NEA Launches National Opera Awards

(Robert Mecea - AP)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Think of American art forms, and opera doesn't typically spring to mind. But now the federal government is setting out to change that.

Yesterday the National Endowment for the Arts announced the four winners of the first annual NEA Opera Honors, the first new program of national arts awards since the Jazz Masters awards were established in 1982. The first opera honorees are the great soprano Leontyne Price, conductor James Levine (who has led the Metropolitan Opera for 32 years), composer Carlisle Floyd ("Susannah") and administrator Richard Gaddes, who will retire this year from the Santa Fe Opera. Each will receive $25,000 in a ceremony on Oct. 31 at the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, since the Washington National Opera is the NEA's partner for this first presentation.

"I would say at the moment American opera is really second to none in the world," NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said in a telephone interview before yesterday's announcement. "Opera has become a thriving, growing American art form."

It is difficult to judge the function of a nascent program. "The first year of any award is problematic," Gioia said, "because the credibility of an award derives from the cumulative weight of the list."

At least for the opera world, the awards spell the hope of publicity and media attention. The NEA had no problem securing the participation of leading opera figures to make up its jury, which selected the winners from a list of nominations made by the public. But it is hard to know what exactly is gained by giving some of the most successful and beloved figures in the field yet more distinction, honor and money.

Both Price and Levine have already received the Kennedy Center Honors. No one will begrudge Price any other honor anyone wants to bestow on her, but she retired from opera in 1985. The point appears to be to create a kind of Hall of Fame of opera luminaries. Well and good, but aren't there many leading active artists who might use the money to fund actual current projects?

Gioia calls it a philosophical question about the best way to help American arts. "Is it ground-up, or top-down?" he said. "I think it has to be both. The NEA for years has focused on bottom-up. Most of our grants go toward creating new works, training new directors and singers. What we need to is capture the national imagination."

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