shows us black women that we too can become what we want. We too have to believe in ourselves and know our worth. We are more than the negative depictions of failure, complacency, and stereotypes that are portrayed. We are limitless black women, There is nothing we can not do and achieve just like Kathleen Battle.