02/19/2012 04:54 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2012

To Compete or Not to Compete

When I was 17, I was the third runner-up at the Santa Fe Junior Miss Competition.

My blonde friend Patty won, accompanying herself on a guitar. I, on the other hand, a tall, lanky, flat-chested brunette sang a medley of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess and "Wouldn't it be Loverly" from My Fair Lady. My accompanist, who happened to be an exchange student from Belgium living with my family, started playing before I could even get onstage. I got a giant trophy (really?) and a huge velvet matted photo in my gown and sash for my parents. I recently found the water-stained photo, still framed, while going through my late parent's belongings. (I think I may have had to return the sash and crown to be used the next year.) Granted, this did little for my self-image. I think I found it all a bit vacuous, just as I did the day I visited a sorority in undergrad and was told by one of the greeters that I had "that run-of the-mill" kind of face. Of course, then I was wearing black pants and a bandana around my head, so I am sure that did not make a great impression.

As a singer, vocal competitions are a necessary way of gaining notoriety and funding. I liken it a bit to the Miss America competition where some contestants say they are doing it for the scholarship money. I was never really a competition winner. I never made it past the first round in the San Antonio Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Even still, I had a twenty-year career at the Met.

I once won a study grant from the Richard Tucker Foundation, in great company with soprano Erie Mills and the late tenor Jerry Hadley. I never won the big prize, though. An organization called Opera Index gave me $300. The Liederkranz Club in NYC gave me a small award. I will never forget that competition because in the bathroom there was a singer warming up by burping.

One of the most helpful was the W.M. Sullivan Foundation, which helped pay for voice lessons and coaching to learn my roles when I was just starting my career. I currently serve on their board. They now additionally give large monetary awards at their annual competition.

The National Opera Institute gave me second place but I think it was just for showing up. I flew from Houston to D.C. via Atlanta but due to a huge snowstorm in D.C. I ended up sleeping in Atlanta and flying in the next day right before the audition. Even the trains were out. For some reason my flight was one of few that made it but the taxi could not get me to the Kennedy Center, where the auditions were being held, due to the deep snow. I ended up walking the last mile or so, sans snow boots. When I arrived I did not even bother to put on a dress and auditioned in my jeans and sweatshirt.

This week I was one of several judges for the annual George London Foundation Competition named after the stellar American bass-baritone. There are a few American competitions that award such large sums of money: The Richard Tucker Competition, The Metropolitan Opera National Council Finals, and a few others. (As a matter of disclosure, I am also on the board of the London Foundation.) The finals took place on Friday afternoon to a live and enthusiastic audience. Each of 6 winners took $10,000. And there were 12 or 13 encouragement awards of $1000. Many people from "the business" were there scouting talent.

There were six judges -- six points of view. Until I started adjudicating I was not aware of how differently we all hear. What sounds wonderful to my ears is sometimes disliked by another judge and vice versa. It is a very subjective art form. In the three days of preliminaries over 200 singers from the USA and Canada performed one aria of their choice and offered three others. Sometimes they perform one aria better than another. As a singer, I was nervous for them all but also amazed at the level of maturity, centeredness and talent.

There were 22 finalists. Some of the finalists were only 20 and still in school. Others were in their 30s and singing professionally. One can imagine that judging a 20-year old soprano against a 30-year old bass is hard to do. I can only speak for myself but I look for innate musicality, organic non-mannered presentation and a true operatic voice with a good technique. The first and second are hard to teach. The latter comes with work and a good teacher but is also entirely subjective. I also want to see if anyone raises the hairs on my arms. One did. I was relieved to know I could still experience that. Nearly all, in my book, deserved the big awards.

Particularly impressive was the fact that most seemed to like each other, which is not always the case. One can image the cutthroat attitude that can rear its ugly head. (This is particularly true when auditioning for an opera company. I learned to just separate myself from the plethora of singers bragging and name-dropping.)

How great it is that these organizations exist to not only recognize talent, but also to help fund the early, lean years of self-employment for these young singers.

Based on the level I heard the future of opera should be in good shape.