Temperamental diva deserves her fate

February 09, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

In the popular imagination, opera stars are presumed to be temperamental. So it wasn't entirely shocking to the opera fans who learned yesterday that the Metropolitan Opera had fired superstar soprano Kathleen Battle on Monday for "unprofessional actions" during rehearsals for a production of Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment."

The unprofessional behavior included rude behavior to colleagues; showing up late for rehearsals; repeatedly changing her mind about whether she liked her costume and flying into a new rage with every change; ordering cast members not to look at her when she was singing; and demanding that the director of "The Daughter" change the production so that all her exits and entrances were on the side of the stage closest to her dressing room.

In short, the sort of thing people who don't even know opera well would expect of a star soprano.

One might think that it is for such reasons that star singers -- for at least a decade, Battle has been the world's leading light soprano -- are called "divas." Diva is Italian for goddess, and goddesses are not bound by the rules that confine ordinary mortals.

The fact is, opera is a collaborative affair, and most singers -- even star sopranos -- are generally good colleagues. They may be vain -- Franco Corelli once threatened to cancel a performance unless a page in the program book containing an ad describing Richard Tucker as "the world's greatest tenor" was removed. They may be temperamental -- Maria Callas, the most passionate soprano of modern times, was fired from the Met at the height of her career almost 40 years ago in a dispute over fine print in her contract. And they may put on airs -- Leontyne Price had the knack of making everyone around her (including her brother, a retired major general in the U.S. Army) feel like a buck private in boot camp.

But all of these singers cared more passionately about singing than about anything else. They knew they were in show business and that the show must go on.

What's unusual about Battle is that she apparently cares about nothing but herself.

Stories abound about her -- and most, including those reported below, are true.

* When she sang at President Clinton's inaugural ball, she turned away the limousine sent to her hotel because it was too small. When an acceptably large limousine came, and hurried so that she would not be late, she used the car phone to call her manager in New York to make him call the limousine service so that they would radio the driver and tell him to slow down.

* Early in her career when she was singing Susanna in a Met production of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," she used to arrive early and lock Carol Vaness, who had top billing as the Countess, out of her dressing room because it was larger than Battle's.

* In her recital at Meyerhoff Hall last month, she repeatedly humiliated her accompanist by stopping on several occasions while pretending she had not yet achieved the mood necessary to begin singing.

The wonder is that the Met didn't fire her years ago. Battle, 45, still has a lovely voice, but it's not as fresh as it was and thus not as suitable to the soubrette roles -- the parts of very young (and usually saucy) women -- that continue to be the mainstay of her repertory. Equally gifted singers of Battle's age and vocal type -- Barbara Hendricks and Roberta Alexander, for example -- have long since gone on to greater musical challenges. And there are younger singers with fresher-sounding voices, such as Harolyn Blackwell, who are standing by to replace Battle.

Battle's misfortune is not that she was fired by the Met. It's that this 45-year-old woman not only still sings the parts of spoiled, young women, but also acts like one.

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