After twenty-two years in exile, Kathleen Battle has been invited back to the Met to sing a concert of spirituals. For those of you who do not know, Battle had [and perhaps still has] one of the most beautiful soprano voices ever heard. Her recording of Handel’s Semele is beyond exquisite. Her CD with Wynton Marsalis of baroque arias is perhaps the greatest musical collaboration ever. [She apparently also had an affair with him, which just makes it all the more perfect – two gods disporting themselves on Mt. Olympus.] But Battle was such an utterly, intolerably, offensively self-importantly irrational diva that at the height of her career she was banned from the Met and never sang grand opera again. When her banning was announced to the cast of whatever she was rehearsing at the time, they burst into applause.
Which raises, at least for me, an important question: How much bad behavior, if any, should the rest of us be expected to put up with from those extraordinary individuals whose musical [or intellectual or other artistic] talents set them apart from the ordinary run of mortals? I am not talking about really immoral behavior, like murder or spousal abuse or child molestation or voting Republican – just arrogant, thoughtless, self-absorbed diva-ness. And my answer to that question is: as much as we have to put up with to get the performance. Grand Opera, or indeed any other form of art, is a collaboration for only one purpose, to create a moment of transcendent beauty. An inferior musical performance from a genial, thoughtful, decent, caring, all-round nice guy with whom it is a delight to work is never preferable to a moment of true beauty from an impossible diva whom one dearly wants to strangle.
Amadeus represents Mozart [probably inaccurately] as a scatological, perpetually adolescent buffoon who just happens to be one of the greatest composers ever to live. Salieri hates him, envies him, plots to bring about his downfall, but is, more than anyone else in Mozart’s world, able to recognize the divinity of his music. It is that recognition that lies at the heart of Peter Shaffer’s play. Something similar animates Good Will Hunting.
Would I have applauded Battle’s dismissal, had I been a member of the Met orchestra? Of course. I am human. But would I have dismissed her, had I been the conductor? Maybe, but I would hope not.