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Opera America Elects First Hall of Fame Class

November 4, 2020

Sports leagues have them, rock ’n’ roll has one, country music, jazz, blues, Hollywood have them, cowboys have a bunch of them, even burlesque and the international insurance industry have them: Halls of Fame. And now, American opera has one, too, overseen by the nonprofit advocacy and development organization Opera America.

Opera America announced the first class of inductees to the new Opera Hall of Fame last week, while celebrating its own 50th anniversary. The 2020 group includes philanthropist Gordon Getty (also a major donor to San Francisco Classical Voice) whose support of arts organizations has been critical, not only recently during the quarantine that has closed the theaters, but for decades.

Getty, of course, is also a composer of several operas, including Plump Jack. Usher House was performed at San Francisco Opera in 2017. The depth of Getty’s philanthropy has also been a boon to Opera America itself, and Getty Foundation support has allowed OA to establish its Innovation Grants and Building Opera Audiences Grants. Just this spring, a Getty Foundation grant allowed OA to waive all organization and individual artist membership fees for fiscal year 2021.

Another hall of famer with local connections is David Gockley, who ran Houston Grand Opera from 1972 to 2005 and San Francisco Opera from 2005 to 2016. As SFCV detailed in a report on Gockley’s record of commissions of new work, Gockley was responsible for 45 world premieres, and he began that commitment at a time when there were precious few composers out there with a proven ability to attract audiences in a commercial setting. He produced Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, John Adams’s Nixon in China, Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas, Mark Adamo’s Little Women, Meredith Monk’s Atlas, four works by Carlisle Floyd, and obviously many more. He also produced the first full opera house staging of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which has become a repertory staple. And that’s not to mention the hard work he did to keep his companies stable, particularly after the 2008 recession and financial crisis.

Other honorees include pathbreakers

  •  mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry, a star performer at the Metropolitan Opera and worldwide for decades;

  •  bass Simon Estes, the first Black man to sing a major role on the stage of the Bayreuth Festival, and the creator of the Simon Estes Foundation, which has launched a program enlisting students in the cause of eliminating malaria in Africa. He has also worked with other artists to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and promote research for finding a cure.

  •  Tenor George Shirley lived a life of firsts: first Black music teacher in the Detroit school system, first Black tenor to star at the Met and have an international career. He was also a Medal of the Arts winner in 2015, the award bestowed by President Barack Obama.

  •  Soprano Dawn Upshaw, who became, as her career progressed, a leading interpreter of new music, participating in the premieres of Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin, Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, and John Adams’s oratorio El Niño, among many others. The only opera singer to date to receive a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” she established the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at Bard College Conservatory of Music in 2006, serving as its artistic director until 2019.

Also included in the list are Patricia K. Beggs, the general director of Cincinnati Opera; artist manager and artistic director Matthew Epstein; Camille LaBarre, for 31 years chair of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions; and Roma Witcoff, a board member and trustee at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and later at Arizona Opera.

The honorees were selected from a pool of 199 nominations submitted by members and the public at large. Nominations were scored by a panel of field stakeholders representing a diversity of job roles, tenures, and geography.

An induction ceremony for the inaugural class will be held in early 2022 in New York City. An installation will also be created to honor all the members of the Opera Hall of Fame in the Sherrill Milnes Honors Gallery at Opera America’s National Opera Center in Manhattan.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.