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Upon the wicked stage
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
For sheer, unadulterated pain-in-the-ass diva behavior, few performing artists have ever matched the awesome achievements of American opera singer Kathleen Battle. The Ohio-born, three-time Grammy Award winner was generally considered one of the world's great lyric coloraturas in the late 80's, but her demanding and difficult personality eventually so exasperated her peers that she was virtually blackballed from the opera world in 1994. During the New York Metropolitan Opera's production of "La Fille du Regiment," Battle's increasingly impossible behavior — which included screaming at other cast members, chronic tardiness, and demanding that no one in the company look at her while she was singing — so infuriated general manager Joseph Volpe that he fired the singer a week before the opera was to open.
It was a shocking move from the conservative and dignified Met — for years, most opera companies tolerated a certain degree of diva-ish behavior from their prodigiously talented performers. But apparently Battle had crossed the line, and Volpe not only fired her but he immediately cancelled all contracts with the soprano for the future. When the cast was told of the move before a rehearsal, they spontaneously burst into applause.
Though Battle has continued to perform recitals and concerts, she hasn't been in an opera since the Met fired her. The surprising dismissal caused a ripple in the opera world, and the soprano discovered that her previously-tolerated tantrums were now causing doors to be shut across the globe. Companies that had once prominently featured the singer pulled their contracts, and it was apparent that the collective ill-will that Battle had engendered had finally caught up with her.
By far, my favorite Battle story concerns a limousine ride she famously took while in Southern California for a series of performances. Apparently, during the drive, the air conditioner in the limo was set a little too high, and the singer became discomfited. Instead of telling the driver to turn it down, like everybody else in the world would do, Battle instead called her manager in New York. She told him the situation. The manager then proceeded to call the opera company in L.A. The opera company then called the limousine service. And the limousine service, finally, radioed the driver and told him that the bitch in the back seat needed the air turned down.
Now this is world-class, legendary diva-bitch stuff, far more elegant than the routine hotel-trashings and M&M sortings usually associated with lesser, dumber celebrities. The part of me that's attracted to hyperbole kind of admires the pure audacity of the act — despicable and misanthropic, true, but so manifestly petty that it's hilarious. Of course, it should be noted that if I ever had to meet the hellbag in real life I'm sure I'd be considerably less amused.
It's no secret that if you dabble in the arts you're eventually going to have to deal with divas at some level. Even in small community theaters and amateur choruses, there's invariably one performer who demands special privileges and attention from the director and the rest of the company. Why they are tolerated, I can't tell you, but in general most divas continue to bedevil directors and backstage technicians, year after year, role after role. It would take an apocalyptically explosive tantrum from a local diva to cause permanent ostracization from the local scene.
I used to think that there was a huge distinction between "difficult" artists and outright divas, but now I'm not so sure. After a couple of decades in Fort Wayne theatre I've learned to appreciate the no-trouble actors who show up, do their work, go home. The talented-but-difficult actors inevitably gum things up in some way, and in a shortened, heightened rehearsal period, the energy lost on compensating for their actions often throws a production out of whack. If they're good, you tend to grimace away the additional headaches, but if they're bad. . . oh boy. There's nothing that sucks the soul quite like a talentless pain in the ass dominating the rehearsal environment.
It's convenient to dismiss community theatre performers as small-time hacks with outsized egos and no sense of perspective and yes, I've done that. But it's not the whole story. In addition to the born-this-way divas, there are also a number of committed artists in the city who maintain a professional attitude throughout the entire process, who believe that not giving their all would be morally incorrect. A sin. Sometimes the shows turn out terrible, but there's no denying the effort. It's a curious dichotomy — community theatre is by definition the work of amateurs, yet most local theaters demand professionalism: show up on time, be prepared, be respectful. And if at all possible, don't throw hissy fits.
For the longest time, I thought that I was one of the good ones to work with in local theatre — punctual, energetic, ready to work, optimistic. What I didn't realize (until much later) was that I was also headstrong, passive-aggressive, egotistical. I discovered this through a conversation with an old theatre friend, who rolled his eyes when I started espousing how respectful I always am of the rehearsal process. What? I said, when I caught his eye. He laughed. You're a good actor, Colcord, he said, but you're a pain in the ass. You challenge everything, you don't take direction, and you're always certain that you're right. You're friendly, but you're a headache.
I tried to argue that I was just being committed to the process, that I challenged everything because I wanted the show to turn out well. Conflict is inevitable, I said, but it's for the good of the production, right? My friend was having none of it. Next time, he suggested, just do what the trouble-free actors do: Show up. Shut up. And go home.