NEA Arts Magazine


The Inaugural NEA Opera Honors Celebrate Four Music Greats


Dana Gioia, Leontyne Price, Carlisle Floyd, and Richard Gaddes

Chairman Gioia and the first class of NEA Opera Honorees -- Leontyne Price, Carlisle Floyd, and Richard Gaddes (James Levine not pictured). Photo by Russell Hirshon

On the evening of October 31, 2008, four stars in the opera world were feted as the inaugural recipients of the newest national lifetime achievement award in the arts -- the NEA Opera Honors. The first new lifetime honor to be created by the federal government in 26 years, the NEA Opera Honors celebrate America's unique and significant contributions to the art form. Each year, the NEA will honor master opera artists who have made extraordinary contributions to the field in the United States. Like all of the NEA lifetime achievement awards, recipients are nominated by the public, chosen by an NEA-convened panel of experts, and receive a one-time grant award of $25,000.

"Our federal government has always been shy about official recognition and celebration of its living artists," said Chairman Gioia. "These new awards, consequently, are not only important to the field of opera; they also have a broader significance in recognizing the essential importance of all the arts in a free society."

The 2008 NEA Opera Honors recognized Carlisle Floyd, Richard Gaddes, James Levine, and Leontyne Price. Carlisle Floyd, composer of such celebrated operas as Susannah and Of Mice and Men, is renowned for work that is distinctly rooted in America in both subject and style. A respected advocate for opera, Richard Gaddes played an integral part in raising the profile of the Opera Teatre of St. Louis and the Santa Fe Opera, where he recently retired as general director. Conductor James Levine helped to forge the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra into one of the greatest orchestras in the world, leading premieres of works by composers ranging from Mozart to Weill, as well as the world premieres of American operas by John Corigliano and John Harbison. The final honoree, celebrated singer Leontyne Price, is known for her elegant musical style, great recording legacy, and generosity to young artists. Known as a Verdi and Puccini specialist, Price also embraced American composers such as Samuel Barber.

"These four people have helped to make opera a special part of our lives, and we will continue to look up to them as we strive toward a glorious future," noted Plácido Domingo, general director of the Washington National Opera, which partnered with the NEA to present the 2008 NEA Opera Honors.

The awards ceremony and concert honoring Floyd, Gaddes, Levine, and Price was held at Washington, DC's Sidney Harman Hall at the Harman Center for the Arts. (Levine was unable to attend.) More than 750 opera lovers attended the festivities, including U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (Vermont) and opera stars Sherrill Milnes, Kathleen Battle, and Mary Costa, a former member of the National Council on the Arts. Hosted by Chairman Gioia and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, the evening also featured remarks by Domingo and by Marc A. Scorca, president/CEO of OPERA America, the NEA's partner in producing the 2008 NEA Opera Honors.

Each of the honorees was saluted in an individual video documentary that featured interviews with them, their peers, and their admirers. The films revealed personal insights ranging from the comedic to the poignant. Soprano Phyllis Curtin recalled that when Floyd asked if he could show Susanna to her, she replied, "Please do because you'll have to help. I have been singing so much new music all summer I have no discretion left." In another clip Price movingly described the joy singing brings her, "The youngest you can ever be is when you sing and enjoy. It is something so exhilarating it's difficult to try to explain it. But I still have it, so I'm grateful for that."

A central theme of the evening's entertainment was the honorees' support of rising talent. In the documentary salute to Gaddes, Charles MacKay, general director of the Opera Teatre of St. Louis, said, "The success of St. Louis under Richard's guidance helped to foster the kind of environment where young American singers could stay in America and develop careers." In the Price film, Renée Fleming described meeting Price for the first time: "She invited me to her home and after about five minutes I realized that what she was saying was so important and I didn't want to forget anything, so I said, 'Miss Price, could I please take notes?' And seven pages later . . ."

Levine was also praised for his ability to work with artists, and in particular, singers. Susan Graham said, "He understands our mechanics, he understands our breath, and he understands our minds." Like his NEA Opera Honors peers, Levine was also lauded for being at the top of his field. Playwright Terrence McNally said, "It's not going to be a great night at the opera if you don't have the right maestro in the pit. And Levine is always the right maestro and you wish he could conduct everything."

Continuing the theme of mentorship, the evening featured performances by members and alumni of Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, accompanied by the Washington National Opera Orchestra. Domingo remarked, "This allows us to pay tribute to living legends of American opera while we look toward the future through a new generation."

The NEA Opera Honors are a vibrant testament that opera has become a vital part of the nation's culture. Perhaps Price, who retired from the opera stage in 1985, demonstrated the distinctly American approach to opera best, giving an impromptu performance of "America the Beautiful" that brought the audience to its feet and closed an evening that will surely be remembered as an important milestone in the celebration of opera in the United States.