By Darlene Donloe
It was a powerful, emotional, and entertaining evening as soprano extraordinaire, Kathleen Battle, through songs and narratives, transported attendees to another time and place during her Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey performance at The Soraya, the Valley’s Center For The Performing Arts at California State University Northridge.
The Los Angeles premiere of her extraordinary program, which Battle, reportedly, only performs in cities along the actual Underground Railroad, pays homage to the tumultuous journey to freedom many took during slavery. The Underground Railroad was the 19th-century network of safe houses that helped African-Americans to escape from slavery.
Draped in a floor-length black gown – accentuated with a long, pink sash, the regal Battle, who was making her debut at the venue, took the stage, accompanied by pianist Joel A. Martin, the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers, interim artistic director Dr. Diane White-Clayton and actress Angela Bassett, who narrated from the works of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.
Battle, who clearly sings from her heart and soul, opened the show with an a capella interpretation of Lord, How Come Me Here?, that set the tone for the evening. It was spine-chilling, gut-wrenching, emotive and memorable.
Before an appreciative crowd that showered her with frequent applause and standing ovations, the affecting five-time Grammy Award-winning soprano commanded a spirit-filled show that focused on a special program of stories and traditional and classic spirituals that included Go Down, Moses, Roll, Jordan, Roll, I’ll Never Turn Back No More, Hush, Wade in the Water, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
The show also included Hold On, Gospel Train, In Bright Mansions, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!, Fix Me, Jesus, I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired, Balm in Gilead, Climbin’ High Mountains and Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Roun’.
“Spirituals have the power to uplift and to heal, and we certainly need that in today’s world,” said Battle. “This is a program, which brings together my musical background and my cultural heritage.”
Framed mid-stage at the piano, the legendary Battle put her exquisite, silky vocals on display, filling the auditorium with drama, sweetness and brilliance.
Battle, who is one of the first Black American women to perform at the world's leading opera houses (La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London and the Metropolitan Opera in New York), knows her way around a song. She wraps herself inside each note, delivering material that stirs the soul.
Making her debut at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center For The Performing Arts, California State University Northridge, affectionately known as The Soraya, Battle was joined on stage by Bassett whose interpretive readings of the works of Douglass, Tubman, and Truth, was masterful, inspiring and a crowd-pleaser.
“...I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.
---Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
Battle’s pianist, Joel A. Martin, nearly stole the show, showing up and showing out with his impeccable and joyous piano playing. It was clear that he was enjoying his role in the night’s proceedings.
Selected members of the LA-based Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers, Ralph Cato, Carolyn Richardson, Erinn Horton, Ralph Pettiford, Jonah Nelson, Marlaina Owens, Evelyn Davis and David Saul Lee, delivered stunning and notable solos.
Going off script, after leaving the stage, Battle returned and gave what can only be described as a “spiritual” a capella rendition of Were You There When They Crucified My Lord. She then stunned the audience by asking if she could quickly rehearse Little David Play On Your Harp with the first and second sopranos because they only had one time to rehearse the song prior to the evening’s show. With her back to the audience and using one hand to find notes on the piano, Battle gently guided the sopranos through their notes until they were ready to perform it before the audience. It was classic, honest and received one of the evening’s most raucous standing ovations.
The evening was capped with Battle, along with the audience, singing a rousing rendition of the Negro National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Kathleen Battle: Underground Railroad – A Spiritual Journey, The Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (The Soraya), 18111 Nordhoff Street, Northridge, CA 91330, ValleyPerformingArtsCenter.org