NEA Selects Five Recipients for 2009 Opera Honors

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009

The National Endowment for the Arts has announced the second crop of winners of the new NEA Opera Honors, established last year under then-NEA Chairman Dana Gioia.

The five 2009 honorees are composer John Adams; stage director Frank Corsaro; mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne; stage director and former general manager of the San Francisco Opera Lotfi Mansouri; and conductor Julius Rudel.

The honorees were to be officially announced today, but photographs of them were already posted on the NEA's Web site over the past weekend. The awards -- which include $25,000 grants -- will be officially conferred at a ceremony at the Harman Center for the Arts on Nov. 14.

With this second crop of winners, the awards come a step closer to Gioia's goal to create a kind of American opera Hall of Fame. Certainly the five winners present a broader cross-section of the field -- and of American opera in particular -- than last year's four, among whom Leontyne Price and James Levine are so widely awarded and feted that giving them an another honor seemed business as usual.

Horne could be placed in the same category as Price and Levine. But in addition to her celebrated international career as a singer, she has also remained active by training rising young artists, particularly through the Marilyn Horne Foundation program On Wings of Song, which selects and promotes a new crop of young singers every year in art-song recitals around the country.

The NEA awards also give a tacit nod to the New York City Opera, where Rudel for 22 years led an imaginative range of works, including, famously, an entire spring season devoted to contemporary American operas. It is also where Corsaro, who is also a theater director, did some of his most noted operatic productions (from "La Traviata" with the young Plácido Domingo to "Susannah" by Carlisle Floyd, who was among last year's NEA honorees). It comes as a gentle reminder of City Opera's heyday, and of what the company can perhaps become again. It has been very publicly struggling for the last couple of seasons, since the announcement of Gerard Mortier as general manager, and his subsequent withdrawal, and the attendant shuttering of the house for a season for renovations; the organization is trying to regroup under the leadership of a new general director, George Steel.

Adams, of course, remains at the forefront of American opera composition, particularly in the wake of the recent performances of "Doctor Atomic" at the Metropolitan Opera this season (though "Nixon in China" remains his breakthrough piece, and the one most frequently cited in connection with his name). Mansouri, like Richard Gaddes in last year's awards, may be the name more familiar to insiders than the general public. Although active as a stage director for decades, his primary achievement was his long tenure as general manager of the San Francisco Opera.

The Opera Honors were a pet project of Gioia's. The first such new awards to be mandated in 25 years, they were created by Congress and are therefore not dependent on Gioia's successor -- who has yet to be named -- for their survival. Winners were selected through public nominations and, subsequently, a panel of leaders from various branches of the opera industry.

In a statement, NEA Acting Chairman Patrice Walker Powell hailed the honorees as artists of "international prominence."

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