Magic Moments of Music | Spirituals in Concert – Kathleen Battle and Jessye NormanA film by Dag Freyer, ZDF/arte and C Major Entertainment 2021, 43 min.
When the singers Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle step on to the Carnegie Hall stage on March 18, 1990, an aura of history pervades America’s most renowned concert hall. On this occasion, the two sopranos – considered among the world’s very best – will go on to create a monument to the Afro-American musical tradition and make a powerful musical statement in an era of conservative rollback in the United States.
An incredible atmosphere of expectation pervades the evening of the concert in March 1990. The tension crackles in all corners of the venue: the big question is whether these two competing divas will manage to sing with and not against one another. Although the spirituals are well established as a concert repertoire, letting loose the full force of classically trained voices on these intimate and simple melodies is considered a risk. Can the spirit of the music, which was created in order to give strength, courage and consolation to people in oppression, be honoured and preserved by these virtuosic voices? Not least because they are singing for an audience poised on outrageously expensive opera seats.
In the end, the two divas take Carnegie Hall by storm, and critics and audiences duly pay tribute: it is a musical festival of charisma, virtuosity, vibrancy. A true show. Jessye Norman dominates the stage with her authentic timbre and a colourful African costume, while coloratura soprano Kathleen Battle is still able to hit the very finest of high notes. As they tackle a repertoire that in their youth marked the beginnings of their musical careers, a magical unity arises between the two contrasting artists.
Peter Gelb, producer of the concert and now general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, remembers the circumstances in which the unique concert event came about. Queen Esther Marrow, founder of the Harlem Gospel Singers, and Jocelyn B Smith, now a resident of Berlin, reiterate the spiritual and political dimensions of this singular evening.
Listening to the concert today a full three decades of disillusionment later, it is against a backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement that has emerged as a reaction to unceasing police brutality against black people in the US. Having completed their own chapter of the civil rights movement by helping normalise the appearance of non-white singers on the opera stage, these two singers could never have anticipated such a rollback of society.
During the concert, we are treated to gripping duets such as Scandalize my Name as well as classics like Swing low sweet Chariot. In the documentary film, we capture the concert in its musical-historical and political dimensions then and now, and above all try to impart the joy and uniqueness of an authentically Afro-American form of expression and a performance that went on to gain worldwide recognition.