It's opera that has made Kathleen Battle famous.

But it is spirituals that feed her soul.

Battle will be in Tucson Friday with her "Underground Railroad" recital at Centennial Hall.

The program is chock-full of the songs that the slaves in America sang to express their sorrow, despair, loss, hope and, sometimes, jubilation.

"My operatic roles don't cover such a wide range of emotion," Battle said in a phone interview last week.

"Opera can be technically challenging, but a lot of times, when people are singing opera they let the demands of the technicalities totally engulf them. But we must always pay attention to the emotion."

You can't ignore them in these spirituals.

Battle generally opens the Underground Railroad recitals with "Lord How Come Me Here."

"Lord, how come me here?/ I wish I never was born / There ain't no freedom here, Lord ... / I wish I never was born."

"It's the depth of despair, a wrenching spiritual and is one of the hardest for me to sing," said Battle.

"It's a mother talking about a child that was wrenched from her."

Battle started performing the Underground Railroad recitals about two years ago. She quotes the abolitionist Frederick Douglass - whose readings are interspersed throughout the performance - as an inspiration for the spirituals:

"I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do," Douglass wrote in his autobiography.

"It wraps up the reason we are doing this program," said Battle.

"The spirituals are that important."

If you go

• What: "Underground Railroad: An Evening with Kathleen Battle"

• Presented by: UApresents.

• When: 8 p.m. Friday.

• Where: Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd. on the University of Arizona campus.

• Cost: $45-$100.

• Reservations/informa- tion: or 621-3341.

• Et cetera: The Tucson chapter of The Gospel Music Workshop of America will perform with Battle. "For sure they will be involved in about four numbers, but that could change," said Battle about the workshop's participation. "It's a great age range (from high school to mid-60s); to me that's very very exciting."

Accompanying Battle will be jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut. "He is incredibly gifted," said Battle. "He has the technique and the tone. He's the most fantastic person in his art."

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at or 573-4128.