NEA Opera Honors: Recognizing American Opera's Brightest Lights
Opera America Magazine •
With the exceptions of chant and unaccompanied solo song, opera is probably classical music's oldest continuous genre. Invented just before 1600, it predates the symphony and string quartet, as well as the multi-movement concerto, all of them 18th-century developments. Therefore, it is no small matter that America, which as a nation came relatively late to opera, has produced an enormous wealth of operatic talent. OPERA America counts 114 professional companies in 43 states in its membership. Over half of these companies were established after 1970, and one quarter of the total were established since 1980.
The success of opera within the United States, in any era, can be traced to the talented individuals — from singers to impresarios — who devote their life to the art form. In celebration of these individuals, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), under the leadership of Chairman Dana Gioia, has established a new lifetime achievement award: the NEA Opera Honors. The inaugural recipients of the award — Leontyne Price, Carlisle Floyd, Richard Gaddes and James Levine — will be officially recognized on October 31, 2008 in Washington, D.C.
Although these awards mark the first time the U.S. government has honored individual achievement in opera, our country boasts a rich legacy of opera talent. Not surprisingly, American singers were the first of our artists to claim their place on the international stage. Victorian pioneers like Clara Louise Kellogg and Emma Nevada were succeeded in the earlier 20th century by a growing contingent of unimpeachable American stars: Geraldine Farrar, Rosa Ponselle, Grace Moore and Lawrence Tibbett are but four stellar names in a constellation that continued to expand after World War II.
That post-war era also witnessed the rise of American opera itself as more and more composers struck pay dirt with new works that proved themselves 20th-century classics. In this endeavor they were supported by the increasingly noteworthy efforts of American conductors, stage directors and impresarios, whose ranks grew exponentially through each decade and whose combined artistry not only built an ever-broadening public for opera but also transformed this nation from an imitator of European opera into a distinctive creative and musical influence.
Admittedly, opera in America has been up against the same challenges that face the rest of the fine arts in recent years, obliged to compete for the attention of a public distracted by other attractions for its leisure time. Nevertheless, opera continues to captivate audiences with new works, with new interpretations of standard repertoire and with innovative methods to educate and expand the opera-loving public. Thanks to the apparently limitless energies of gifted, creative participants in what is essentially the most glorious, satisfying — and admittedly maddening — business on earth, the American opera industry is thriving. The inaugural recipients of the NEA Opera Honors display the talent and dedication that have been so important to the continued growth of the field.
Described by Harold C. Schonberg in The New York Times as "the Stradivarius of singers," Leontyne Price has long embraced the music of American composers — she made her 1952 Paris debut in Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts and subsequently toured Vienna, Berlin, London, Paris and other cities as Bess in the Robert Breen production of Porgy and Bess (opposite William Warfield as Porgy and Cab Calloway as Sportin' Life). Of all American composers, however, Price enjoyed a particularly fruitful relationship with Samuel Barber. In 1954, she gave the premiere of his Hermit Songs at New York City's Town Hall, with the composer at the piano, and Barber went on to write many pieces for her, not the least of which was the role of Cleopatra in his opera, Antony and Cleopatra, composed for the opening night of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.
Price's recitals always include songs by American composers and Negro spirituals. Many of her performances have been widely viewed on special telecasts. In 1997, Price's own book, Aida, introduced children to one of opera's greatest heroines. She continues to be a powerful advocate not only for the art she loves, but for human rights.
Carlisle Floyd has been the embodiment of an American classic for over half a century, thanks not just to his ability to compose music of immense dramatic power and memorable lyrical appeal, but also to a sensitive linguistic ear that has enabled him to match his beautifully crafted music to the authentic cadences of regional American speech. Two of his works, Susannah (1955) and Of Mice and Men (1970), are as much a part of the standard repertoire as the operas of Mozart, Verdi and Puccini, while other Floyd operas, among them The Passion of Jonathan Wade (1962; revised, 1990), Bilby's Doll (1976), Willie Stark (1981) and Cold Sassy Tree (2000) are widely performed in the United States and abroad.
Moreover, as a teacher, Floyd has forged a concomitant legacy. In 1976, after teaching at South Florida University since 1947, he was appointed the M. D. Anderson Professor of Music at the University of Houston. In Houston, he and David Gockley established the Houston Grand Opera Studio, which for more than three decades has helped train young artists in the full spectrum of opera.
Richard Gaddes has devoted much of his professional life to nurturing two of the nation's most important regional opera companies: The Santa Fe Opera and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. He joined the former as artistic administrator in 1969 at the invitation of its founder, the late John Crosby. In 1976, he himself founded the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, remaining at the helm until 1985. Meanwhile, he maintained his ties with Santa Fe as a consultant, returning there full-time in 1994 and succeeding Crosby as general director. Throughout his tenure at both companies, Gaddes made a reputation for programming much adventurous repertoire, both old and new, imaginative casting and productions, building audiences and spotting young stars before others did. A former vice president of OPERA America, he has served on many arts boards and is, at present, a member of the board of directors of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. His list of honors includes the National Institute for Music Theatre Award and the Young Audiences' Cultural Achievement Award. For Gaddes, there is a poignant valedictory note to his selection for an NEA Opera Honor, for it comes on the eve of his retirement this September from The Santa Fe Opera.
The orchestra James Levine first conducted upon his arrival at the Metropolitan Opera in 1971 was hardly the sleek, finely-tuned symphonic instrument it is today. Indeed, with all due respect to his superb gifts as an interpreter of a wide repertoire of opera and symphony, one of his greatest achievements as an American conductor has been to transform the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra into one of the finest orchestras in the world. Moreover, in an era characterized by the jet-setting maestro spending relatively brief time in one place, Levine has been a throwback to an earlier age.
During Levine's almost four decades as the company's music director, he and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra have been an admirable fixture in the operatic firmament. He has led Met premieres of works by numerous composers, including Mozart, Verdi, Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Rossini, Berlioz and Weill, as well as the world premieres of two American opera
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