With the newly-revealed award consolidations at the Grammys, classical music (along with jazz) got the short shrift, losing several categories and leaving accolades of commendable albums fewer options for academy recognition.
Equally disheartening was the recent announcement that the NEA Opera Honors, a short-lived endeavor to honor American singers, administrators, composers, conductors and directors, would cease operations after this year. And while Opera News, the magazine published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, is not generally regarded as provocative coverage of the industry (it has earned a reputation as a performing-arts Pravda), it may now provide our best hope for continued recognition of excellence in the operatic field.
Held in the Plaza Hotel and now in its sixth year, the Opera News Awards is the Guild’s biggest annual fundraiser and a chance for members and patrons to rub elbows with the likes of writing and publishing legends Nan and Gay Talese, actors Michael Douglas and Tyne Daly and—of course—the presenters and recipients of the Tiffany-crafted ON award for “distinguished contributions” to the art form. And while other awards often seem to be given for reasons other than merit (see: the continuing outcry against Natalie Portman after winning the Oscar for Black Swan), this year’s Opera News Award recipients have been continually earning their stripes.
Even in the hours leading up to last night’s ceremony, three of the five honorees were doing brisk business at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Dusky German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is currently in town rehearsing for Friday’s opening of Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera and has been getting some extra attention with the Stateside release of his new disc of verismo arias. With praised lavished on him by presenter Barbara Cook (who coyly said of his striking physique “It doesn’t matter what he wears—or doesn’t wear”), Kaufmann seemed taken aback by the resounding applause as he accepted the first award of the evening. Prior to the ceremony taking place, he said to WQXR with a nervous laugh, "The week isn’t over," referring of course to the opening of Robert LePage’s new staging of Walküre.
Kaufmann had performed in New York prior to last spring, but it was almost a year ago to the date that he commanded the attention of Met audiences with his performance of Cavaradossi in Luc Bondy’s reviled production of Tosca—“Astonishing” was how Cook described it. He appeared alongside fellow honorees Bryn Terfel and Patricia Racette, creating a dynamite performance out of what had originally been a damp squib. In accepting her award, Racette joked to her colleagues “Bryn? Jonas? Shall we do Act II of Tosca?” She then turned to Bryn and said of his last-minute replacement in the Met’s same production of Tosca the night before, “You cheated on me!” adding a jokingly blasé “Whatever” after the laughter died down.
More touching, though, was Racette’s serious side. She kept presenter Renata Scotto on stage with her as she explained that, as a college sophomore with no interest in opera, it was Scotto’s recording of Suor Angelica that made her turn from jazz studies to opera. Though Scotto described Racette as the “Madama Butterfly of her generation,” you could see a passion more befitting Tosca take hold of the young soprano as she described her mother’s sudden passing four days prior to her first Mimì at the Met. “I couldn’t get through Act IV in the room in the death scene,” Racette said, ever-so-slightly choking on her words. “The first time I got through it was opening night,” she said, explaining that this was emblematic of her living her life onstage. “Who I am as a person and who I am as an artist are truly inseparable,” she concluded. “I live what I do, I love what I do.” (You almost expected her to break into “Vissi d’Arte.)
Racette was joined by fellow soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in the accolades of the evening. While Dame Kiri has been somewhat absent from the New York scene, save for a turn as the Dutchess of Krakenthorp in last year’s La Fille du Regiment, she has as of late been focusing her time and talents on helping the relief efforts in her native New Zealand, which has been hit by two earthquakes in the last eight months. In a special feature for WQXR with Midge Woolsey, she said of the damage, “It’s so much there in our everyday life and I feel so desperate for it... We’re a one-nation people.” In her acceptance speech last night, however, Dame Kiri turned towards humor, noting that she feared that the Guild had made a mistake in giving her this award, quickly adding: “I hope you haven’t because I’m taking it anyway.”
Muti, Man About New York
Receiving the final award of the evening was, fittingly, legendary conductor Riccardo Muti. Director Francis Ford Coppola, in presenting the award, revealed to the audience that, through his mother’s side of the family he was related somewhat closely to Muti himself. When the budding film director was nearing his late teens, his mother received a letter from her cousin in Naples detailing the talents of a 14-year-old boy in the family. Hoping that the illustrious Coppolas could help (Coppola’s father, after all, was first flute in Toscanini’s orchestra), the cousin may have been the first to sing the praises of Riccardo Muti. “Any kid in short pants who can play the piano is right away a genius,” was Coppola’s father’s reply.
Though beset by health problems, Muti managed to take his Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Carnegie Hall this weekend for three distinct and distinguished concerts. Friday’s opener was no less than Verdi’s Otello that asserted the conductor’s lasting power. When the line “È Salvo” echoed across Stern Auditorium in the opening scene, the glorious notes came in as a sign of the maestro’s own victory in the face of recent setbacks (including a fall in February that fractured bones in his face and jaw). He pulled a taut dramatic string through Verdi’s ravishing account of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and while applause rightly greeted Aleksandrs Antonenko as the titular moor, the true star of the evening was Muti.
Following a video tribute of the master at work, Muti rather sheepishly admitted that he wasn’t a fan of watching conductors on video—particularly himself—because of the facial contortions that are made in the line of duty. Cracking a grin, he said “I think that now after the fall I’m improved a little bit.”
Bryn Terfel - the Next Charlie Sheen?
And yet last night the impossible happened: The dream team of Coppola and Muti was outshined by bass-baritone Bryn Terfel and his presenter, playwright John Guare. A fan of Terfel’s, Guare nevertheless had never met the singer prior to the awards and seemed a little confused at first as to why he was chosen to give out this particular award—Terfel’s first award in America. The playwright then recounted Terfel’s standard story—to the farmhouse born in Wales, married his childhood sweetheart, and even Saturday’s breaking story of his pinch-hit for James Morris in Tosca (Bryn was on an aisle seat during the matinee of Wozzeck and asked during a scene change if he could take over. Affably, he agreed).
“Where is the drama?” Guare then demanded with mock incredulity. “We like agony to accompany a success story.” He then launched into a story of doing some detective work into what he hoped would be a dark side of Terfel. Yet even a call to Stephen Sondheim asking if this one-time Sweeney Todd was "the demon barber of his own private Fleet Street” turned up zilch.
“Focusing on artistry is a very outmoded concept,” Guare said, noting that in the very hotel where this ceremony was taking place, another star recently spent a night. Said night resulted in a trashed hotel room and a police visit that turned up “mountains of drugs.” Continuing on his tirade despite howls of audience laughter, Guare urged Terfel to become his own Charlie Sheen—to enter rehab or anger management, to record a hip-hop album with Lady Gaga, or to go to the Middle East with Angelina Jolie and “adopt sixteen Al Qaeda babies.” Terfel, ever the consummate artist, laughed along with everyone else and took the impromptu roast like a champ, before climbing onstage for his own acceptance speech. The next day, he would be in rehearsal with Kaufmann and Awards host Stephanie Blythe for rehearsals for one of Wagner’s most demanding operas, in a production helmed by one of opera’s most demanding directors. But that was tomorrow.
“The night is young,” Terfel said with a sly curl of his lips.