The plumbing in Kathleen Battle's New York apartment has sprung a leak. The building's super is at her door. "A little emergency," she calls it.
Battle is not unacquainted with crisis. Indisputably among the great singers of her generation, she is a soprano with a past. People who know almost nothing else about her are apt to recall her dismissal from the Metropolitan Opera for such "unprofessional actions" as missed rehearsals, scathing criticism of colleagues and assorted diva-ish excesses. Other houses followed the Met's lead.
But the Met melodrama was 14 years ago, and Battle has moved on. She appears with orchestras and sings recitals. Her current recital tour, which includes a much-anticipated return to Carnegie Hall, brings her Sunday to Minneapolis for the first time in 10 years.
The woman I meet by phone is gracious, if not much given to introspection. Her small speaking voice has a vaguely Southern charm. (She was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, just across the river from Kentucky.)
Only when I mention that she's turning 60 in August does she appeal to her publicist, who is monitoring our conversation. "We don't want to go there," the publicist says.
Q Why so long since you last sang in the Twin Cities?
A It has been some time, and I'm happy to be returning. I have friends in the Twin Cities, and I've come there not just to do my own concerts but also to hear Prince -- I'm a fan. And I've sung with the orchestra a number of times, though my first engagement in the Twin Cities was at the Ordway.
Q Could you give us a preview of your program?
A It begins and ends in English. The first group is Purcell, "Music for a While" and "Come All Ye Songsters," which has a bit of flourish and coloratura, an operatic thrust. And I'll close with spirituals: "Hold On," "Good News" and an a capella surprise. Schubert, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Fauré come in between.
Q How do you choose songs for a recital?
A They have to be songs I enjoy singing, that feel good in my throat and that work well with the accompanist -- in this case Ted Taylor, whom I've worked with on a number of recitals.
Q Have you seen an erosion of interest in classical music over the course of your career?
A I belong to the television generation, and I've been privileged to do a lot of work on TV, in both the classical and the popular medium. You're seeing less of that now, less of the classical arts generally. When I was a student, Beverly Sills and Leontyne Price were all over the airwaves -- you didn't have to be a classical musician to know their work.
I'm always pleased, and somewhat surprised, that someone like Stevie Wonder would ask me to sing one of his songs on a program honoring him. That's because he knows my classical work. Recently, Alicia Keys reached out to me for an AIDS-prevention charity called Keep a Child Alive. She asked me to sing a song with her that Bono had written to sing with Pavarotti [the U2 tune "Miss Sarajevo"]. She was the Bono element and I sang the line written for Pavarotti. We got a standing ovation.
Q What recordings would you recommend to people unfamiliar with your work?
A I might ask them to listen to Christopher Parkening and me, because voice and guitar are such a natural combination. Chris is a beautiful musician, and the textures on that album are really memorable. I would also suggest the merging of my voice with Pavarotti's in Donizetti's opera "The Elixir of Love."
Q What's your fondest memory of Pavarotti?
A For the first meal in my apartment, he brought over the pots -- I didn't have any yet -- and made pasta.
Q Would you name a few of your desert-island pieces?
A Certainly something of Mozart. Sometimes I'll get up and vocalize "Et incarnatus est" [from the C-minor Mass, K. 427]. That's heaven. Maybe something of Bach: One of my favorites is "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben," from his "St. Matthew Passion." Of course I'd have to take some spirituals with me. And one of the songs from my Twin Cities program: Mendelssohn's "On Wings of Song," which ends the first half. You just float into your dressing room after that song.
Q What makes a singer great?
A I come back to Alicia Keys. She thinks inside as well as outside the music. She plays the piano, composes, arranges. She tailored the Bono song we sang so that it fit us -- she really made it ours. Finding music that suits you, and knowing what suits you, is part of being a great singer.
Q Does teaching figure among your current activities?
A No. I was a teacher right after college -- I got my master's in music education. I think I had the potential to be a great teacher, but I didn't realize that potential in those two years. I have a cousin in Ohio who's 13. And if I were to teach, that's the age that would interest me: 13 through 16. You can't really teach singing at that age, but you can guide young people to study an instrument, or to immerse themselves in the arts and see what nourishes them.
Q What goals do you have for the next few years?
A There's one project that's been in me since the womb. It involves the music of my own culture: a solo spirituals project with small musical forces -- just a single instrument here and there. In the current climate, it would have to be a multimedia project with a video component.
There are so many spirituals you can relate to just as sublime poetry. Take lines like "Over my head, I hear music in the air; there must be a god somewhere." The words are musical in themselves. There's a line in "Hold On," which I'm doing in Minneapolis: "Can't plow straight and keep a-lookin' back." That's so profound.