The former general director of Seattle Opera receives a medal in the Order of Arts et Lettres.
The United States government doesn’t give out a lot of medals, unless you’ve served in the military. There are the Kennedy Center Honors medallions, for artists who have shown bravery in the face of packed houses and shrewd critics.
But the French are quicker to decorate those who create culture and make art happen, be it theater, literature, dance or opera.
And so it was that former Seattle Opera Managing Director Speight Jenkins received the insignia of Chevalier in the Order of Arts et Lettres Thursday night from the Consul General of France, Pauline Carmona.
The ceremony was held in a classroom at the Alliance Francaise de Seattle, where Jenkins’ friends and colleagues happily jockeyed for elbow room to lift their champagne flutes, some spilling out into the hall, like the party scene in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Jenkins, nursing a shattered humerus, (“I was standing on a chair and fell off,” he said by way of explanation) was just back from Stanford University, where he taught a course on the history of opera. (He’s going back next summer.)
“It was a total shock,” when he heard he was being decorated. “I am really gratified.”
He suspects the French took notice of his production of 16 French operas in Seattle — productions not a lot of American companies take on, he said.
In the crowd: Jenkins’ wife, Linda Sands; Jack Cowan, honorary Consul of France in Seattle (who was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal in 2012 by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy; Marie-Ange Wood, executive director of the Alliance Francaise, along with Andrea Taylor-Brochet, its communications director; former Seattle Opera director of development Michelle Hasson;Tera Beach, from the deputy district director of Congressman Jim McDermott’s office; and Deputy Mayor of Seattle Hyeok Kim.
When the time came, classical music critic Melinda Bargreen sat at the piano and played “La Marseillaise” the French National Anthem.
In her remarks, Carmona — who is the first female French consul general to the United States, and was making her first visit to Seattle — called Jenkins “One of the most influential opera directors in the United States.
“France is honored to thank you,” she continued, adding that he was “an ambassador in the dialogue” between the two countries.
“I can only say, ‘Merci bien,’” Jenkins said. “I love France, I love Paris. And thank you.”