Dallas — The renown and prestige commanded by legendary soprano Kathleen Battle was in full effect on June 28, as evidenced by the diverse and enthusiastic crowd that flooded the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House for Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey. In fact, included in attendance was former first lady Laura Bush.
For many, Battle’s notoriety may come from a healthy combination of notoriety and infamy, with a dynamic career spanning nearly five decades. However, this program, performed for a nearly packed house, showcased the more endearing qualities of her celebrity. For instance, under her direction, the house lights were left on full throughout the entirety of the performance, creating an intimate and personable setting that complimented the poignancy of the program.
In honor of African-American Music Appreciation Month, “Underground Railroad” features a panoply of spirituals and traditional African-American songs strung together with readings of powerful quotes and passages from abolitionists, civil rights leaders, and other prominent historical figures. Narrated by Dr. Sheron C. Patterson, senior pastor of Hamilton Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, and AT&T’s David S. Huntley, these readings were pulled from the works of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Hayden, and Dr. Charles Blockson.
It is a flexible program, with no two performances being the same. Some renditions have included full orchestral accompaniment. However, last week’s iteration was more of a “recital version,” beset with choral and piano accompaniments. Battle’s collaboration with the South Dallas Concert Choir, under the direction of Alfrelynn Roberts, yielded a thoughtfully textured sound that was ripe with cultural nuance.
Pianist Joel A. Martin, who tours with the production, was both nimble and attentive, effortlessly weaving between melancholic and jubilant numbers, arranged with unexpectedly modern harmonies and jazz-influenced tonalities by composer-arrangers like Robert Sadin and Hale Smith. Other movements were done more traditionally, some completely a cappella, impactful in their simplicity and rawness.
What made the evening’s performance particularly special in its own right was the last-minute addition of dancers Lailah Duke and Xavier Mack of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. With only days before the performance, Ms. Battle decided to enlist the help of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance choreographer Joshua L. Peugh, adding an exciting element to the performance that shifted the material to a higher point of poignancy. The two dancers executed the interpretive choreography exquisitely on numbers like “Over My Head” and “Climbin’ High Mountains,” and their addition to the program definitely worked to distinguish this portrayal of the program as a uniquely catered work of art for the Dallas audience.
The 22-song set also included melodies like “Wade in the Water,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” as well as more obscure works that resonate specifically with Battle’s past, such as “Two Wings,” which featured a closing line added by her father that read, “[S]o the world can’t do me no harm.” Her willingness to share at length the personal connections she has with these numbers made for a riveting night of artistic expression.
The five-time Grammy-winning vocalist displayed an unwavering command of the craft. Her sound has always had a distinct, lissome signature with a liquid tone that is sweet and expressive. In this setting, members of the Winspear audience were able to experience these qualities in what felt like their natural habitat—in a personal and carefully designed set of music that offered a crucial opportunity for cultural reflection and celebration. Perhaps most importantly, though, it was endearing to witness the legend’s sincere and courteous collaboration with all of the other musicians on stage. It is no wonder that the crowd responded to the performance with a rousing standing ovation that carried over two encores, which Ms. Battle provided graciously.