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A Nationwide Celebration of Opera
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Opera America Magazine9/1/2009

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The National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors, launched in 2008, honors visionary creators, extraordinary performers and other interpreters who have made extraordinary contributions to opera in the United States and have become cultural treasures of the nation. The 2009 recipients are John Adams, Frank Corsaro, Marilyn Horne, Lotfi Mansouri and Julius Rudel. They will he honored at an awards ceremony on November 14, 2009, in Washington, D.C.

The NEA Opera Honors will be a featured event in the first-ever National Opera Week, which will celebrate the vitality of opera in America as a contemporary cultural expression. The strength and diversity of established opera companies, community opera ensembles and opera training programs across the United States will be shared through a variety of free and accessible activities for opera lovers and newcomers to the art form. The celebration will reach from coast to coast as opera companies offer a range of free programs for the public that demonstrate the allure and accessibility of this most multi-media of the arts. Included within National Opera Week will be other noteworthy events, including the annual Opera News Awards and the annual Richard Tucker Music Foundation gala. From open houses, lecture/demonstrations and community performances to the presentation of the nation’s highest award in the field, National Opera Week will bring the inventiveness and excitement of opera to a national audience.

With intellectual and emotional intensity, John Adams has transformed the operatic landscape. His many works stand out among contemporary classical compositions for their depth of expression, their sonic brilliance and the profoundly humanist nature of their themes. He confronts the conundrums and moral complexities of our time and dares audiences to do the same.

John Adams was born in Worcester, MA, in 1947. By the time he was 13, already an accomplished clarinetist, he was determined to be a composer. After graduating from Harvard, he moved to Northern California and quickly became part of its thriving new music scene. His stage works include Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky (1995), El Niño (2000), Doctor Atomic (2005) and A Flowering Tree (2006). Among his other works are the song cycle The Wound-Dresser (1989), the orchestral pieces Harmonium (1981), Shaker Loops (1983) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning On the Transmigration of Souls (2002).

Adams, who is also a conductor, has been an innovative force within many musical organizations. He instituted the “New and Unusual Music” series at the San Francisco Symphony, where he was composer in residence; served as creative chair for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and music director of the Cabrillo Festival; and, while occupying the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall, established the annual “In Your Ear” festival. In the coming seasons he will serve as creative chair for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Adams made his literary debut last year with Hallelujah Junction, a volume of memoirs and commentary on American musical life.

Over the course of more than 50 years, Frank Corsaro has brought his keen director’s eye to countless opera productions, always displaying a rare understanding for the balance of words and music.

Corsaro, who was born in New York City in 1924, began his career as an actor but turned to directing because it better served his imagination. He became involved with the Actors Studio (which he went on to direct), and in 1955, he directed Mike Grazzo’s powerful drama of a war veteran’s heroin addition, A Hatful of Rain, which ran for almost a year on Broadway. Julius Rudel invited Corsaro to direct Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah at New York City Opera in 1958. Though the production was a huge success, it was some time before Corsaro returned to opera, in the interim directing, among other things, the Broadway premiere of Tennessee Williams’s play The Night of the Iguana. But return he did, and he has had a long, rich association with City Opera, as well as with Carlisle Floyd, with whom he has worked at many companies. At City Opera, Corsaro’s legendary productions include those of traditional fare such as La traviata, Faust and Madama Butterfly, as well as those of new or lesser-known works, including Lee Hoiby’s Summer and Smoke and Borodin’s Prince Igor.

In a rich cross-fertilization, Corsaro moves easily between theater and opera throughout the world. In addition, he has enriched opera in another way — writing libretti for such works as Heloise and Abelard by Stephen Paulus, and Thomas Pasatieri’s Frau Margot. Marilyn Horne’s voice seems to start at the center of the earth and end in the ether. Combining power and flexibility, Horne set a new standard and expanded the repertoire for generations of mezzos to come.

Born in Bradford, PA, in 1934, Marilyn Horne sang almost as soon as she cut baby teeth. At 20, she made an enduring if invisible impression by dubbing Dorothy Dandridge’s singing voice in the movie Carmen Jones. In 1956, under the guidance of Robert Craft and Igor Stravinsky, she appeared at the Venice Festival, and soon after joined Germany’s Gelsenkirchen Municipal Opera. She returned home in 1960, and made her San Francisco Opera debut as Marie in Wozzeck; a year later she made her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut as Lora in the world premiere of Vittorio Giannini’s The Harvest. Despite those successful 20th-century ventures, she quickly established herself worldwide as a brilliant bel canto interpreter, particularly in operas by Handel and Rossini, many of which she rescued from near obscurity. Equally celebrated and revered for her concert and recital singing, Horne has graced virtually all of the great opera and concert stages of the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and Carnegie Hall.

The winner of innumerable awards, including the National Medal of the Arts (1992) and the Kennedy Center Honors (1995), she has a second, equally important career as a teacher and guardian of the vocal recital. Through the Marilyn Horne Foundation, which she founded in 1994, young singers receive important training in the art of recital, as well as opportunities to perform. He led, brilliantly, two of the most important opera companies in North America, and has directed productions throughout the world. But with one small act, with just one word, Lotfi Mansouri forever changed how audiences experienced the art form: supertitles.

He left Teheran, Iran, where he was born in 1929, to study medicine in Los Angeles, but music won out. From 1960 to 1966, he was resident stage director of the Zürich Opera. For the next decade, he served as head stage director at the Geneva Opera, while also directing productions in Europe and the United States. In 1976, Mansouri became general director of the Canadian Opera Company. He introduced Canadian audiences to many works, including Lulu and Death in Venice, and in 1983, revolutionized opera by ushering in supertitles at a performance of Elektra. He moved on to the San Francisco Opera in 1988, where he was general director until 2001. Under Mansouri’s leadership, the company established the Pacific Visions program to commission new works and to perform little-known ones. The project led to some of the most compelling operas of our time, including Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons, André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking.

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