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CLASSY COMEBACK: Storied soprano returns, in glorious voice, with powerful message

If you still think of Kathleen Battle as an opera singer, you haven’t been paying attention for the last 40 years. It’s true that the soprano, who possesses one of the most naturally beautiful voices of modern times, first made her mark on the world’s opera stages, in Handel, Mozart and bel canto roles for which she was virtually without peer during the 1980s and ’90s.

But from the beginning she has drawn upon a rich pool of sources and expressions, from Bach cantatas to Ellington, Pavarotti to Grover Washington Jr., Itzhak Perlman to Wynton Marsalis, Al Jarreau to Alicia Keys. One of her five Grammy Awards was for a song cycle by André Previn (Honey and Rue, which has since become a standard of the soprano recital repertoire), and she’s even collaborated with James Ingram, Bono and Janet Jackson.

Yet one repertoire that’s remained especially dear to Kathleen’s heart is that of the Spiritual, and it is with this music that she has recently made a storied comeback. “You could say that Spirituals have been with me since ‘the womb,’ ” she said in a recent email exchange with The Independent. As she was coming of age in Portsmouth, Ohio, Kathleen said, it was home, church, school and community that provided a spiritual rock that still grounds her.

From this foundation has grown a remarkable program she calls Underground Railroad—A Spiritual Journey, which she and a hand-picked choir and pianist (the remarkable jazz-classical artist Joel Martin) bring to the Harriman-Jewell Series on March 2nd (Kauffman Center). With readings from Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the program tells the story of the 19th-century network that helped slaves escape to freedom.

It has proven an ideal forum for Kathleen, partly because of the way it displays her still-resplendent voice. With good reason it was with this program that she made a triumphant return to the Metropolitan Opera in 2016, after a 22-year absence. “Ms. Battle … sang with remarkable freshness and beauty,” wrote Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times. “She sent high phrases soaring and sang with ethereal elegance. The final standing ovation was tumultuous.”

One of the listeners that night at the Met was Harriman-Jewell Director Clark Morris, whose Series had brought Kathleen to Kansas City in 1986, 1990 and 1999. “I was interested in the project, but I really wanted to hear how her voice was,” Clark said. He needn’t have worried. “It was absolutely glorious,” he said. “She has this big, strong choir, and her voice just soars over it. It was amazing. It seemed almost impossible: But I was thrilled. And there was such an enormously warm feeling toward her, which she conveyed back to the audience. It was, truly, sort of magical.”

Indeed, it seemed that a life spent away from gigantic opera houses might have helped preserve Kathleen’s voice. “It could be that it actually benefitted her, in terms of the length of her career,” Clark said. He immediately contacted Kathleen’s management, which was swamped with requests, “more offers than they could deal with.” Fortunately, the Series—demonstrating its usual keen foresight—already had a contract in play. “I had been talking with Columbia Artists about this project for some time, as it was being developed,” Clark said. “That performance was just a confirmation of our deal: It pretty much activated our contract.”

Underground Railroad is an outgrowth of the broad upbringing that formed Kathleen’s artistry from her youth, she said, which included powerful spiritual roots, a healthy physical and cultural environment, and positive influences all around. “My mother and father encouraged me and my siblings in a variety of pursuits, including academic, artistic, sports, and so forth,” she said in an email exchange. “We had a piano in our home before we had a television!” As she was growing up, she added, “ ‘The Village’ of home, Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church (in Portsmouth), Booker T. Washington Grade School and our Community Center provided us a rich environment in which to grow and develop.”

From her earliest years to her study at Cincinnati’s renowned College-Conservatory, Kathleen has always found mentors who helped build on that foundation. “Robert Sadin, my vocal coach and friend, encouraged me since my college days to embrace a variety of musical styles. My first concert collaboration with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and flutist Hubert Laws included Bach cantatas, Spirituals and Ellington—all on the same program! My collaborations with great jazz artists Grover Washington, Jr., Al Jarreau, Cyrus Chestnut, Christian McBride, Kenny Barron and others also spanned musical genres. These collaborations have helped to inform my relationship to Spirituals and how I express them.”

This January when Kathleen took Underground Railroad to the Kennedy Center, Washington Post critic Anne Midgette—who is not just one of the leading music critics of our day but also a bit of a stickler—had a reaction similar to that of the Times critic. Anne said she “wasn’t expecting much” from a program that sounded like that of yet another diva trying to make a comeback (with the chorus and instrumentalists doing most of the heavy lifting).

“How wrong I was,” she wrote. “I began to grasp this almost immediately, when Battle took the stage, tastefully and not ostentatiously dressed, and let fly with ‘Lord, How Come Me Here’—adorned with some of the same floating, gorgeous high notes I remembered from her over two decades ago. … The voice as a whole still had the purity and beauty that has always characterized it, and she performed with flair and class.”

Kathleen’s un-diva-like attitude and approach might be part of the secret to staying in great voice for so long. How, I asked her, does she do it? “When I am vocally tired, I rest when possible,” she said. “The best Voice Lesson can often be Vocal Rest. The same tenets for general health apply likewise to vocal health: eat well, exercise, sleep. When I run into difficulties, I go back to a familiar classical piece, to remind myself of my healthy, natural emission of sound. That piece could be ‘Et incarnatus est’ (Mozart’s C Minor Mass). For ease of runs, it might be ‘O! Had I Jubal’s Lyre’ (Handel’s Joshua). There are others as well that I keep handy.”

One of the results of this natural approach is that her voice has maintained a remarkable consistency from the time she began singing in the 1960s to the present day. “I may be the exception, as my repertoire has remained steadfast since my early student days,” she said. “So I have not had to deal with the ‘evolution’ of my voice through the decades. I am essentially singing the same repertoire now as I did in my early career.”

Kansas City audiences are also fortunate that Kathleen will be bringing the same group that performed with her in New York:

“Most often I work with local choirs to put this program together. But in this case, the Voices of the Underground Railroad and I are traveling from New York City. This is not a choir in the usual sense. This is a group of wonderfully talented and versatile singers/musicians who came together for this program of very special arrangements of Spirituals.

“These musicians are trained classically (many have two and three degrees, and play two or three instruments!) and are versatile in multiple genres, as you will hear. The range is amazing—many of them are in the throes of their own solo careers, performing and touring, while some are still in conservatory. The very gifted and versatile Joel Martin will be the pianist.

“The result of this bounty of talent coming together to tell the story of Slavery and the Underground Railroad through music and the spoken word is very inspiring to me. I hope you will enjoy the program as much as we have enjoyed preparing it and bringing it to your audience!”

—By Paul Horsley

For tickets to Kathleen’s program this March 2nd at the Kauffman Center, call 816-415-5025 or go to hjseries.org

Credits: Photo at top and on front page: Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera; portrait by Douglas Foulke, courtesy of the Harriman-Jewell Series; photo of Joel Martin by Jimmy Williams. 

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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