The next artist in our Presenting Series is one of the most well-known opera singers performing today: Kathleen Battle. She brings her widely acclaimed program, Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey, to the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on Friday, November 15.
In this unique performance, a choir of singers will help bring her planned program to life. Conducting them will be Emorja Roberson, a Doctorate student in Musical Arts in Notre Dame’s Sacred Music program. I was lucky enough to sit down with Emorja and ask him a few questions about his upcoming performance alongside an international star.
How does it feel, as a black musician, to be working on a performance on the Underground Railroad with five-time Grammy Award-winner Kathleen Battle?
There’s so much to unpack. Sean Martin presented the idea to me about two years ago; we were supposed to do it last year and moved it to this year. At first I thought, “OK, cool, Kathleen Battle’s coming,” because I’ve been seeing she’s been doing it around the country. As time gets closer, I become more nervous, and the calm air that I had before is a little rattled––not in a bad way, it’s a good way––because I have to remind myself that we have to do so much when it comes to performances and that this isn’t a normal kind of performance, it’s special.
I’m conducting a choir for one of the most famous African-American singers in opera. So yeah, I’m excited. It’s definitely necessary, especially in this area. And it’s also interesting because South Bend has a small connection to the Underground Railroad––there’s a house near here that supported the movement. So yeah, I’m excited.
Kathleen Battle, who is so prominent, and Jessye Norman, who just passed away, they’re historical for us. Because at the time that they were flourishing, doing what they were doing, it was just unheard of.
The program includes readings from Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and other great civil rights activists. What does it mean to you to be speaking with these voices and bringing them to today?
It means a lot! This really ties into my dissertation. I’m going to be doing some stuff regarding African-American leadership especially around the Civil Rights era and even before then––how this all plays into music, how their words influenced music, and vice versa. It’s going to be good.
Hopefully this will help to continue what Notre Dame should be doing, not just for special events. Just like how we have other parts of history from the Western tradition embedded into our educational system, this should be a part of it as well, too. Not just in February, not just whenever we have black artists come, but we all need to know this just like the next person.
It sounds like you’re trying to explore an unused voice in music, especially sacred music and opera, traditionally European genres with your dissertation and this performance.
In a sense, yeah. I will be having some components on how classical [music] has influenced some African-American artists as well, because, quite frankly, the African-American population is still dominated by whites within the opera sector. And that’s just the way of the world.
But at the same time, Kathleen Battle, who is so prominent, and Jessye Norman, who just passed away, they’re historical for us. Because at the time that they were flourishing, doing what they were doing, it was just unheard of. So, to have someone who broke the mold come to our school––for me to actually meet her––that means a lot because not everybody has that opportunity, to not only see her but to work with her.
You’ve mentioned connections with Notre Dame and South Bend. How do you think the performance is different for this place, within the Notre Dame culture?
Since I’ve been at Notre Dame, I haven’t really seen too many things that relate to sacred music and how that is used on our campus. I know we’ve had other artists come in, like Preservation Hall Jazz, which is good … but to have someone of this caliber come and do a special program with us, that means a lot.
We’re a sacred institution, a Catholic institution. So if we’re going to try to be ecumenical then we need to include the African-American experience, the African-American song, all of these things, and how these songs play into the African-American struggle, how they benefit each other in their own sense. But it’s important that Notre Dame keeps that history alive.
Do you see this music as a kind of spiritual or religious experience?
Oh yeah, definitely a spiritual experience. And even just spirituals, period. The backstory of the spirituals, of course, is that there was a coded message that our slave owners would hear, yet for the African-Americans, we would hear something different. It was a message. So these messages now can be used, maybe for some, as an inspiration, whereas then it was used as a message to escape to freedom.
Emorja Roberson conducting for the Unsung: The Exploration of the Sounds of Black Folk performance at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center in February 2019.
What’s your attitude going into working with an artist with such a big name and, famously, a big personality?
My attitude going towards it is, “Emorja, be on your A-game.” We have some things that we’re going to do before she gets here to make sure that we’re as put together as possible to make sure that when she comes in, there might be less work for her to do. But, of course, she’ll have some ideas that can make us even better.
My idea is to just have fun and enjoy the moment because it’s going to be very intense––because she’s a superstar. It’s going to be intense but it’s going to be very good, not just for me but for all the people getting to experience this because it’s going to be a once in a lifetime chance for some people.
Is there anything else about your performance, or your dissertation that ties into it, that you’d like to talk about?
As of right now, I’ll be including things like the spiritual gospel. How these songs play a part in the African-American tradition and have become popularized in white tradition. For example, gospel is being sung in Brazil and Germany and they do a great job with it. Sometimes I wonder if people who do this––borrowing from African-American culture––know the history of how gospel became prominent and evident. Because it all started with spiritual and work songs. But, I’ll find a way to make this work––this will definitely be a part of my dissertation and a part of the history of my life.
And with a performance that is so tied into history, with historical voices …
It’s definitely necessary.
Thank you very much for sitting down to talk to me. It should be a great performance and I’m really excited for it.
I am too, I am too. We’ve got some stuff together for the first rehearsal, so it’s going to be good. Definitely.
Many thanks to Emorja for taking the time to talk with me about his upcoming performance with Kathleen Battle. Don’t forget to get your tickets for Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey on Friday, November 15, at 8 p.m. at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.
Kathleen Battle, soprano
One of the most legendary operatic sopranos of the past century, five-time Grammy Award winner Kathleen Battle performs her critically acclaimed pageant Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey with Joel Martin on piano and accompanied by a choir conducted by Emorja Roberson. The program chronicles the courageous quest for freedom via the secret network traveled by America’s slaves and features Ms. Battle’s impressive vocal range and tone in spirituals, gospel, and traditional song.
Friday, November 15, 2019 at 8 p.m.