The pre-recorded 16th Annual OPERA NEWS Awards Gala streamed on Sunday, April 18, 2021, and the Met Opera Guild and OPERA NEWS deserve kudos for the online event, but let’s face reality, after a year of virtual everything, it’s all wearing thin—especially given that many of us are suffering serious Zoom fatigue. Do we want to plop down in front of our computer screens for another streamed event?
So much of what happens these festivities is communal. It’s old friends meeting up after several years, it’s wine and laughter, conversations over salad plates, gowns, tuxedos, and jokes at the podium. No matter how well choreographed for the virtual environment, a ceremony honoring the exceptional achievements by artists deserves something better, but holding the annual awards in a ballroom at The Plaza Hotel isn’t workable in the COVID world, so instead of canceling the event, as in 2020, the Guild made the best of the situation. I applaud all involved, from the artists who took part, either as the entertainment or as presenters. I certainly don’t want to bang on the Guild for striving to find a way for the show to go on during circumstances that are completely out of their control, it’s simply an oversaturation of the virtual. In the end, the Guild didn’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, and I don’t want that to get lost in our weariness of web-based events.
All that aside, the evening was about lauding the accomplishments of three remarkable artists: tenor Lawrence Brownlee; mezzo-soprano, Salzburg Festival artistic director and director-designate of the Opéra de Monte Carlo, Cecilia Bartoli; and the great mezzo-soprano, Dame Janet Baker.
Before feting the three honorees, F. Paul Driscoll, Editor-in-Chief of OPERA NEWS, spoke with last year’s winners, tenor Javier Camarena; soprano Diana Damrau, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo; baritone Sir Thomas Allen; and soprano Anna María Martínez. In a highly edited interview with all five, the segment highlighted two questions posed by Driscoll: Is there any one performance over the course of their careers they believed was the most important, and what advice would they give to their 20-year-old selves? Not bad questions, but I wonder what else was asked?
I thought the 2020 recipients should have been given a few minutes more time in the limelight, but the Guild, perhaps aware that attention spans would wane, and with a desire to move on to the 2021 honorees, kept it short.
Community and the Importance of the Arts
Stephanie Blythe, the 2007 award-winner, opened the awards by speaking about community. She related how she ends all of her concerts with Irving Berlin’s “Always” as a singalong. One year, as the entertainment at the awards ceremony, Blythe ended with the singalong.
“At the end of the evening,” said Blythe, “this gentleman walked up to me and said, ‘Ms. Blythe, thank you so much for your beautiful songs tonight, but I have to tell you, my favorite part of the evening was that I got to sing with James Morris.’”
You just don’t get that type of interaction in a virtual environment, and that was Blythe’s point. Opera’s artists and audiences are a community, and community is something that both have sorely missed.
Famed baritone Thomas Hampson tackled the second theme, speaking passionately about breaking down the stereotypes associated with the art form. He addressed head-on one of opera’s most persistent pieces of baggage—that opera is elitist and the arts simply a nice-to-have, saying, “Nothing makes me crazier than to hear someone call the arts elitist anymore than someone calling them a hobby. To me, they are the evidence of who we are and they function as a diary.”
Hampson’s comments were undoubtedly aimed at the way artists have been marginalized during the pandemic as somehow non-essential and not in need of direct assistance. Is baseball essential? To some perhaps, but Hampson made clear that more than anything else, that the arts are a “blueprint of who we are as a society.” To neglect them, or see them as a mere luxury intended for the well-heeled, is detrimental to society as a whole.
Following Hampson’s comments, baritone Luca Pisaroni delivered a nuanced and touching “This was nearly mine,” from the musical “South Pacific.” Shortly thereafter, Erin Morley gave a moving performance of “We’ll gather lilacs in the spring” from Ivor Novello’s musical “Perchance to Dream.” Morley never fails to impress as her own accompanist and her voice shone pure, ending the piece with light, goosebump-raising pianissimo high C.
Included in the preliminaries were brief retrospectives of past OPERA NEWS Awards that only heightened the sense of strangeness of conducting an awards gala online. I did take issue with a brief shot of James Levine at a previous year’s ceremony. The maestro was without a doubt a genius musician who brought out the best of the MET Orchestra, but the company needs to step away from the lionization of the conductor. Fleeting though it was, I found the inclusion unnecessary and personally cringeworthy.
After all the above, the presenters introduced the 2021 honorees, starting with Renée Fleming introducing Lawrence Brownlee. She spoke of the warm rich timbre of his voice and her good-natured jealousy of the tenor’s heart-stopping high notes and bel canto prowess. Fleming went on to related how she and Brownlee got to know one another during a run of “Armida.” For their second act entrance, the two descended from the fly space. Waiting for their cue, the two talked shop, life, and bonded high above the stage. Fleming praised Brownlee for taking the arts in a new direction, for his teaching style, which is guided by kindness, and his thought leadership as a champion of equality within the art form, addressing racial justice issues, and meeting with administrators to help opera evolve.
Two clips of Brownlee in action featured his turn as Count Almaviva in Rossini’s “Il barbiere di Siviglia,” showcasing Almaviva’s final aria, the showcase piece, “Cessna di più resistere,” which demonstrated the tenor’s command over the bel canto repertoire. The second clip was of Brownlee singing “All Night, All Day,” a traditional song from “Lawrence Brownlee and Friends: The Next Chapter” produced by Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Brownlee thanked Fleming for her friendship on and off stage, spoke of the honor of being recognized among two giants of the opera world, Baker and Bartoli, and finished by stating that he believes his best work lay in front of him as he strives to be the finest artist he can be.
Ramón Vargas presented Bartoli with her award, describing Bartoli’s voice as fountain-like with the sound rising pure and crystalline from within. Vargas initially met Bartoli during a run of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola,” which coincided with Vargas’ debut as Prince Ramiro. He praised her energy and the ease with which she connects with others. Vargas related that Bartoli was always the first to arrive at rehearsals and the last to leave, describing her as a hard worker and her work ethic led to her outstanding success as a performer. Vargas went on to say Bartoli’s contributions, particularly related to her commitment to recording and promoting Baroque vocal music has been invaluable to the art form.
Bartoli’s highlight reel included a scene from “Le comte Ory” in which she shows off her comic skills as the innocent Countess Adèle as she fights off Ory’s advances (“En proie à la tristesse,”) and the coloratura fireworks from the final rondo from “La Cenerentola,” “Non più mesta.”
In her acceptance speech, Bartoli stated she wished to share the award with all who had sustained and supported her 35-year career. She also thanked her team in Salzburg and at the Opéra de Monte Carlo.
Beloved mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato introduced the last honoree, Dame Janet Baker, calling it the honor of her life to present the award to such a distinguished singer. She characterized Baker using words such as integrity, dedication, purity, sacrifice, and impeccability. She noted Baker’s strict dedication to the composers and poets whose work she performed and stated that Baker set the bar incredibly high, the height of which today’s singers strive to reach.
Baker’s stage highlight was just one piece from a historical broadcast of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.” The devastating final aria, “When I am laid in earth,” as sung by Baker, is a stunning piece of artistry that encapsulated not just her magnificent voice, but her incredible skills as an actor.
Baker’s acceptance speech was full of beautiful nuggets describing her relationship with audiences in the United States. And just as the gala finished with her words, so will I.
“We’ve all been living through difficult times. As we emerge from them, music will begin to take up its familiar role once again to heal the world and lead us into the light.”