Legendary soprano Kathleen Battle will return to the Michigan Opera Theatre for a recital Sunday, 41 years after she made her professional operatic debut with the company.
It’s her first appearance with MOT since Founding General Director David DiChiera, now music director emeritus, cast the youngster as Rosina in “The Barber of Seville” in 1976.
Sunday’s solo performance, “Something to Sing About,” starts at 4 p.m. at the Detroit Opera House. Tickets are still available.
“Kathy was just out of the conservatory in Cincinnati,” DiChiera recalled, “and my dear friend Italo Tajo called and said, ‘I have a young soprano here I think has one of the beautiful voices. I think you should listen to her.’ ”
It’s the sort of message opera directors live for.
“So Kathy came up to Detroit and sang for me,” DiChiera said, “and oh God, it was so beautiful, so pure. I hired her for the following season to do Rosina, and then Pamina in ‘The Magic Flute.’ ”
Almost immediately thereafter, Battle’s career took off like a rocket, landing her for years at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
“The experience I gained (at MOT) during the rehearsals and preparation for these imaginative, superb productions provided much of the artistic foundation upon which I rely today,” said Battle in a written statement.
Was DiChiera disappointed she’s never come back ’till now?
“No, not really,” he said. “I mean I was excited her career just blossomed. (Music Director) James Levine was very much taken with her at the Met, and that did it. I was just delighted.”
Though she hasn’t performed with MOT, Battle has been back to Detroit since 1976. Three years ago, she performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in its 36th-annual “Classical Roots Celebration.”
As DiChiera remembered it, the orchestra was using the Detroit Opera House for a “Classical Roots” rehearsal, and “one of my staff people told me ‘Kathy’s down in the theater rehearsing.’ ”
So DiChiera planted himself in a seat to listen. When the star spotted him from the stage, he said, she stopped in mid-rehearsal to cry, “There’s the man who helped develop my career!”
Some critics have called Battle’s voice “small,” but DiChiera said that’s no obstacle to a great performance.
“Kathy doesn’t have a voice that’s going to sing heavy roles,” he said. “But it is so pure and focused that it travels. And that’s what makes it special — its lyricism, its purity and its focus. Those are the things that say this is going to be a major, major performer.”
The Washington Post called her voice “one of the very few most beautiful in the world.”
Other veterans from 1976 remember Battle with fondness.
MOT Principal Conductor Stephen Lord was a young musician just starting out. He called Battle “a wonderful colleague.”
During rehearsals, “She sat very quietly in the corner observing the stagings,” he said. “A year or two later she came to Houston Grand Opera to sing in ‘Falstaff,’ for which I was pianist. It was enchanting.”
In Sunday’s recital, Battle will perform works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Ellington and Joplin.
‘Something to Sing About — Kathleen Battle’
4 p.m., Sunday
Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit
Tickets: $33-$89; box seats $100