It has come to my attention that the National Endowment for the Arts has an opera honors list:
2011 John Conklin
2010 Martina Arroyo
2009 John Adams
2008 Carlisle Floyd
"The NEA Opera Honors celebrate visionaries and luminaries who, by making extraordinary contributions to opera in the United States, have become cultural treasures."
This is all very interesting. Also very interesting is the fact that I am not familiar with all of these names.
Three are the great singers Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, and Martina Arroyo. The first two are two of my greatest idols in the singing world while I admit I am not all that familiar with Arroyo. I have no excuse. Maybe I will have to fill in that gap.
Three are conductors: James Levine at the Met, Eve Queler at the Opera Orchestra of New York, and Julius Rudel who spent many years as conductor and general director at New York City Opera. This is a bit slanted toward New York, don't you think?
Three are some of America's finest composers of Opera: Carlisle Floyd, probably most famous for Susannah, John Adams, famous for Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, and Philip Glass, composer of Satyagraha and Appomattox.
I should have remembered the name Richard Gaddes, but my memory has never been that great. He is the reason for the wonderful success of the Santa Fe Opera, one of the more remarkable operatic institutions in America. He is definitely in the visionary category.
Stage directors are Frank Corsaro who worked primarily at New York City Opera, and Lotfi Mansouri who worked at San Francisco Opera and went on to become general manager there. He is responsible for the "all the sets are brown logs" season, the "every opera has someone nude hiding in the chorus" season and the "opera house is being earth-quaked" season. He got the opera into the newspapers and saved it from a financial crisis. For sheer "visionary" creativity he is not surpassed.
David DiChiera is an interesting twofer. He is both a composer and the founder of the Michigan Opera Theatre, the opera company in Detroit. Or should I say threefer. In addition to these things he is also a musicologist who wrote for Grove's Dictionary and other music encyclopedias.
My impression is that only living people are eligible because some sort of prize must be attached. This is just a guess. America has its own particular slant on the world of opera, and these people are a big part of the reason.