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Article Published: 29 Jan 2021

Achievement on Display

The inaugural inductees to the Opera Hall of Fame include a general director who commissioned four dozen new operas, a trustee who has worked with more than 20,000 young artists, and a singer who became the first Black tenor to achieve stardom at the Met. Accomplishments such as these are what inspired the public to nominate nearly 200 candidates for the Opera Hall of Fame, an initiative launched by OPERA America in conjunction with its 50th anniversary. From the pool of nominees, an independent panel chose to induct 10 artists, administrators, and advocates who have exhibited exceptional leadership, advanced the art form, shaped careers, overcome obstacles, and facilitated important projects and progress.

“We created the Opera Hall of Fame to shine a spotlight on some of the leaders who have made indelible contributions to the art form and the field over the past half-century,” notes Marc A. Scorca, OA’s president and CEO. “These figures laid the groundwork for opera to become what it is today in North America, and their ground-breaking work continues to shape the field and an inspire us to keep striving for an exciting future.”

Patricia K. Beggs

“I’ve had a dream job for almost half of my life,” Patricia Beggs said when she announced her plan to retire in 2020 as general director and CEO of Cincinnati Opera. She was already a successful corporate executive when she joined the company in 1984 as marketing director, and her marketing campaigns fueled a turnaround in attendance over the next years. She took over as managing director of the company in 1997 and became president and CEO in 2005.

Under Beggs’ aegis, Cincinnati Opera has launched a number of innovative programs. Its Opera Fusion: New Works initiative — a partnership with the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music — has allowed many leading composers and librettists to develop new works in an ideal workshop environment. Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers, developed by Opera Fusion and premiered by Cincinnati Opera in 2016, has become one of the most-produced American operas in recent seasons. CO Next: Diverse Voices provides showcases for works that emphasize equity, diversity, and inclusion, and last year fostered the premiere of Scott Davenport Richards and David Cote’s Blind Injustice. In 2017–2018, Beggs oversaw the renovation of the Cincinnati Music Hall, her company’s home base.

Beggs has worked to embrace diversity within Cincinnati Opera and to strengthen the company’s ties to the community at large. She has also been a passionate advocate for women in the opera field.

Grace Bumbry

It is ironic that Grace Bumbry, a woman who for so many years has embodied opera, was by her own admission dragged into the art form “kicking and screaming.” In the late 1950s, when she attended the Music Academy of the West to study with Lotte Lehmann, she intended to concentrate on lieder and was outraged that she was expected to study opera as well. Nonetheless, she has said, she caught on fast: “After six months, I thought, ‘I like this. I can really sink my teeth into it.’”

She was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1958, made her Paris Opera debut, as Amneris, in 1960, and in 1961 caused an international sensation when, in a production of Tannhäuser, she became the first singer of color to sing at the Bayreuth Festival, earning the title “the Black Venus.” Offers from the world’s great opera houses followed, and Jacqueline Kennedy invited her to sing at the White House. She debuted at the Met in 1965 and at San Francisco Opera in 1966.

In her early career, she concentrated on mezzo-soprano roles but soon took on the soprano repertoire, as well, moving between fachs. The list of her Met roles alone demonstrates this versatility: Amneris, Bess (in the company premiere of Gershwin’s opera), Carmen, Dalila, Eboli, Gioconda, Leonora in La forza del destino, Lady Macbeth, Orfeo, Salome, Santuzza, Tosca, Venus, and both Azucena and Leonora in Il trovatore.

Since her 1997 retirement from opera, Bumbry has continued to give recitals and also turned to teaching. In 2009, she received a Kennedy Center Honor for her contribution to the performing arts.

Matthew Epstein

Matthew Epstein has devoted his life to opera in a career that has straddled the realms of administration and artist management. During his time at Columbia Artists Management from 1972 to 2010, he worked with Kathleen Battle, Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Evelyn Lear, James Morris, and Frederica von Stade, among many others. He also produced high-profile operatic recordings, concerts, and telecasts.

He was the founding artistic director (1988–1990) of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s opera series. From 1991 to 1994, he served as general director of Welsh National Opera — the first American to lead a British company. He began at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1980, first as artistic consultant and then as artistic advisor. In 1999, he became Lyric’s first artistic director, serving in that capacity until 2005. Meanwhile, Epstein’s association with the Santa Fe Opera dates from 1970 to the present day; he currently holds the title of senior artistic advisor.

In a 2006 interview, Epstein summed up his approach to the field. “Maybe I’m too assertive, and maybe that’s a fault of mine,” he said. “But if we lose our standards, what do we have left?”

Simon Estes

When Simon Estes entered the University of Iowa, the head of the vocal department questioned the logic of a Black man studying for a career in opera. Thankfully, Estes’ extraordinary career demonstrated that this disrespectful question was wildly off the mark. He made his professional debut in 1965, at Deutsche Oper Berlin, and soon after earned a medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition and sang at Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House. Over the next decade, he conquered the leading opera houses of Europe, and in 1978, as an acclaimed Dutchman, became the first Black man to sing at Bayreuth. He made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1982 and went on to sing a number of celebrated performances there, including the title role in the company premiere of Porgy and Bess, Orest in Elektra, Wotan in Die Walküre, and Amonasro in the Aida performances that marked Leontyne Price’s farewell to opera.

In more recent years, Estes has taught at several American universities. He also launched a number of efforts aimed at effecting social change, including “Iowa Students Care,” a Simon Estes Foundation program enlisting students in the cause of eliminating malaria in Africa. He has also worked with other artists to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and promote research for finding a cure.

A work of needlepoint in his home reads: “What we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.”

Gordon Getty

Gordon Getty studied to be a singer, but his work in opera has been not as a performer, but a creator. Along with songs, chamber works, and orchestral and choral works, he has composed operas including Plump Jack, Usher House, The Canterville Ghost, and his new work, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which had been scheduled for a July 2020 premiere at Festival Napa Valley and will reappear at a later date. The 2016 documentary Gordon Getty: There Will Be Music chronicles his life as a composer.

His other significant contribution to the field has been as a philanthropist. The Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, which he founded with his late wife, has provided tremendously generous support over the last several decades to opera companies and symphony orchestras across the country. Getty Foundation support allowed OA to establish its Building Opera Audiences Grants and Innovation Grants. Just this spring, a Getty Foundation grant allowed OA to waive all organization and individual artist membership fees in 2020 — a stunning act of generosity that attests to Getty’s lifelong love of the art form and its practitioners.

David Gockley

No opera administrator has done more to promote new American work than David Gockley. As general director of Houston Grand Opera (1972–2005) and San Francisco Opera (2005–2016), he commissioned no fewer than 45 operas, many of which have endured on the world’s stages. The list includes A Quiet Place, Nixon in China, Florencia en el Amazonas, Little Women, The Little Prince, Harvey Milk, Heart of a Soldier, and four works composed by Carlisle Floyd: Bilby’s Doll, Willie Stark, The Passion of Jonathan Wade, and Cold Sassy Tree. Another one of his enduring contributions was the 1976 HGO production of Porgy and Bess that established Gershwin’s opera as a mainstay of the opera-house repertoire.

In Houston, he founded the Houston Grand Opera Studio, one of the U.S.’ first young artist programs. At San Francisco Opera, he oversaw the creation of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, the company’s state-of-the-art second stage. He brought free live opera to both cities through Houston’s Plazacasts and San Francisco Opera’s broadcasts to Oracle Park. He was chair of OPERA America’s board of directors from 1985 to 1990, but it is probably his promotion of new American opera that constitutes his most notable achievement. “It’s very gratifying to have been in on the ground floor,” he said on the occasion of his retirement from San Francisco Opera. “[We proved] that you could do new work and still be successful with your audiences.”

Camille LaBarre

As chair of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions, Camille LaBarre has worked with over 20,000 young singers, 300 of whom have made it on to the Met stage in the Council’s Grand Finals. She has held the position for 31 years and in 2000 was named a Met managing director. That same year, she founded the company’s Young Associates program, nurturing young attendees to become subscribers, donors, and potential board members. As chair of the Met Patron program, she has overseen presentations that have brought patrons together with the company’s principal artists, orchestral musicians, chorus members, and backstage workers. Through it all, she has shown unflagging support for young artists; in 2011, arranging sponsorship to provide Ryan Speedo Green with a tuxedo for his appearance at the Semi- and Grand Finals. The gesture helped Green to launch his dynamic career and exemplifies the service that LaBarre has given to the field for more than three decades.

George Shirley

George Shirley’s extraordinary talent allowed him to surmount racial barriers throughout his early life. He was the first Black music teacher at the high school level in the Detroit public school system, the first Black member of the U.S. Army Chorus, and the first Black tenor to achieve a star career at the Met.

His singing career brought him to Lyric Opera of Chicago, Michigan Opera Theatre, New York City Opera, Washington National Opera, San Francisco Opera, and the Santa Fe Opera, as well as international companies like London’s Royal Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Glyndebourne, and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. He made his Met debut as a last-minute replacement in Così fan tutte and proceeded to give 250 performances there over the next 12 years, in mainstay roles of the lyric-tenor repertoire.

In 1980, he joined the voice faculty at the University of Maryland, moving to the University of Michigan in 1987. At the latter institution, he is the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice and still maintains a studio on campus. In 2015, he received the National Medal of the Arts, bestowed by President Barack Obama.

“I never planned on a singing career, and I wasn’t pushed into it,” Shirley has said. “I look at my career as a tremendous gift.”

Dawn Upshaw

At the Met in the 1980s and 1990s, Dawn Upshaw set new standards for the roles of Susanna, Ilia, Pamina, Despina, and Zerlina. But she increasingly began to concentrate on contemporary work, appearing in the world premieres of Saariaho’s L’amour de loin, Golijov’s Ainadamar, Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, and John Adams’ oratorio El Niño. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated her allegiance to the song and concert repertoire and has introduced dozens of works to the world. She has also proved herself a sterling interpreter of the Great American Songbook, making recordings of songs by Bernstein, Gershwin, Rodgers, Sondheim, and Weill. Upshaw is the only opera singer to date to receive a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” awarded to her in 2007. In more recent years, she has become a leading educator, establishing the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at Bard College Conservatory of Music in 2006 and serving as its artistic director until 2019.

“I love music and I love singing,” Upshaw said in a 1993 interview. “I don’t think I’ve ever come close to forgetting that.”

Roma Wittcoff

Roma Wittcoff has been a major force behind two American opera companies: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Arizona Opera. She was a founding trustee at OTSL and helped launch the Richard Gaddes Festival Artist Program, giving artists emerging from the company’s Gerdine Young Artist Program a chance to take featured roles in mainstage productions. She has served as a mentor to many artists, including Christine Brewer.

Wittcoff moved to Arizona and channeled her love of the art form toward a new company, Arizona Opera, becoming a board member in 2009. In the mid-2010s, her support helped turn the struggling company’s fortunes around. In 2018, she helped launch the Arizona Opera Endowment at the Arizona Community Foundation. The company has honored her generous support by naming its Roma and Raymond Wittcoff Black Box Theater after Wittcoff and her late husband.