Thursday, November 3, 2011

Speight Jenkins' Acceptance Speech at the NEA Opera Honors

Last week the National Endowment for the Arts chose Speight Jenkins, General Director of Seattle Opera since 1983, as one of the recipients of the 2011 NEA Opera Honors Awards. (Left, Speight with Nina Totenburg at the Awards.) The highest national award in opera, these honors come with a $25,000 monetary award.

Speight went to Washington, D.C. last week to participate in the awards ceremony, which was webcast live and is hosted now at (and on YouTube at The part of the presentation focusing on Speight begins at 1:10:50.

The presentation features a beautiful 7-minute video produced by the NEA and Opera America, which is also posted at (and on YouTube at King County’s own Dow Constantine eloquently speaks about what it’s like to go to the opera in Seattle at 3:35 in this video.

Seattle and Washington are fortunate to have such a nationally beloved figure leading our opera company, and Speight is extremely grateful for this honor. Here is a transcription of his extempore acceptance speech, which you can hear and see at 1:21:37 in the longer video.

“Thank you very much for that reception, and I so much appreciate all the wonderful things that were said on this video, and that Stephen [Wadsworth] said in his introduction. I feel that it’s all too much, but I’m grateful, I’m very grateful.

I want to talk first tonight about the National Endowment. The National Endowment I think is very, very important to the United States. There have been times in the past when there have been difficult moments, and we have fought for it. And we must fight again, if we have to. Because the National Endowment is the people, speaking through their government, for the arts. They’re saying something very simple: Art Matters. This is what the National Endowment stands for and it’s very, very significant.

Tonight I’m not going to go through a whole series of operas that we’ve done, because that’s been said. I do want to say that when John [Conklin] was talking about the chairs, it was in Seattle where those chairs were on the walls. I remember those chairs, and I got asked a lot about those chairs, and I just said, “They’re chairs!” [Audience laughter] “That’s what John says, they’re chairs, they’re up there!” It was a Trovatore, I remember very distinctly. But I want to talk about why I think I am here tonight and why we have had success in Seattle.

First of all, I’ve had a board that has supported me absolutely, in every way, all the way through. However controversial, whatever difficulties, whatever we’ve done, my board has always stood behind me, I’ve never had the least problem there. I also have a staff that has worked very hard, we’ve worked together to bring the greatest possible opera to Seattle, to the Northwest. And many of the people on the staff have worked with me and for Seattle for twenty years.

I think that of course with singers, conductors, directors, my job, as I see it, is to welcome singers, conductors, and directors to Seattle, and to make them understand that the opera we do there, the performances we do there, are tremendously important--that they are significant, and that they can change opera, even if we are in a small corner of the United States. It’s very important, and they must feel how important it is, what we’re doing.

Our audience is also remarkable. Seattle is the smallest metropolitan area with such a big opera company. We only have 3 ½ million people in our metropolitan area, but we have a wonderful audience, and I’m grateful to them more than I can say. Stephen mentioned we have increased our number of performances over the years: they have come and they have supported us, and I’m very grateful for all of that.

And finally, I want to say that I’m very thankful to my family, to my wife Linda, to my two children, Speight and Linle, who have put up with my absolute fascination with opera all these years. Thank you."

Photos courtesy of the NEA

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