Opera professor earns prestigious French award

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A representative of the French government honored a professor with a distinction for his contributions to the arts that has previously been awarded to such renowned figures as Meryl Streep and Morgan Freeman.

Frédéric Bontems, the consul general of France in Houston, awarded opera professor William Lewis this Friday with the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which is a knighthood dedicated to arts and letters, in a ceremony attended by about 50 people. The award goes to 200 people worldwide every year and honors unique distinction in the arts.

“This prize highlights, I think, the very specific place given to culture and education in France,” Bontems said.

Bontems praised Lewis’ contributions to the field of opera. Lewis has played 140 leading opera roles in 10 languages including French. Lewis also established the Franco-American Vocal Academy in southwest France with his wife, Frederique Added Lewis, and the Austrian American Mozart Academy in Salzburg, Austria.

“William Lewis is also part of the history of opera,” Bontems said. “He is one of the very few people who can today still boast of singing with the great Igor Stravinsky.”

The UT Tower was lit entirely in orange Friday to recognize the honor. The UT president lights the Tower to recognize exceptional faculty accomplishments as part of University policy, said executive vice president and provost Steve Leslie.

“President [William Powers Jr.] lights the Tower in recognition of highest academic accomplishment, and that is what we have here today with this chevalier recognition for professor Lewis,” Leslie said.

Leslie said the award brings attention to the importance of arts education, which may be underemphasized for more practical fields during tough economic times.

“This is exceedingly important for the University and what it means to be a first-class university that invests in top-tier instruction in the arts,” Leslie said.

Lewis said receiving the award will inspire him to continue his work in educating students in French opera.

“It’s far too neglected,” Lewis said. “It’s vital for singers because there is so much French vocal music. When you think about it, it’s vast.”

Charles Roeckle, deputy to the president and senior lecturer in the school of music, said the academies created by Lewis provide opera students an opportunity to study opera works while living in the culture they originated in.

“You have to interact with people every day in the language, so it supports the language study,” Roeckle said. “Being in the culture, you begin to understand the operas and the music and the songs from the perspective of people for whom they were written.”

Music professor Rose Taylor said Lewis and his wife have helped opera students establish careers and continue their education in France.

“They have presented them in concerts and also helped them get contacts in Paris and find teachers,” Taylor said. “As a teacher, you couldn’t do anything more important for one of your singers than to help them launch their career.”