Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Separated at Birth

By Drew

Regarding Eliot Spitzer, the most common opinion expressed seemed to be that he’d gotten what was coming to him. The second most common was generally an expression of great satisfaction. And as the stories began to accumulate, there truly did seem to be a sense that “time wounds all heels.” Or perhaps it was “what goes around comes around.” For a collapse as spectacular as Spitzer’s, there are endless clich├ęs available for use.

In that sense, there is much to be said in comparing Spitzer’s fall to that of a diva from the opera world. Kathleen Battle, who appears at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis this weekend, was – as one critic put it – the “chief wacko” in classical music. (And that’s saying a lot for a medium as eccentric as the classical field.) Nobody ever doubted Kathleen Battle’s talent, just as nobody doubted that she epitomized the phrase prima donna in the worst possible way.

The stories of Battle’s tantrums are legendary in the music field – the most famous perhaps being the time she called her agent from the back seat of a limo in which she was riding to have him call the limo company and have them tell her driver to turn the air conditioner down (an act which was apparently far beneath her, considering it would require her to possibly tap on the glass partition separating the two). On the other hand, it could have been the time in Boston when she phoned the management of the Boston Symphony to complain that the Ritz-Carlton hotel’s staff had put peas in her pasta. Possibly it might have been her frequent demands that those working with her not look at her. It’s really hard to say for sure.

Battle was an equal-opportunity diva, however – she was known to berate stagehands, conductors, musicians, and fellow singers with an even-handed abusiveness. As Time once wrote, she left a trail of ill will in her wake wherever she went, and it was only her talent that saved her – and her popularity with a public who saw only her marvelous presence on stage, and not the fireworks behind the scenes.

Eventually, of course, this kind of behavior caught up with her. In 1994, following a blow-up during preparation for a production of La Fille du R├ęgiment at the Metropolitan Opera, the Met’s general manager, Joseph Volpe, fired her. He did this despite the opposition of artistic director James Levine, who had long been a champion of Battle despite her erratic behavior. Volpe later admitted that perhaps he had done it at least partly out of a need to show everyone who was boss, but regardless of the reason, he pulled the trigger and summarily dismissed her from the Met.

Volpe’s move was greeted with a reaction strikingly familiar to that which met Spitzer’s downfall. Directors of other opera companies publicly (and loudly) supported his action. The cast of La Fille burst into applause upon hearing the news, as did the office staff of her management company. Battle complained that she’d never been warned her behavior was causing a problem, which sounds just a tad disingenuous, unless it was that she simply couldn’t have been bothered to listen to anyone who tried to talk to her. Considering that she wouldn’t let people look at her, out of sight, out of mind, eh?

Today Kathleen Battle continues to be a big name in the music business, as is witnessed by her recital in Minneapolis this weekend. But she has not sung for an opera company since her dismissal by the Met; her last Grammy wins were a decade ago; and her recitals are frequently one-time deals with orchestras who do not ask her back. Even her partnership with Levine is said to have finally disintegrated, her antics apparently becoming too much even for him. To this day classical insiders speculate seriously on her sanity.

Of course, people thought Eliot Spitzer was crazy as well, as in, “he must have been crazy to throw it all away.” Well, that’s something that crazy people – either clinically or merely informally – do tend to do. Witness Kathleen Battle, for example. But she still knows how to wow an audience, and her presence on the stage can still sell tickets. That, at least, is one area in which she has the upper hand on Eliot Spitzer, who I doubt will be selling any tickets for anything for quite some time.

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