Today (April 5, 2016) the MET announced it is bringing Kathleen Battle back.
And unpredictable is what I call Peter Gelb’s overreach in hiring a 68-year old soprano well past her prime to sing a concert at the MET. We all know he’s fighting to keep the old MET afloat in very turbulent waters. But if he really wants to pack that house, why not give that date over to one of the rising stars in the MET roster?
The recital that Ms. Battle is scheduled to sing is to be a benefit for a favorite charity of this artist. That is commendable and Ms. Battle is to be saluted for her generosity. But another event could be thought up to benefit the worthy recipient organization without exposing a great artist to the slings and arrows of demanding opera fans.
Anyone who attended Kathleen Battle’s appearance with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra a few years back can attest to the harsh reality about Ms. Battle’s vocal state. What once was a silvery, soaring high soprano voice is no longer there. And it would be unreasonable to expect a light soprano in her 60’s to sound the same as she did in her prime. Perhaps there was emotional damage caused by her being fired from the MET over twenty years ago that took its toll. More likely there was the cumulative effects of the passing of time, which negatively affect the stamina, breathing and tone quality of any singer past a certain age.
I heard the great Tito Schipa in recital in Los Angeles in 1961, expecting to hear the honeyed singing of one of the great light-lyric tenors of the century. It was not to be. He was 72. He could not sustain a phrase, his breathing was erratic and the voice in shreds. It was a sad occasion to witness a once great singer embarrass himself so.
There are indeed some singers who hung their singing hats late in their singing careers, many did so while they were still singing well. Think of Leontyne Price’s farewell performance in Aida at the MET. She was 58. She sang recitals after that and sang well until age 70. She was a phenomenon.
Others come to mind. Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gerard Souzay – all three baritones – carried on valiantly well past their vocal primes, making up with immense artistry for what they lacked at that point in vocal equipment.
As we have all been reading in Anthony Tommasini’s reviews for the New York Times, Gelb continues to hire Placido Domingo as the former tenor now turned baritone’s careening career continues to overstay its welcome. Mr. Domingo no longer can meet the vocal demands of the baritone roles in Simon Boccanegra or Don Carlo, immense Verdi vehicles that they are. But the MET keeps hiring this singer for this and other assignments.
Kathleen Battle was not at her best the last time we heard her. And whether she sings a recital of art songs or one of operatic arias or one of spirituals, she will be subjected to the scrutiny of a very demanding audience of fans and music critics.
We wish her well and hope she does not face a losing battle.