On May 13, the National Endowment for the Arts announced the four recipients of its first-ever NEA Opera Honors: soprano Leontyne Price; composer Carlisle Floyd; opera administrator Richard Gaddes; and maestro James Levine. The four will receive the awards and be celebrated in Washington, D.C., on October 31 at a special awards ceremony and concert, with performances by Washington National Opera and members of that company’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program. The recipient names revealed no shockers—Price, Floyd, Gaddes, and Levine have reached the very top of their professions and have each had a huge impact on opera in this country.
I sat in at the May 13 press conference announcing the awards at Lincoln Center’s New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and I am as thrilled as any opera-lover about these awards (more on which in a moment), but … can we talk? Why, at so many press conferences about classical music, is not one note of music played? This is the rule for most such classical-music announcements, yet when a press conference breaks that tradition and includes any performance at all—such as at Carnegie Hall’s recent 2008-09 announcement, where Jessye Norman sang, and at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 2008-09 announcement, where middle school jazz students from New York City public schools played, along with Winton Marsalis and other musical guests—it is a revelation. Even a recording of Leontyne Price singing one aria, or a short clip from one of Floyd’s operas, would have sufficed.
Anyway, back to the awards, which were announced by NEA chairman Dana Gioia, OPERA America president and CEO Marc A. Scorca, NEA music and opera director Wayne Brown, and—the only star power in the room at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center’s New York Public Library for the Performing Arts—tenor and Washington National Opera general director Plácido Domingo.
There are several reasons these awards make me feel optimistic about opera’s future. For one thing, according to Gioia, they represent the NEA’s first awards in 25 years celebrating lifetime achievement, and the awards are not posthumous: the recipients are alive. As Gioia explained, the awards come right on the heels of the NEA’s largest budget increase in 28 years, which was signed into law in December 2007. Gioia spoke about the “value of this great civic art form”—the emphasis on “civic” an apparent reference to the agency’s leading role in making art once again a greater part of our culture. No, such awards won’t suddenly make opera a weekly or even monthly activity on most people’s radio-listening or TV-watching schedules, but as someone who lived through the 1980s and 1990s and the increasingly hostile climate toward publicly funded art at that time, I am most happy to hear about a new award for arts achievement, celebrated at the national level. Symbols are important, too.
By the way, the recipients are chosen by votes from the public. Here’s where you can go to nominate future candidates for this national opera award.
Photos: (top) photo of James Levine by Koichi Miura (bottom) photo of Carlisle Floyd by Jim Caldwell