The Met Fires a Diva

February 13, 1994

The dismissal last week of superstar soprano Kathleen Battle from the Metropolitan Opera Company for "unprofessional conduct" is sure to ignite lively controversy among fiercely partisan devotees. Ms. Battle, 45, is one of the classical music world's biggest stars, right up there with Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Observers are rightly comparing her tiff with Met General Manager Joseph Volpe to the famous rift that developed between diva Maria Callas and Met boss Rudolph Bing more than a quarter-century ago.

Ms. Battle, who sang in Baltimore for the first time last month, has long had a reputation for being "difficult." In recent years she has refused to comply with conductors, ordered understudies and members of the chorus not to look at her while she was singing and once threw another soprano's wardrobe onto the floor outside a coveted dressing room at the Met so she could move in herself.

Sources in New York suggested that Ms. Battle, who was to sing in Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment" beginning tomorrow, had come late to some rehearsals, left others early and insisted on clearing the hall of other singers when she performed.

Some of this sounds like the expected antics of a pampered prima donna. But it may also indicate more serious problems. Like Callas, Ms. Battle is a high coloratura soprano -- a vocal type often associated with high-strung, nervous personalities. And like Callas, Ms. Battle's squabbling with opera managers seems to coincide with the onset of vocal difficulties that can afflict sopranos as they age. Ms. Battle still sings beautifully, but the effort required to produce her distinctive sound has become much more noticeable in recent years.

This behavior may stem from unconscious fears and insecurities related to the increasing strain her voice is experiencing in performance. The condition of a singer's voice, especially among sopranos, often is intimately connected with every other aspect of the performer's personality and temperament. Ms. Battle's public contretemps with managers and conductors makes entertaining reading, but it may also mask genuine private anguish. A career on the opera stage, it should be remembered, is not necessarily all flowers and glory.

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