NEA Arts Magazine

Music to Our Ears

The NEA's Support for Music and Opera in America


The full orchestra on stage

The Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra performing Joan Tower's Made in America. Photo by Michael Mason, Courtesy of Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra

Given that founding members of the NEA's National Council on the Arts included Marian Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, and Duke Ellington, it's not surprising that the NEA has a strong tradition of support for music and opera. Since 1965, the Arts Endowment has invested more than $535 million, providing catalytic support to orchestras, chamber ensembles, and choirs for more than 15,000 diverse music and opera projects, festivals, music education, and professional training.

While the NEA funds numerous presentations of the standard classical, jazz, and choral repertoires, it also supports the creation and performance of new work by American composers. For example, New York's Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra received NEA support for a project in which the small-budget orchestra commissioned a new work by composer Joan Tower that was then performed by 60 similarly sized orchestras in all 50 states. The success of the resulting work, Made in America, led to a new public-private partnership program, Ford Made in America, which is supporting a commissioned work, Joseph Schwantner's Chasing Light . . . , which will be performed by small and regional orchestras in all 50 states from 2008–10.

The Arts Endowment also helps to bring music and opera performances to new audiences. For example, in the early 1990s, the Arts Endowment collaborated with Chamber Music America on the Rural Residencies Program, which gave young professional chamber musicians the opportunity to engage with local communities through intimate concerts, open rehearsals, and other activities that fostered a sense of connection. Great American Voices, a recent initiative in collaboration with OPERA America and with support from The Boeing Company, enabled 24 opera companies to bring live performances of selections from opera and musical theater masterpieces to 41 military installations across the country. Many of the free performances, which included such favorites as Porgy and Bess and La Traviata, incorporated active duty military personnel into the performances as vocalists and narrators.

Today, the NEA's support for music and opera includes grants for an array of projects, including residencies, commissions, concerts, tours, recordings, and professional development. Through its American Masterpieces category, the Arts Endowment has previously supported choral music festivals held across the country to celebrate American choral composers. The program now focuses on introducing more Americans to the chamber repertoire in its various incarnations.

The projects profiled on the following pages offer a quick primer on the far-reaching scope of the NEA's support for music and opera -- from premiering opera works about historic U.S. figures to expanding the reach of choral performances through recordings to preparing young artists for musical leadership positions to introducing contemporary audiences to masterworks from the Baroque era to bringing high-quality performances of jazz and blues to underserved audiences.