From amateur to Pops star in just 60 days

If at first you don't succeed, wait a year and audition again. That was the philosophy of Frances Botelho-Hoeg, an amateur singer who beat out hundreds of competitors in a contest to sing with the Boston Pops at the annual Fourth of July extravaganza.

Ms. Botelho-Hoeg, a 50-something grade-school principal from Kingston, Mass., was knocked out of the first ever POPSearch talent competition last year. But the vocalist gamely returned to endure another round of "American Idol"-style auditions at the Pops' Symphony Hall. It was to pursue her dream of appearing with the orchestra in front of 500,000 people (not to mention the millions tuning into the network television broadcast) at the Charles River Esplanade.

"It's either your moment or it isn't," Botelho-Hoeg said last week. "That day [last year], I made a resolution that I was going to give it one more try and see what happens, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to go all the way."

Now in its second year, POPSearch is open to anyone over 18 who doesn't have an agent or recording contract - but does have nerve and showmanship in spades. The nearly 300 hopeful vocalists who showed up for the cattle-call audition in early May were ultimately winnowed down to three finalists through several rounds of competition in front of judges who included Pops conductor Keith Lockhart. During last week's finals during an evening performance at Symphony Hall, Botelho-Hoeg clinched the contest with her saucy rendition of "When You're Good to Mama" from the musical "Chicago."

If the success of last year's winner is any signal, Botelho-Hoeg has a lot to look forward to. Tracy Silva, a mother of two from Taunton, Mass., still has a day job as a van driver for special-needs children, but she's become something of a local celebrity ever since she won the inaugural competition. Her gospel-influenced "pipes" have been in constant demand. After her Esplanade debut, she appeared with the Pops at their season opener in May and at the Democratic National Convention kickoff concert. She recalls the latter with particular awe because it was the same night she sang the national anthem at Fenway Park for a Red Sox game against the Yankees. She grows starry eyed recalling how the Pops sent a police escort to usher her to the DNC event.

"I totally loved it all," she says, sitting in the orchestra's lounge looking glammed out in a glittery plum gown, her hair piled in a meticulous bun just prior to the Symphony Hall concert to determine the new winner last week. "I look back and I'm thinking, 'Wow, wow, wow!' [The Pops] treated me like a real star."

Ms. Silva also sang at the Boston Marathon, a Patriots football game, the tree-lighting ceremony on the Boston Common, various corporate events, and at Congress 2005, New England's largest Christian conference. But her most memorable gig was the holiday party for the kids she drives. At some point, she hopes to record a Christmas album in between her ongoing commitments to a local community theater and Love Divine, the five-person gospel group she's been involved with for 14 years. As the whirlwind of the past 12 months dissipates, she wonders if strangers will still recognize her around town once she passes on the crown.

As far as Mr. Lockhart can tell, POPSearch may become an annual occurrence, given the public interest it generates.

"The idea was to find voices that need to be heard and great musical talent in unlikely places," says Lockhart. "Tracy proved so much for someone who doesn't do this professionally. Every time we worked with her since that first time, she's gotten stronger and more confident.... Tracy fulfilled her duties admirably and I trust Frances will do the same."

As this year's winner, Botelho-Hoeg will have the opportunity to sing with the Pops this summer as they tour Philadelphia and Washington. In the meantime, she's gearing up for Monday's performance.

She first sang in public at age 10. Her father, the vice president of the Textile Workers' Union in Decatur, Ga., brought Frances and her 10 brothers and sisters to sing labor songs for workers at meetings or when they were striking. Despite her early love of singing, she pursued a career in education.

"There are people out there whose lives have taken different paths," she says. "The Pops decided: 'Let's go find them and share this very American experience with ... average Americans ... working very hard just to keep this country running. I hope they continue [POPSearch] forever because there are so many people out there like me, who love them, and love this opportunity."

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