by GREG PRESLEY & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's 2 pm. The doorbell rings. Soon, a nervous and excited soprano, having divested herself of coat, books, water bottle and purse, edges nearer to me and the piano. For the next hour, we will go over and over five or six arias from several different operas in several different languages. She will only have this one rehearsal to let me, the pianist, know how fast or slow she would like each piece to go, where she breathes, where she wants to hold a high note, where I have to speed up because otherwise she'll run out of breath, and where I should play loudly or softly to help her.

What are we preparing for? This Sunday afternoon's Metropolitan Opera National Council (MONC) district auditions at the Fox.

These auditions are the opera world's equivalent of qualifying for the Olympic Trials. Just as athletes train for years for that one moment that might bring glory, opera singers train for years to be ready for the 15 or 20 minutes they're allotted to wow a panel of judges. If they succeed, they go on to regional auditions in Seattle and then to the national semifinals on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

The stakes are huge, because, as Dr. June Johnson, local committee chair of the MONC says, "Many of the country's local and regional opera directors attend the regional and national auditions, and might offer a contract to a singer who has made it that far. And, to a lucky few contestants, the Metropolitan Opera itself might offer a role. Over 100 former winners of the national auditions appear annually on the stage of the Met."

Singers are judged using many different criteria, including vocal quality, pitch and rhythmic accuracy, musicality, projection, stage presence, and even they way they interact with the accompanist.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he auditions were held in Spokane for many years, but four years ago, they moved to Missoula, Montana. Finally, after a great deal of hard work, fundraising and the involvement of many local opera lovers, an agreement has been worked out that will alternate the district auditions between the two cities.

For opera buffs and admirers of fine singing, this is a long-awaited event. Not only does the audition showcase some magnificent talent, but viewers will hear an amazing diversity of repertory. Each singer is allowed to choose her opening piece, and then after that, the judges will select one or two arias from those the singer has prepared. The selections might range from a Baroque opera aria by Handel or Pergolesi, through Mozart, Bellini, Verdi, Donizetti, Wagner, von Weber, Puccini, Massenet, Bizet, Dvorak, Mussorgski, Tchaikovsky, and including opera arias of the 20th century by Stravinsky, Britten or Menotti. Many will be in Italian; others will be in German, French, Russian or English. Every voice range will be represented, from the highest female soprano voice, coloratura, to the lowest male bass voice, basso profundo, and everything in between.

Spokane has gained international recognition for the quality of its singers. One of the first local singers to grace the stage of the Metropolitan Opera was soprano Patrice Munsel back in 1943. She auditioned through the forerunner to the current system, called "Audition on the Air," and was offered a contract -- becoming, at age 17, the youngest singer ever to perform major roles on the stage of the Met up to that point. Since that time, other Spokane singers have risen through the ranks to star on important operatic stages, including Thomas Hampson, Karen Beardsley, Frank Hernandez and Heather Parker.

This year's competition marks a full circle, as Munsel will return to Spokane to award the prizes for the district audition here. In her autobiography, Munsel describes her own first (and last) audition: "I studied six hours a day, six days a week for two years. During this time I learned nine operas, plus French and Italian. My opera coach was Giacomo Spadoni, who was the chorus master at the Met. Mr. Spadoni thought I was ready for the Met and I thoroughly agreed with him. After all, at the age of 17, how long can one wait?"

For the hopefuls in this year's district auditions, the preparations have been made. They won't have to wait much longer.

The Metropolitan Opera National Council district auditions will be held on Sunday, Oct. 12, at 1 pm at the Fox. Tickets: $12; $7, students. Call 891-0642.

Car d'Lane @ Downtown Coeur d'Alene

Fri., June 18 and Sat., June 19
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