Each contestant sang an aria of his or her choice, accompanied by a piano. The three judges then selected a second aria for them to perform from a list the singers submitted earlier. Judges were Anthony Dean Griffey, a four-time Grammy award-winning tenor; Joshua Winograde, with the Los Angeles Opera; and Peter Kazara, UCLA's director of opera.
The top performers from the event will move to the regional finals Jan. 27 Denver. If successful there, the singers will go to the semifinals and then finals, both of which take place on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
"This is where everything starts," said Melissa Wegner, associate director of the Met's National Council Auditions. "Someone who auditions today could be singing on stage at the Met in March."
Even if they don't make it to the Met, Wegner said the auditions give the singers, all between 20 and 30 years old, exposure and could land them a post in a regional opera or in a training program.
That's why 21-year-old Rebecca Pedersen, the youngest of the audition group, spent "hours and hours" over the past few months rehearsing. Besides lessons, the vocal performance student at Brigham Young University listened to operas, read about them, studied characters and practiced hand gestures to prepare.
During her performance, some of the things she practiced "went out the window" thanks to a bit of nervousness. But Pedersen persevered and was one of the three winners who advanced to the regional finals in Denver.
"I have a voice and I want to share it with people," Pedersen said before receiving news of her success.
Auditions for the next season will be Nov. 16.
Angela LeBaron auditioned three years ago and was back for a second try on Saturday.
"Life has made me more mature," said LeBaron, who has gotten married, had a baby and started the master's program BYU. "I feel like I have more drive."
The Utah District auditions, divided into morning and afternoon sessions, were free to the public. While many family, friends and colleagues filled the seats, there were plenty of opera fans in attendance, including neighbors Dea Smith and Liz Richey, of Salt Lake City.
"Neither one of us watch TV, so we're always looking for something educational and uplifting," said Smith, who decided to attend because "I thought that anyone with this kind of goal (singing at the Met) would be talented and trying really hard."
Richey was disappointed that she couldn't stay for the afternoon performances.
"I'm putting the November auditions on my calendar, so I can stay for the whole day," she said.
Saturday's opera show stoppers
• Rebecca Pedersen, Jared Bybee and Melissa Otani Jensen were winners of Saturday's auditions. They will advance to the Rocky Mountain Regional finals Jan. 27 in Denver.
• Five other singers received encouragement awards: Michelle Alexander, Keri Costello, Chelsea Lindsay, Mason Gates Neipp and Miriam Swan.
• Sheronda McKee received the Audience Choice Award.