The awards, patterned after the NEA Jazz Masters honors that were established in 1982, will be handed out during a ceremony Oct. 31 at the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington.
Placido Domingo said he hopes it's a step toward establishing "the Oscars of the opera."
What would they be called?
"The Mozarts," he suggested. "The Verdis?"
NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said only living Americans will be eligible for the NEA honors. While Domingo was born in Spain, he helped launch the awards because he is general director of the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera.
Price was among the top American sopranos and a breakthrough African-American singer, starring at the Metropolitan Opera from 1961 to '85. Levine has been the leading force at the Met as chief conductor and then music director since 1973, and in 2004 he became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Floyd is best known for composing "Susannah," "Of Mice and Men" and "Cold Sassy Tree." Gaddes is general director of the Santa Fe Opera and in 1976 founded the Opera Theater of St. Louis.
Gioia said authorization for the honors was given by Congress in legislation that was signed by President Bush. Gioia said the United States had always been shy about national honors for living artists, and that the country should be more active in celebrating its artistic heritage.
He wanted the honors to be specific to opera, not to classical music in general.
"You don't want to lose focus," he said.