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Kathleen Battle—Part 1: Community
Joyce Matthews and her daughter Tatianna were both familiar with Kathleen Battle years before they had the opportunity to share a stage with her.
Joyce remembers seeing Ms. Battle and Jessye Norman sing together in a 1990 concert during which they paid tribute to the great Marian Anderson. Tatianna grew up with that soundtrack, often singing along with the two great African American divas, but never expecting to actually meet one of them.
Mother and daughter have been singing for most of their lives—Joyce’s foster mother Mildred Tuggle, along with Billie Wood and Louise Crosby, founded Les Chanticleers, a choir dedicated exclusively to negro spirituals, in 1971, and Joyce started singing with the group when she was 13. Tatianna started at age 4.
In November 2017, Mildred passed away. At her memorial service, Tatianna and her sister Khloe sang “Take Me to the King,” and Sound of the Northwest founder and director Juan Huey-Ray, who was in attendance, invited Tatianna to join his choir for the upcoming Kathleen Battle performance at Meany Center. Since Joyce was going to have to drive Tatianna to the rehearsals every Monday night anyway, she told Juan Huey-Ray that he might as well give her a piece of music so that she could sing too. Thus began a family adventure with some unexpected twists and turns.
There were many long rehearsals with a lot of songs to learn—more than 20 in all—and they needed to be learned quickly (only to have several discarded in the final rehearsals). Then there was the challenge of performing the music the way Kathleen Battle wanted it to be sung.
At first, Joyce was worried about the three-hour rehearsals with Ms. Battle. “I fussed about everything,” she says. “No food, no drink, hardly any breaks—but those hours went by so fast! Even when we got breaks, some of us didn’t take them!” Working with the UW Chamber Singers was an interesting experience. “They have a different type of music they sing and most of them are, or are training to be, professional singers,” Joyce remarks. “It wasn’t a problem for Tatianna or me because we are classically trained. But some of The Sound choir members didn’t read music.”
Juan Huey-Ray had a way around that, however. As Joyce says, “though some of his singers might not read music with their eyes, they could read it with their hearts, and they had an incredible ear.” In addition to the sheet music, he sent out audio files for everyone to listen to; then at rehearsals he broke down the music and the parts of each song until everyone had them down. “Juan is a phenomenal director with ears like Dumbo the Elephant,” Joyce says. “Not a note or a squeak gets by him.”
Sixteen-year-old Tatianna is a student at Garfield High, but despite that school’s reputation for its music programs, she has never sung in front of her fellow students. “I don’t want to stand out there,” she says.
So how, then, did she end up singing the first solo of the evening with Kathleen Battle?
“I wasn’t trying to get a solo,” Tatianna says. “I was just singing ‘Glory Glory’, and Ms. Battle was walking back and forth in front of the choir while we sang.” She heard Tatianna’s voice and asked her to sing the verse again for her. She ended up giving her two verses of the song to solo at the performance.
Joyce also auditioned for a solo on “I’ll Never Turn Back No More,” but didn’t get it. “Ms. Battle kept asking me to give her more, give her more—I tried, but whatever she wanted, I wasn’t giving her. So she gave it to someone in the Chamber Singers.”
Joyce saw this as an example of Ms. Battle’s perfectionism—she would settle for nothing less than what she wanted. Joyce was disappointed but she also admired the singer’s dedication to her vision, her craft, and providing the audience with the most perfect expression of both.
And in the end, Joyce earned a solo of a different sort: she became one of three choir members who read the words of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionist writers between the songs. “It was such an honor to speak on behalf of those who went before us,” Joyce says. “Reading those words, they took on a life of their own, bringing back new life and new meaning—not about what was then, but about what is now.”
Looking back on the experience, both Joyce and Tatianna recognize what a huge impact it had on them. “At first I didn’t really think it was a big deal,” Tatianna says. “But I realize now it was an opportunity to let me show the gift God has given me. My grandmother would have been so proud.”
Joyce adds, “As a singer, I am thankful we had this opportunity—it’s the kind of thing that, if it comes at all, it only comes once.”
She was especially impressed by how seriously Ms. Battle takes her craft; it inspired her to think more seriously about her own as she continues her mother’s legacy with Les Chanticleers.
“I loved every minute of it,” Joyce says. “I wish we could do it again—and could we bring Jessye Norman next time?”