By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; C02
"Here is the future," proclaimed the soprano Martina Arroyo, jubilant, brandishing the hand of the soprano Tamara Wilson. Wilson had just sung "Ernani, involami" from Verdi's "Ernani" in honor of Arroyo, who in the 1960s and '70s was one of the world's leading Verdi sopranos, with a lustrous voice that arced smoothly through the composer's heavy vocal lines.
The occasion was the ceremony celebrating the recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts 2010 Opera Honors, presented Friday night by the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center Opera House. And despite Arroyo's trumpeting the future, the evening conveyed far more the impression of a glorious past.
When the awards were first announced in 2008, I wondered if the money ($25,000 per recipient) couldn't be better spent on promoting active artists than honoring great ones at, or toward the end of, their working careers. Neither the iconic soprano Leontyne Price nor the beloved conductor James Levine, who were among those honored that first year, seemed in particular need of more accolades (both had already received the Kennedy Center Honors).
The next two classes, however, have helped establish the Opera Honors as what then-NEA chair Dana Gioia envisioned when he got them started: a kind of Hall of Fame of American opera, honoring artists who have done signal service to the field.
Arroyo was one of four members of the class of 2010. Another was Eve Queler, who founded a concert opera company that has been a New York fixture for 40 years and presented a lot of you-heard-them-here-first operas, all started in part because there was no other way for a woman in the 1960s to get a conducting gig.
Administrators tend not to have the same name recognition as performers: David DiChiera, another honoree, paved the way for the creation of countless new American operas through initiatives he instituted as head of Opera America, as well as co-founding two significant American opera companies, though sadly one (Opera Pacific) is now defunct, and the other (Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit) is struggling.
Most famous of all was the composer Philip Glass, best known to the general public as a pioneer of so-called Minimalism and the composer of music featured in a few big films, but whose 24 operas make him one of the most active figures in this field.
The honorees were feted at a gala luncheon at the Supreme Court (Elena Kagan joined her opera-loving colleagues Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito for the first time) and then treated to an evening ceremony that was held, for the first time, at the Opera House rather than at Harman Hall, and that in consequence ballooned to Wagnerian proportions.
That there is public interest in American opera was evidenced by the speed with which the free tickets were snapped up; the Opera House seats were all filled within a couple of hours. That the opera is still not quite functional in a contemporary idiom was evidenced by the lack of speed at which the proceedings -- including speeches, films and musical performances devoted to each honoree, the whole thing called to order by Justice Ginsburg with several bangs of her gavel -- unfolded.
Not that there weren't highlights, most notably Dolora Zajick, sounding a little paler than in her prime, but with amazing verve and stamina, singing "O mon Fernand" from Donizetti's "La Favorite," in honor of Queler. (Philippe Auguin, WNO's new music director, gamely conducted the evening.) Marian Pop and Leah Partridge sang the final duet from DiChiera's own opera "Cyrano," written in French, which is getting its next performances at the Florida Grand Opera in April.
There was American opera, too. Sean Panikkar, the tenor who sang Narraboth in WNO's "Salome," presented the concluding aria from Glass's "Satyagraha," consisting of a single repeating musical phrase, endlessly ascending, that sounded perhaps less magical when excerpted rather than coming at the end of the opera, where it serves as a revelation.
Last year John Adams, the honored composer, was too busy to attend, but Glass seemed to appreciate the recognition as much as anyone. In a panel moderated by NPR's Tom Huizenga before the main event, he described himself as "an abandoned baby in front of a house. It turned out to be an opera house." He concluded by thanking "the opera world, that they took me in."
In a good sign for opera's future, Glass has moved from outsider status to a composer celebrated at the Metropolitan Opera, which will revive "Satyagraha" next season. And opera's broad appeal was reflected in moments such as Arroyo's introduction by Paquito D'Rivera, who has been active in virtually every musical field except opera (and who clearly shares Arroyo's own famous sense of humor).
As for the singing: Wilson, who had the tough task of trying to live up to Arroyo's recorded voice, acquitted herself perfectly respectably. Her contribution may not have been as glowing a sign of the future as Arroyo would have liked, but it's what we've got.