Grammy-winning opera singer returns to stage after 20 years with Underground Railroad Spirituals

WASHINGTON – Grammy-award winning soprano singer, Kathleen Battle, reclaimed the stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Jan. 28. Battle reawakened the narrative of the Underground Railroad after a 23-year absence from the spotlight.

Kathleen Battle sings Fix Me in Philadelphia performance

Lines of people extended throughout the concert hall as more than 500 audience members prepared to enter the auditorium and take their seats for the grand event. Event staff was swift in helping the large crowd of people find seat sections and maneuver through the Kennedy Center’s tiered structure.

Battle and her accompanying Ohio-native choir sang two hours of traditional negro spirituals and contemporary gospel hymns with one intermission. The all-African American choir revived emotions buried in the lyrics of songs that guided and encouraged slaves during dark times.

The choir entered the concert hall first at 5 p.m. Applause erupted and the acoustics emphasized the welcome as Battle walked on stage next.

She wore a red, floor-length gown and a gold shawl draped her shoulders as she glided to her position near the stage organ. Famed pianist, Joel Martin, wearing a black and white tuxedo followed behind her, took his post at the organ and waited to begin.

Battle grinned from ear to ear and without pause began to sing her first song.

In 1994, the five-Grammy winning opera performer was fired from the Metropolitan Opera for being difficult and uncooperative said several people involved in the Met’s Donizetti production. Battle has not since performed on stage for mainstream productions. After more than 20 years Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey ends Battle’s separation from center stage.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled to be here,” Battle said near the end of the show.

Audience members filled majority of the 2,465 seat capacity. Listeners of all backgrounds and ages, wearing black tie attire to jeans and sneakers, paid close attention to every song and the voices singing each story.

Special guest narrators delivered raspy and intense narrations in between songs the way one would expect from a southern Baptist preacher.

Jackie Taylor, playwright and founder of the Black Ensemble Theater, and Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III of the Trinity United Church of Christ read speeches and excerpts as narrative. The words of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass were common sources read between songs.

One of Harriet Tubman’s most notable statements was printed on the programs handed to audience members:

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

Pianist Cyrus Chesnut added to the opulent atmosphere with his piano solos. Battle and Chesnut brought more than 60 years of combined experience to the show and the performance reflected it.

As a final touch, Battle prompted every soloist, pianist, and narrator to take their bow and even greet the audience individually for proper recognition. The show ended with a five-minute standing ovation and Battle’s soprano salute.

“That was excellent. I liked the fact that she gave an opportunity to choir members to be heard, and the pianists were absolutely awesome,” Tara McKinnon, an audience member said.

Battle takes her tour to the west coast on March 29 and is set to perform in Northridge, California at the Valley Performing Arts Center. Tickets can be purchased at https://www.livenation.com/artists/51219/kathleen-battle.

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