Decades before the advent of American Idol, New York's Metropolitan Opera, perhaps America's most prestigious (and overrated) opera company, has held annual auditions to flush out promising singers. Although everyone bitches about "the Met," it remains an essential milestone for anyone wishing to follow in the footsteps of the great opera singers even non-opera lovers know: Domingo, Pavarotti, Callas, Nilsson, and so on.

Several Sundays ago I attended the Metropolitan Opera National Council (MONC) Northwest regional audition and heard nine singers vie for a top prize of $10,000 awarded by a panel of judges. Each singer prepared five arias from "the standard rep" of Mozart, Verdi, et al.—the most "modern" pieces were by Stravinsky and Samuel Barber—and chose an aria for round one. In round two, the judges requested another prepared aria. Those who didn't already sing Mozart, who can make or break a singer, did.

Most of the singers were unremarkable, but two stood out. I adored Heidi Melton, whose plummy low register and stunning delivery of Strauss's "Es gibt ein Reich" almost moved me to tears. Audrey Luna also took on Strauss; her "Grossmächtige Prinzen" started with a few flat notes and got better as it went along, however her second aria, Verdi's "Caro nome," was superb and brought down the house. I picked Melton and Luna to win first and second prize; more importantly, the judges did, too.

The auditions embodied everything I love about classical music: attentive listeners, beautiful compositions, and riveting, gutsy, make-or-break performances. I only regret the bland accompanists who plinked along on the piano, making Mozart, Verdi, and Stravinsky sound alike. And I cringed at Chairman Dennis Dunn's tactless harping about the admission fee—"At $10 or $15, I know for some of you that's a stretch..." So what if it is? CHRISTOPHER DeLAURENTI