To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from Kathleen Battle's outing Sunday evening at the Kennedy Center. The soprano, once a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere with an astonishingly beautiful silvery voice, is 69 and has a reputation as a difficult diva. Having seen a fair number of star diva evenings over the years, I assumed that "The Underground Railroad," an evening of spirituals that she's been performing in various forms for some years, and polished up for her return to the Met last year, would be cut from similar cloth: lots of gown-changes and a few vocal offerings from the marquee attraction, with the orchestra and chorus doing the heavy lifting.
How wrong I was. I began to grasp this almost immediately, when Battle took the stage, tastefully and not ostentatiously dressed, and let fly with "Lord, How Come Me Here" — adorned with some of the same floating, gorgeous high notes I remembered from her over two decades ago. The lower voice was a little patchy in places, a little breathy, but the voice as a whole still had the purity and beauty that has always characterized it, and she performed with flair and class — and sometimes without any accompaniment at all.
And she performed a lot. She sang in 14 of the 19 numbers, and was still going strong in the final, luminous encore, "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord," at the end of 2½ hours. Rather than retiring to her dressing room during the numbers she didn't sing, she sometimes stood onstage and applauded the 18 remarkable singers who made up the chorus, all of whom had at least one solo and often more. This chorus, indeed, was what enabled her to sing so long, singing behind and beside and around her and taking over for extended solo riffs in which they more than held their own, so that "Wade in the Water" and "Hold On," among others, were real ensemble numbers.
Staying onstage when she wasn't singing, and trying to micromanage the other singers and the pianists, Joel Martin and Cyrus Chestnut, with determined hand gestures, were sometimes distracting. But these mannerisms came off less as the demands of an imperious diva than a mother hen, unbearably anxious that things might not go right if she didn't keep control. She was certainly a generous colleague, allowing the other singers room to shine, and making a point of praising them and giving them the first encore at the end of the evening.
Interspersed with the musical numbers were texts about slavery and the Underground Railroad, read by members of the chorus and three narrators: the Rev. James A. Forbes, from New York's Riverside Church; Dwandalyn Reece of the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and Warren Williams, the NSO's manager of community relations, who gave stirring readings of Frederick Douglass.
It all added up to a long, packed and thoroughly enjoyable evening; the capacity audience in the Concert Hall certainly got its money's worth. Rather than witnessing a memorial to a soprano's storied past, we got something vital and compelling and very much in the present; and I came away with new respect and admiration for Battle.