Soap Opera At The Met

SHREWD OBSERVERS SAW IT COMING years ago. Rumors had circulated in the opera world about Kathleen Battle's nit-picky demands on underlings, strained relations with conductors and hair-trigger touchiness. Did she really fuss over the color of rugs in rental cars? Switch hotels because an elevator operator seemed to be looking at her strangely? In January 1993, after a dispute over tempos, Battle stalked out of a rehearsal for the Metropolitan Opera's "Der Rosenkavalier" and reportedly commanded that general manager Joseph Volpe present himself in her dressing room within five minutes. Volpe took his time; Battle quit the production. Insiders said she escaped being fired because the Met had already sold the tickets for her performances in Japan with Luciano Pavarotti.

Last week the Met ran out of patience. During rehearsals for "La Fille du Regiment," Battle reportedly flouted a schedule already rearranged to accommodate her by one account, showing up two hours and 15 minutes into a three-hour rehearsal. When she did show, reports said, her behavior ranged from rude to bizarre -- at one point she supposedly complained another singer was "looking at my mouth." This time Volpe dismissed her; his statement, by Met standards, was a public flogging. Battle's "unprofessional actions," it read, were "profoundly detrimental to . . . artistic collaboration." When Volpe told company members she'd been fired, they applauded.

Even those who don't know a cabaletta from a cavatina know the Kathleen Battle who puts out best-selling albums, appears on PBS and collaborates with Jessye Norman and Wynton Marsalis. But the opera community knows a different Kathy Battle. "The people who do the hardest work in our business," says the head of one big-city opera company, "makeup people, stagehands -- they hate her. They don't just dislike her, they hate her." For opera obsessives, imperiousness is a token of true diva-ness. For a diva's colleagues, it's no fun.

"I pride myself on being able to work with all the performing artists we have," Volpe told NEWSWEEK. "It's quite obvious that here I was not successful." A Met board member said that "Volpe just is fed up with her. She's demoralizing. She gets everyone so upset during rehearsals that it's a real downer. She's a wretched human being." Battle's manager says she's granting no interviews. Met artistic director James Levine, her longtime mentor, also declined to comment. Battle issued a statement saying she "was not told by anyone at the Met about any unprofessional actions" and had no idea why she'd been dismissed. No one else was surprised. "I said this 10 years ago," says the big-city opera head, "that when the day came when she had her crisis, nobody would stand up for her." After she did "La Fille du Regiment" in San Francisco last fall, some company members there donned T shirts reading I SURVIVED THE BATTLE. One publicist found Battle's response to her firing typical: "She pulls this innocent act -- "Oh, you never told me that.' That's how she gets through the day."

Legends about Battle are retailed gleefully, but not always authoritatively. The board member who calls her a "wretched human being," for instance, says he never actually saw her misbehave. Did Battle really throw soprano Carol Vaness's clothes out of the Met's Dressing Room One? Or did she have a dresser move them elsewhere? It's said that Leonard Slatkin refuses to conduct Battle again; Slatkin denies he's had problems with her and says she once sang with him eight hours after she'd had a root canal. Then there's the "limo story": the diva uses her car phone to call her agent to call the opera house to call the driver to tell him to slow down. Or was it to adjust the heat? Or did it happen at all? "The nature of the lady is such that I imagine a good number of these things are probably not true," says the board member. "But probably a good number of them are."

Increasingly the stories make Battle sound like Captain Queeg in a ball gown. She throws fits when a chef puts peas in her pasta. She won't let cast members see her rehearse. The New York Daily News reported that she'd made a pianist play as she sang an aria in her head, then "hit the accompanist and bellowed: "You're ahead of me!"' A friend of Battle's says such tales are exaggerated. "It's so hard to tell the context," the friend says. "When they say she asked people to leave the room, who knows what those people were doing?" One theory has it that Battle's problems with the Met amount to "an MCP taking it out on a woman." So far the male-chauvinism theory doesn't have many adherents.

Nevertheless it's arguable that Battle's imputed eccentricities might seem more forgivable in a male singer. Pavarotti, for instance, didn't seem to lose an ounce of belovedness after the Lyric Opera of Chicago banished him in 1989 for canceling one too many performances. Inevitably, Battle is seen as the latest in a long line of "tempestuous" divas -- Nellie Melba, Maria Callas, Teresa Stratas -- as famous for their tantrums, cancellations, bogus farewell performances and rococo self-indulgence as for their musicianship. By 1900, writes Rupert Christiansen in his book "Prima Donna," the Italian term for principal female singer "had stuck as a label of abuse on a level with virago, shrew or bitch . . . it has proved a powerful stereotype." It's true that a woman arguing about tempos may be a nag or a nut case while a man might be a perfectionist. But it's also true that some prima donnas keep acting like prima donnas. More than 100 years before the Battle-Vaness dressing-room episode, divas Minnie Hank and Marie Roze spent a celebrated afternoon ousting each other from a Chicago dressing room before a performance of "Le Nozze di Figaro." Melba declared her Covent Garden dressing room off-limits even when she wasn't in England.

But to shoehorn Battle into the gaudy prima donna pantheon, you have to ignore her incongruously delicate and disciplined singing. Callas's vocal grandeur suited her personal grandiosity; Battle seems neurotically at odds with her girlish onstage persona. She's a pure-toned lyric soprano who's wisely chosen not to attempt soul-baring, throat-shredding roles. At 45, she still plays the lighter, more winsome "inas and ettas." Some critics think she's fallen into self-imitation and wonder how she'll make peace artistically with her inevitable aging. Battle's patently self-defeating behavior isn't just an amusing manifestation of diva-ness -- like Joan Crawford's No Wire Hangers or Van Halen's No Brown M&M's -- but a distress signal. Acting up and forcing others to punish you is a pathology familiar to any parent; so is pretending, even believing, you never did what you did.

Why is a grown-up opera star behaving, by most accounts, like a 5-year-old? Perhaps Battle herself doesn't know. In published interviews, as in her music, she avoids baring her soul. But it's suggestive that as an obviously gifted young singer she trusted her talent, or her luck, or the world, so little that she chose to become a schoolteacher; she might still be one if not for James Levine. Take any performer who never expected to be a superstar and put her through a midlife career crisis, and you might end up with a case like that of Kathleen Battle: a wonderful singer making herself into a caricature. Then again, with a little luck and a little grace, you might not.