Comedian Bob Hope, opera soprano Beverly Sills, choreographer Merce Cunningham, playwright and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, and actress Irene Dunne will receive this year's Kennedy Center Honors for their contributions to the performing arts, the center announced yesterday.

For him, the best part of the eighth annual award ceremonies, Hope said yesterday, is that he won't have to perform.

"You don't have to do a routine," he said. "You just sit there and bask."

The honorees will do their basking Dec. 7 and 8 at a Kennedy Center dinner, a White House reception and an Honors gala, which doubles as a fundraiser for the center. The gala will be taped by CBS-TV for broadcast a few weeks later.

The Kennedy Center Honors program was instituted in 1978 by the center's trustees "to provide deserved recognition to individuals who throughout their lifetime have made significant contributions to American culture through the performing arts."

Recipients have included dancer Fred Astaire, actor Henry Fonda, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, playwright Tennessee Williams, choreographer Martha Graham and composer Richard Rodgers. Last year's honorees were singer Lena Horne, playwright Arthur Miller, violinist Isaac Stern, composer and director Gian Carlo Menotti and actor Danny Kaye.

No stranger to the Kennedy Center, Hope celebrated his 75th and 80th birthdays there. In addition to his USO tours to entertain American armed forces around the world, Hope, 82, has made 54 films, among them "The Cat and the Canary," "Paleface," "My Favorite Brunette" and the famous "Road" pictures with the late Bing Crosby. He has previously received five special Academy Awards for humanitarian action.

Sills, 56, has sung more than 70 roles as a leading coloratura with the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and several other companies. She has recorded 18 full-length operas, appeared in eight television productions of operas and is now general director of the New York City Opera.

Sills said she was not the least surprised by the tribute. "I think I have made the contribution," she said.

Lerner and Loewe, who will receive an award jointly for their collaborative efforts, created such hit Broadway musicals as "Brigadoon," "My Fair Lady," "Gigi" and "Camelot."

For Lerner, 66, his selection "was a total surprise because I was o w0055 ----- r e BC-07/16/85-KENED 1stadd w0055 07-16 C01 nominations for best actress.

Dunne said she was proud to be included on the list of distinguished guests for the nation's highest awards for the performing arts.

"I don't think I could choose finer company," she said. "The gala itself is always beautifully produced. And you can sit down. You don't have to make speeches."