Yesterday, the Metropolitan Opera announced that famed soprano Kathleen Battle would return to the company for a recital later this year, 22 years after she was notoriously fired for “unprofessional actions.” Though the latter statement may seem a bit cryptic, those deeply familiar within the opera universe know that Battle was fired for her rampant diva behavior during staging rehearsals for the Met’s production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment.
When I first heard the news of Battle’s return, I was overjoyed; in fact, I screamed. I have always been a huge fan of Battle. Regardless of her less-than-flattering behavior towards those she deemed “beneath” her, it would be foolish to demean her breathtaking artistry. And it isn’t just her musicality that I admire, but also the voice itself. It is a voice that is identifiable for its silvery timbre — one note and you know it’s Battle. And ultimately, what separates a great singer from an operatic legend is a voice that is that easily identifiable.
However, Battle’s firing from the Met was not taken lightly. In fact, it even marked a new beginning for the diva, or lack thereof. Opera may still be stereotypically associated with a grand character with ridiculous diva behavior; but there is a new prototype that has been emerging within the industry: the “anti-diva.”
Based on my own observations, I’ve noticed that the diva-esque stature is only being tolerated while on stage. Though it is still important for performers to maintain composure while in character, being a great colleague seems to be taking priority over being a great performer. In an age that places great importance on social media, seldom is anything kept a secret anymore; talk of exhibiting over-the-top behavior will spread like wildfire on the web. And though it is the singer’s prerogative whether or not they choose to be likeable, it really does seem like their behavior will take them farther in the long run.
Take for example mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, the 2015 winner of the Richard Tucker Award (also known as the Nobel Prize of opera). During the most recent Richard Tucker Gala that was broadcast in February, Barton was shown as down-to-earth and pragmatic in her behind-the-scenes shots; she was even seen chest-bumping fellow operatic star and anti-diva Christine Goerke, following their impeccable performance of the famous duet from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda together. Though they may have just been hamming it up for the cameras, I highly doubt that their anti-diva antics are a publicity stunt; I’ve heard from several people who have personally worked with Barton that she is an absolute joy to work with. Perhaps Barton’s cool demeanor is due to her Southern upbringing, or maybe she is just well-aware that being a phenomenal person to all will eventually garner her more respect during her tenure.
Furthermore, the 2016 Richard Tucker Award winner Tamara Wilson also exhibits anti-diva behavior. Back in my singer days, I had the pleasure of working with Wilson in a performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Wilson is a powerhouse — not only does she possess a voice that is larger than life, but she also has a stage presence that commands audiences to listen. She even maintains her own YouTube channel, entitled “Exit Stage Left,” in which she gives tips to those in the midst of their operatic studies while also showcasing her personality. However, what I remember most about my experience with Wilson was her personality; she chose to engage with her fellow peers, who were predominantly students, and not to separate herself from the chorus. Though the voice will remain immortal throughout history, maybe the key to immense success lies in being a good person.
Regardless, the anti-diva is not necessarily a new concept in opera. Singers of previous generations, including soprano Deborah Voigt and mezzo-sopranos Frederica von Stade and Joyce DiDonato, long ago exhibited sensible behavior both on and off the rehearsal space. Battle’s return to the Met stage marks not only a renowned comeback, but also serves as a reminder of what happens when a impressive ego steps on the wrong toes. Perhaps all it takes to make the immortal mortal is a 22-year hiatus.
Arya Roshanian is a senior majoring in music. He is also a lifestyle editor at the Daily Trojan. His column, “From the Top,” runs on Tuesdays.