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Sunday, April 10, 2016


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.


Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

Your post opens up an opportunity to express something I have wanted to confront for some time. You pose a great question, which is:

"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?"

Based on my life experience, I would argue absolutely none. Why? Because they can do better. (Which, by the way, is a constant exhortation of the Sanders campaign, which he has borrowed -- among other themes -- from the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign). There is no reasonable excuse for that kind of behavior. Do you think so? I certainly don't.

Now, I did not always think this way. From my first encounter with you, Professor Wolff, I have always thought of you as an "extraordinary individual" who I could learn an amazing amount of knowledge from. For Christ sake, you would repeatedly say in class the following statement: "You can learn something from every word I say." Well, I took that statement to heart and still do to this day. Consequently, I accepted your eccentricities and at times dismissive attitude as something I should be "expected to put up with." As a result, when I later met Lawrence Foster in the philosophy department at UMass Boston (circa 1992), I proudly proclaimed that I was a big fan of yours. His blunt and dismissive response: "Hell of an ego with that guy." My absolutely genuine, sincere, and earnest response to him was: "And rightly so, since he is quite brilliant." Professor Foster shook his head and walked away. At the time, my thinking was, what is this guy's problem? But as I grew older and continued to learn more, I realized that great, talented, and extraordinary people do NOT have an excuse to belittle those "below" them. Why? Well you, as a self-proclaimed Marxist should know. We are all in the struggle of life together. Why excuse some asshole who can sing, paint, or write well? Because we culturally "benefit" from his or her work? Even so, that does not give them the privilege to belittle others. On top of that, there are extraordinarily talented people who are actually good, kind, caring, and selfless people who go out of their way to help others. It is an individual, personal trait, not a talented trait. I will never stop quoting Jackson: "We can do better."

At base, there really should be no place for diva behavior. The most genuine and sincere people know this. These kinds of behaviors should not simply be excused but should be deemed unacceptable. I once had patience for it. I certainly don't now. Short answer: I would have canned Battle.

Keep in mind that I reached this decision based in a large part on your teaching. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Well, finally got that off my chest. Thanks for opening the door.

Your eternally sincere student,


Jerry Fresia said...

Well, I had to go to youtube to see what the fuss was all about.

She can do whatever she wants.

One would hope that Emily Post, divas, and very alive philosophers might all line up. And I wish I looked like
Paul Newman. But the world just doesn't distribute the good stuff evenly or with consideration for the less
fortunate. Truly transcendent moments are incredibly rare. Life without them, would be a mistake.

Was she really that bad?

s. wallerstein said...

I don't think that there's any excuse for behavior of the sort that leads other musicians and the chorus (who are used to eccentric behavior, so common in the world of the performing acts) to applaud when the person is fired.

For example, Nietzsche, who in his work is so arrogant ("why I am so witty", etc.)and divo-like, in his personal life, according to biographers, was very courteous, considerate, a model 19th century German gentleman. That's the model to follow: arrogant in one's work (if that is called for) and considerate in one's personal life.

Warren Goldfarb said...

To the general question "How much bad behavior...?" I don't think there's a general answer. In the case of Kathleen Battle, surely the Met is familiar with, and copes with, some amount of diva behavior from its divas. But here's how Battle's antics were described: "But several people at the Met, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the problems began when Miss Battle objected to attending the two or three daily rehearsals that are typical in the weeks before a production opens. When the schedule was revamped to suit her, they said, she arrived late, left early or did not show up at all. She is said to have demanded that other singers leave the rehearsals when she was singing, and was described as having been "very nasty" to members of the cast." To miss rehearsals and demand other singers leave rehearsal is a level of unprofessional behavior that certainly should have gotten her fired. Putting on an opera is, after all,a collaborative effort, and clearly Battle undermined any possibility of collaboration

So the answer to the general question is: some, but there is always a level beyond which the person cannot be tolerated.