It’s traditional for African-American classical singers to include spirituals in their recitals and concerts, and renowned opera star Kathleen Battle takes that tradition to the next level in her dramatic presentation “Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey,” coming to the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Accompanied by pianist Cyrus Chestnut and The Philadelphia Heritage Chorale, led by J. Donald Dumpson, Battle’s inspiring program traces the roots of African-American freedom with an evening of hymns and traditional spirituals. Acclaimed harpist Riza Printup will perform select works.
“We’re building momentum and excitement day by day,” Battle, whose signature operatic roles include Susanna (“Le nozze di Figaro,” Mozart), Adina (“L’elisir d’amore,” Donizetti) and Sophie (“Der Rosenkavalier,” R. Strauss), said during a recent interview with the Tribune. “About 15 years ago, Peter Gelb, my good friend at Sony [Music], he now runs the Metropolitan Opera, had an idea for me to do a project of spirituals, and it was just a working title at the time, called ‘Underground Railroad.’ It was based on my work that I had done with Cyrus Chestnut and Grover Washington and Christian McBride, when I did ‘So Many Stars,’ an album at Sony which did include three spirituals.
“Peter had the idea of a collaborative project, different than how Jessye Norman and I did spirituals at Carnegie Hall with James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus, but to do one that was more spare and more pared down to smaller elements. That was the idea when it germinated back then.”
The evening’s program will include “Wade in the Water,” “Give Me Jesus” and “Roll Jordan, Roll,” all performed with Cyrus Chestnut at the piano, as well as the beloved spirituals “Deep River,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down Moses.”
“We’re going to have narrations from the writings of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman interspersed through the concert,” Battle explained. “We’re not doing it in a preachy way, but we call it “Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey,” so the spirituals are definitely the emphasis of the program, and through the spiritual, how the message of freedom is taught and reached.”
Battle is also quite excited about performing with harpist Riza Printup. “She’s married to Marcus Printup, who’s a great jazz trumpeter,” she said. “What she’s doing is quite extraordinary and it’s really beautiful. I’m going to sing ‘Over My Head’ with her.
“There’s also a Philadelphia connection to this in my own training,” said Battle, who last performed at the Kimmel Center during the 2003 Marian Award Gala, when Oprah Winfrey was the recipient. “The great Sylvia Olden Lee, we’re doing some of her arrangements. I first met her when I was an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, and I’ve known her all of my performing life. She’s touched me in so many ways, and not only me. She has touched the lives of so many ... a genius!”
Battle has presented various interpretations of “Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey” across the country, including orchestral versions of it with the Detroit Symphony and Baltimore Philharmonic, and stated, “We’re working on doing a video or film of this project.”
A free pre-show panel discussion about the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia and its “contemporary echoes” will take place at 6:30 p.m. in SEI Innovation Studio with Dr. Richard Newman, director of the Library Company of Philadelphia and author of the “Biography on Bishop Richard Allen” participating. Joining him in conversation is V. Chapman Smith, former regional administrator for the National Archives Mid-Atlantic regions; the Rev. James Forbes of Healing of a Nation Foundation and senior minister emeritus, Riverside Church; Cornelia Swinson, executive director of the Historic Johnson House and the Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church.
As she anticipates a spirited performance in Philadelphia, the elegant, celebrated and supremely talented Kathleen Battle said in conclusion, “It’s an honor and a pleasure to be able to work with the great Cyrus Chestnut. In this program, he brings something quite unique and special. He comes from a Baptist church background. When he was young, he went to Peabody Conservatory and he’s trained in jazz, so he brings a classical, a jazz and a Baptist fusion to all this, and yeah — it’s gonna be church!”
Tickets are available for $30 to $85 and can be purchased by calling (215) 893-1999, online at www.kimmelcenter.org and at the Kimmel Center box office, Broad & Spruce streets.