KATHLEEN BATTLE HAS ALWAYS STOOD apart from the rest of the opera world. At 5'3", the diminutive, sleek beauty possesses a pearly-smooth voice and girlish charm that belies the myth of the Brünnhilde-like diva. Her portrayal of unsullied young maidens once earned her the title America's Sweetheart Soprano—and up to $40,000 a performance. But as her career peaked, so did her reputation as a maddening prima donna. She commandeered a costar's dressing room and abruptly canceled appearances at the last minute. At the San Francisco Opera last fall, Battle, 44, insisted management communicate with her only through her manager in New York City.

Last week the opera world struck back when New York's Metropolitan Opera dismissed the singer from its spring production of Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment for what Met general manager Joseph Volpe called her "unprofessional actions." Among other things, Battle had reportedly missed numerous rehearsals, ordered other singers to leave while she rehearsed, and insisted that her entrances and exits be close to her dressing room. In response to her firing, the singer issued a statement saying she was perplexed and claiming, "We were working out all the artistic problems."

Battle's firing puts a crimp in a spectacular career. The singer is the youngest of a Portsmouth, Ohio, steel-worker's seven children. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Battle made her operatic debut in 1972, and in 1985 TIME proclaimed her the "best coloratura soprano in the world." In recent years, she has recorded with Itzhak Perlman, Wynton Marsalis and Janet Jackson.

The Met's action, said Volpe, "canceled all offers...for the future." Some believe that other houses will now dump her, forcing Battle, who lives alone in Manhattan, to limit her performances to the recording studio. "This may well mark the end of her career as an opera singer in major houses," says Tim Page, a critic for New York Newsday. "It's really a tragedy. She had it all."