Correction to This Article
A photo caption accompanying a Nov. 16 Style article about the NEA Opera Honors misspelled the first name of one of the honorees, former San Francisco Opera general manager Lotfi Mansouri.

National Endowment for the Arts presents the 2009 Opera Honors

Talented troupe: The 2009 NEA Opera Honorees, from left, Lotfi Mansouri, Julius Rudel, Frank Corsaro and Marilyn Horne. NEA President Rocco Landesman is to Horne's left, and to his left is honoree John Adams.
Talented troupe: The 2009 NEA Opera Honorees, from left, Lotfi Mansouri, Julius Rudel, Frank Corsaro and Marilyn Horne. NEA President Rocco Landesman is to Horne's left, and to his left is honoree John Adams. (Henry Grossman)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

The announcement last year that the NEA was establishing an annual opera honors seemed a mixed blessing. Was awarding famous artists the best use the federal agency could make of its limited funds? But the second annual NEA Opera Honors, officially bestowed Saturday night in a ceremony at the Harman Center for the Arts, had a particularly feel-good aspect. Among this year's five honorees were artists whose huge contributions to the field have been receding into the past; it was lovely and fitting that a national award should honor their work while they are still around to enjoy the applause.

The composer John Adams doesn't need an award to further cement his status as a leading voice on today's classical music scene. And the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne is so universally beloved, that Saturday's awards were simply more accolades in a long line that includes the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995. Lotfi Mansouri, the dapper former general manager of the San Francisco Opera, might himself prefer to be recognized for his work as an operatic stage director rather than for the achievement that, as he said in a public discussion on Friday, will be on his gravestone: bringing supertitles to opera.

But the awards gave the nation, represented by assembled luminaries of the opera world on Saturday, a chance to honor and thank Frank Corsaro, the stage director who dominated the American opera landscape for several decades, and Julius Rudel, the conductor who shaped the New York City Opera into a bastion of American opera and American talent for more than 20 years. Corsaro, who trained at the Actors Studio before coming into the opera field in 1958 (at Rudel's invitation), showed his stage instincts on Saturday with a delightfully scrappy monologue. And Rudel, frail-looking but present at 88, expressed thanks for "the appreciation of the nation that took me in when my own country threw me out" (Rudel emigrated from Austria in 1938). The audience gave him a standing ovation before he had said a word.

The event was called to order by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, banging a gavel to quell the applause that greeted her appearance, and then provoking laughter with her witty (and knowledgeable) observations about the links between opera and the legal profession, citing all the operas that have courtroom or jail scenes.

Shirley Verrett was to have co-hosted the evening with Brian Stokes Mitchell, but in a time-honored operatic tradition, illness necessitated the deployment of a last-minute substitute: Denyce Graves. She and Mitchell had little more than cameo roles, and neither sang; instead, Angela Brown and Gordon Hawkins, both sounding slightly pale in less-than-ideal acoustical surroundings, sang Amonasro and Aida's Act 3 duet; "My Man's Gone Now" from "Porgy and Bess" (Brown) and the beautiful Samuel Barber song "Sure on This Shining Night" (Hawkins).

Each award was presented by an appropriate big cheese, including the composers Andre Previn (whom Mansouri commissioned to write the opera "A Streetcar Named Desire") and last year's honoree Carlisle Floyd, whom Rudel long championed. The best introduction, however, came through individual short films about each honoree, with interviews from artists they had worked with (Verrett on Horne: "When I first heard Marilyn, I was shocked out of my boots when I looked at her and she was Caucasian") and archival footage and images (including priceless photographs of Corsaro embodying all of the characters in "Don Giovanni"). (The films are posted on the NEA Web site, along with the complete footage of some of the interviews excerpted in them: Rudel's was the least telling, because he has survived many of his collaborators: There was a hole at the heart of it -- where the late Beverly Sills, his leading lady and eventual successor, should have been.

Adams, in his remarks, cited a $2,500 NEA grant he had gotten as a young composer that enabled him to write his first orchestral piece, which in turn led to his commission for "Harmonium," the stunning choral work that put him on the map. It was a reminder that the NEA may do more by enabling artists' work than by honoring that work after they've done it.

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