Voices rise against Pittsburgh Opera's award for Gov. Corbett

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When blogger Jessie Ramey of Point Breeze thinks of opera, the governor and arts education together, she said "The Beggar's Opera" comes to mind because "public schools have become beggars, hoping to salvage their arts curriculum with donations."

When the Pittsburgh Opera thinks of opera, the governor and arts education together, it gets ready to award a Lifetime Achievement Award to Gov. Tom Corbett and his wife, Susan, for their support.

The award will be made this Saturday at the opera's annual end-of-season benefit gala, Maecenas XXVII, at the opera headquarters.

Party-goers can expect some extras outside the event. Ms. Ramey -- who said her blog "Yinzercation" has received more than 7,000 hits since the opera notice was posted Monday -- and others are organizing a demonstration.

Some may wear opera gear. Ms. Ramey is considering a Viking helmet.

"This is not something that is anti-opera. This is about what's happening to funding in our public schools," she said.

The Corbett award, she said, "really hit a nerve. People are really reacting, and they're passionate about arts education."

The award has attracted about 300 comments on the opera's Facebook page questioning the decision, calling it "unreal," "deplorable" and "unbelievable."

Paul Cosentino of Friendship, who is the leader of the Boilermaker Jazz Band, is among those commenting on Facebook.

In an interview, Mr. Cosentino, who subscribes to the opera with his wife and two children, said he believes the opera should rescind the award.

"As far as I know, there are many schools across the state that are losing their arts education because of the cuts that Corbett is making," he said.

Governor's spokesman Kevin Harley considers Mr. Corbett to have "increased funding for K-12 education the last two years over the Rendell budget" while some others estimate a loss around $1 billion overall in state and federal funding.

In any event, school budgets are perhaps tighter than ever, with some districts cutting into the arts and other programs.

The opera, which selected the Corbetts for the honor in October, put its reasons this way in an April news release:

"Gov. Corbett will be honored for his early work as a teacher as well as his long-standing protection of the public interest as Pennsylvania attorney general. Additionally, as governor, he has recognized the economic, educational and social value of the arts.

"Mrs. Corbett has been an accomplished producer and presenter of arts programs though the years, and, as First Lady, has championed greater participation in the arts in her role as chair of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts."

Mr. Harley said, "The governor and first lady are thrilled they're being bestowed with this honor. People can protest whatever they want. It is the season of protest."

He said, "The governor has supported the arts throughout his public life and so has the first lady."

Debra L. Bell, director of marketing and communications, noted that there had been a state proposal to cut the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts budget by 70 percent, but Mr. Corbett intervened and its funding has remained stable.

She said the council is providing $73,000 to the opera this year and has received nearly $2 million since 1998.

She said this year's money pays for a nearly a third of the cost to offer opera tickets as low as $10, provide educational programs that reach 20,000 in Allegheny and surrounding counties and offer free public music events.

Mitch Swain, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, said his group is one of about 1,000 supported by the state council.

"I think both of them have been very supportive of the arts. Susan Corbett has a long career of service within arts and culture," he said.

"The governor should be applauded for his support of the arts. He's suggested level funding for the arts, and he's reinstated the governor's awards for the arts, which will be held in Erie in November."

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Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com. First Published May 9, 2012 4:00 AM


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