Correction to This Article
This article about the inaugural NEA Opera Awards ceremony misidentified the song performed by Leontyne Price. It was "America the Beautiful," not "God Bless America."

Price Elevates Opera Awards

Carlisle Floyd, left, Leontyne Price and Richard Gaddes received the first NEA Opera Awards. Honoree James Levine was unable to attend the ceremony.
Carlisle Floyd, left, Leontyne Price and Richard Gaddes received the first NEA Opera Awards. Honoree James Levine was unable to attend the ceremony. (By Russell Hirshon)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008

It was billed as opera's Academy Awards, it was hosted in the nation's capital and it gathered, if not the whole flower, at least many of the most lustrous petals of American opera at the Shakespeare Theatre's Harman Center last night. But what everyone who attended the inaugural NEA Opera Awards ceremony -- including Sherrill Milnes and Kathleen Battle -- will remember about the evening is that Leontyne Price sang.

The world of opera is larded with awards from start to finish, from the Tucker Award for young artists to the knighthoods and Legions d'Honneur that are typically sprinkled on the divos and divas of the field. The question of whether opera needs another award, and if so, whether this is it, was certainly raised when Dana Gioia, the outgoing chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, announced the creation of the awards this spring. In a field in which new work is in constant need of support, devoting resources to honoring leading lions seemed almost wasteful. Of last night's four honorees -- James Levine, Carlisle Floyd, Richard Gaddes and Price -- three are no longer extremely active, since Gaddes retired as the head of the Santa Fe Opera at the end of this season. The award winner who is most involved with the field, Levine, was tired after rehearsing for "Damnation de Faust" in New York City and did not attend the ceremony.

Gioia's argument was that a glittering awards show, and the creation of what amounts to an operatic Hall of Fame, would help capture the public imagination and win wider attention for the art form. It does seem fitting for a country to honor its artists, though one could argue that the National Medal of Arts (given to Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne and Price, among other opera singers) already fills some of that function.

Last night's ceremony certainly had much to capture the public imagination -- though not necessarily in the operatic part of the proceedings. Following the model of the Oscars, the evening included long film segments, documentaries about each winner that amounted to a cross section of the history of American opera, crammed with as many American opera luminaries as possible. The old-timers stole the show: The soprano Phyllis Curtin, 86 but still coquettish, recounted saying to Floyd, before he showed her his "Susannah," "I've been singing so much new music I have no discretion left."

There was, however, a slight irony in honoring the leaders of the field with performances by the eager young singers of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, in that the performances were not of prime-time caliber. An exception was the star turn of Sondra Radvanovsky, the soprano who is sharing the role of Lucrezia Borgia with Renée Fleming at the Washington National Opera this month, singing the "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's "Rusalka," a Fleming calling card. If Fleming is liquid silver, Radvanovsky is shining bronze; there's a slightly metallic edge to her voice, which she uses nearly flawlessly.

Overall, however, the towering figures of the past overshadowed the opera world of the present. Floyd, 82, proved a witty raconteur, reminiscing about a production of "Susannah" in Berlin with supertitles in German. "I felt," he said, "it was fair play." And Price, 81, still radiates more star quality than any other singer on the planet. The art form "needs all of you," she said in her documentary segment, and then she came out live and gave her all in "God Bless America," showing she still has a heck of a voice, down to the top notes. After hearing her, anyone would say that she deserves to be honored in any way possible. But those whose imaginations were captured by her might be disappointed by the way American opera looks today without her.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company