By Jonathan Tichler
When the celebrated soprano Kathleen Battle sang Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier at the Met in 1984 (pictured below), the New York Times critic raved, “It would probably be rash to say that Kathleen Battle is the finest Sophie in the entire 74-year history of Der Rosenkavalier, but the performance she gave Friday night at the Metropolitan Opera certainly raised the possibility ... Her radiant tones dominated the performance even amidst so much ensemble excellence ... The singing itself ... was as close to perfect as might decently be asked for.”
While her voice is of modest size, the purity and beauty of her lyric coloratura sound inspired similar accolades throughout her career. We get to see and hear her in this week’s Nightly Opera Streams in her most frequent Met role, the charming and wily Rosina in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia.
Born in Portsmouth, Ohio, Battle was a public school music teacher for a few years in the early 1970s before her career took off. Her Met debut came in 1977 as the Shepherd in a new production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and in those early years, she continued with such supporting roles as Sophie in Massenet’s Werther and Elvira in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, but began to add more featured parts such as Blondchen in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Despina in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the last in a new production (pictured below with Maria Ewing as Dorabella and Kiri Te Kanawa as Fiordiligi).
By the mid-1980s, she was only singing leading roles, and she went on to star in several other new productions—as Zdenka in Strauss’s Arabella, Susanna in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (pictured below), Adina in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, and Cleopatra in the company premiere of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Telecasts of Nozze, Zauberflöte, and Elisir preserve those performances, as well as her sparkling Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (streamed earlier).
Battle’s last performances in complete operas with the company were in 1993, but in 2016 she returned for a concert of spirituals (pictured at top of page) which provided a moving coda to her Met career.
Jonathan Tichler is the Met’s Photo Editor.