Warming Up with a Soprano

January 22, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

The weather Wednesday night being uncommonly frigid, I was sorely tempted to skip Kathleen Battle's scheduled concert at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Ms. Battle is one of the world's leading opera singers and much in demand as both recitalist and soloist in orchestral programs. She has a beautiful, high soprano voice of exceptional purity -- ''silvery'' is the adjective often used to describe her sound. She is also a ravishingly handsome woman with an enchanting stage presence.

Still, the weather was foul, and I suspected that under normal circumstances only the most ardent opera buffs would brave the elements to hear her art.

(Over the last year I've written a number of pieces in this space on the subject of opera, but I hardly call myself a ''buff.'' I look at opera mostly as a metaphor for the embattled ''high'' culture that so often seems in danger of collapsing into irrelevance. Venturing out on a subfreezing night for an evening of German art song is my idea of journalism above and beyond the call of duty.)

After dithering indecisively until the last moment, however, I finally threw on as many sweaters and coats as possible and skidded over the ice on foot to St. Paul Street, where a taxi mercifully appeared. A few minutes later I was sitting in Meyerhoff Hall marveling at the huge crowd that had turned out despite the dire weather forecast.

Ms. Battle came on stage with her accompanist, Margo Garrett. She began with two songs by Henry Purcell, then sang a selection German art songs -- lieder -- by Schubert.

I suspect relatively few members of the audience were especially familiar with this repertoire. The lieder recital is really a genre for connoisseurs, though snatches of tunes occasionally find their way into pop culture. Yet Ms. Battle captivated her listeners. A kind of magic occurs when a great singer performs that makes words irrelevant.

It occurred to me what an amazing thing it was for 2,500 people to sit spellbound for two hours listening to music sung in a foreign tongue. As a practical matter, it seems possible only when the performer puts her heart into it completely. We experience the emotional dramas the singer conjures up, even though we haven't a clue what the words used to describe them actually mean.

The power of this kind of wordless communication is what has always fascinated me about music. I don't think science has yet come up with an adequate explanation for the phenomenon, though probably it has something to do with sympathetic vibrations set up between performer and listener that operate on a purely emotional level.

We're perfectly comfortable with this idea where instrumental music is concerned. Most times we don't understand the words of songs even when they're sung in English. But many people still feel put off when the text is in a foreign language.

So I wasn't surprised during intermission when an elderly lady remarked she wished Ms. Battle would sing something she could understand. ''I'm tired of all those Teutonic words,'' she complained.

I suggested Ms. Battle might sing some spirituals during the second half. As one of the leading black divas of the age, I ventured, surely she would make a place in her recital for the great African-American folk songs that represent this country's singular contribution to the world's musical legacy.

Sure enough, Ms. Battle devoted most of the second half of her program to African-American song. She sang many perennial favorites, including ''He's Got the Whole World in His Hand,'' and ''Good News.''

By then, of course, she had completely won over her audience. Afterward there was a long line of people outside her dressing room waiting for autographs. Still later, I caught a glimpse of her at a reception held by members of the Morgan State University group that organized the concert. She graciously thanked her hosts and remarked that this was not only her first time in Baltimore but the first time she had been presented to the public by a historically black institution. She looked elated, but also a little drained. In any case, her efforts had been transforming.

It struck me that what I had to put up with in order to get to the concert probably was small compared to the physical and emotional resources she'd had to summon. Riding home with friends, I sensed a change in the air that seemed to make it not as cold as when I'd come. But whether it was really the weather that had warmed or just me was hard to say.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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