Kathy Porter first heard the news from one of her sisters: The Boston Pops Orchestra would conduct a talent search for amateur singers. The sister was convinced that Ms. Porter, who recently became a grandmother, had the vocal chops to win the prize: Singing with the Boston Pops - on national television - at its Fourth of July concert on the Charles River Esplanade.
But Porter, who admits to loving the spotlight, demurred. After all, she'd taken up singing lessons late in life. And though Porter had blossomed into a sassy singer who sashays into the audience, microphone in hand, during weekend gigs at weddings, she felt too old to enter POPSearch 2004. In the end it was Porter's pianist - who had already promised to play for another Pops hopeful - who decided the matter. "She said, 'Well, we're going, you're coming with us, and I'm playing for you,' " recalls Porter.
Four days after her audition at Symphony Hall, Porter received a phone call. Her rendition of "Maybe This Time" from "Cabaret" had trumped hundreds of other applicants. She had made the first cut.
The idea for POPSearch came as a "response to certain cultural leanings," says conductor Keith Lockhart. That's code for the smash success of Fox TV's "American Idol."
Only this time, there would be no snide judges like Simon Cowell. No (ear-wax-melting) vocals by "Idol" pariah William Hung. And no age limit; POPSearch welcomes anyone over 18 without an agent.
Like every talent search, the Pops contest promises wish-fulfillment - the idea that a talented person with no showbiz connections can "make it big."
It also resonates that the Pops, which calls itself "America's Orchestra," would use a fundamentally democratic process to find a singer to fill out its July 4 roster. And the Pops is certainly banking on the contest's excitement to appeal to younger audiences.
People feel a sense of ownership about this orchestra, says Mr. Lockhart. "People who sing in the shower never think, 'Gee, I'd really like to sing with the Cleveland Orchestra.' But the Boston Pops is kind of their band."
That devotion - and the lure of fame - brought more than 700 people to the open auditions in early June. To win, a contestant must survive three rounds of auditions, which would narrow the field to a trio of finalists. The three would each perform with the orchestra at Symphony Hall before a voting audience.
It's the first day of auditions, and a line one block long has formed on the sidewalk in front of Symphony Hall. Several contestants have brought deck chairs. The wait is several hours to get inside, where each will sing a two-minute solo. As the sun heats up, umbrellas come out for shade.
Henry Gauthier, a point-guard-sized African-American from New Hampshire, plans to sing "God Bless This Child" when his turn comes. In the meantime, he's chatting to the other hopefuls and listening to bits of their audition pieces.
"There's a few good singers out here, and there's a few singers who are in the wrong line," he says with a laugh.
The diversity of singers matches what you would find in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles: lawyers, teachers, retirees, students, police officers, a construction worker - even a jail warden. Some have traveled from as far as Chicago.
The level of talent is just as varied. Some people have training and clear career potential. Some singers would do well at a Karaoke night. And the rest are mezza mezza rather than mezzo-soprano.
But the judges are respectful.
"The last thing we're going to say to anybody here is that we've heard bad singers, because it doesn't help anybody," says Steven Karidoyanes, a conductor impaneled as a Round 1 judge. "But," he continues, "we're listening for the technique, the discipline." (See A judge's view)
Inside, contestants sit in a hallway, books in hand, nervously humming, half listening to the vocalists who precede them. Seven rooms are equipped with a piano and a video camera to tape each audition. Those waiting occasionally look up from songbooks and knitting needles to applaud a strong performance they've overheard.
Tracy Silva, a van driver for special-needs children, is one such standout. After she hits all the high notes in "Your Daddy's Son" from "Ragtime," a judge asks her to sing another piece. Ms. Silva obliges with "Home" from "The Wiz."
"That gave me a little bit of hope," says Silva, who sings in a church gospel group in her hometown of Taunton, Mass., "but it didn't give me enough hope to say, 'I'm picked,' because I had to realize there are a ton of people and they have to narrow it down."
Silva was fortunate to run into a pianist she knew - most singers are accompanied only by the whirring of an air conditioner. Many find that staying on pitch while singing a cappella is about as easy as parallel parking a limousine.
Singers gaze off into the distance rather than risk eye contact with the judges. But a few display the confidence of P.T. Barnum in a circus ring. One, altering the lyrics to "Don't Rain on My Parade," stares directly into the video camera and sings, "Hey, Mr. Lockhart, here I am."
Later, another singer concludes "The Star Spangled Banner" with a high note that could make a dog whimper. After she leaves, a judge walks over to a piano and hits several keys, trying to identify which note she hit.
The national anthem is a popular choice both days. Golden moldies such as "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" are trotted out, as are selections from Engelbert Humperdinck to Evanescence.
A good choice of song and a great voice aren't the only criteria, notes judge John Paulson. "Can I see that person on that stage with 500,000 people watching and capturing the interest of all those people and millions of people on TV?" he asks.
By the end of the second day, 741 people have sung their hearts out. Just 67 get the nod. After reviewing audition tapes, judges choose 15 people for Round 2.
Kathy Porter and Tracy Silva are among them.
POPSearch moves to Boston's Copley Square, where a late afternoon crowd of tourists, commuters, and friends and family of the vocalists converge.
"People see themselves in [the contests]," says Lockhart, who is both an emcee and a judge in Round 2. "It's a Walter Mitty thing. Even if they've never sung a note themselves, they appreciate the tale of the dark horse."
It's hardly comfortable viewing. By late afternoon, temperatures hit the mid 90s.
But the 15 performers, backed by a rhythm section, keyboardist, and guitarist from the Pops, seem undeterred as they perform before three celebrity judges.
The youngest singer, Jillian Bennett, just graduated from the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Mass. "This is my passion. I would love to be a representative for the POPS," says Ms. Bennett, who underlines everything with the larger-than-life gestures of a silent-screen actress. Later, she dances on the lawn with her little cousin.
Tracy Silva's powerhouse rendition of "Your Daddy's Son" assures her a ticket to the next round, but Kathy Porter emerges as the crowd favorite.
Christina Mills is among the onlookers at today's concert. "This is better than 'American Idol,' " she says. " 'American Idol' encourages you to sit at home and eat potato chips on your couch. [With] this, you go outside and ... interact with human beings rather than your remote control."
The judges take 15 minutes to deliberate. Keith Lockhart steps on stage, asks for a drumroll, and then announces the nine semifinalists. Each will sing at Symphony Hall at one of three Pops concerts.
Young Jillian Bennett's name isn't on the list.
Afterward, Jillian says she's fine, but her mascara tells a different story. "OK, I'm bummed," she admits. "It makes me that much stronger, [it makes] me wanna bust out and go for my dreams," she says. Then she takes her cousin's hand. "We're going to bum out in style: We're going to have an ice cream."
It's Tuesday night at Symphony Hall and the audience is in mild shock. They were expecting a Pops program that included Tchaikovsky, Copeland, and a patriotic singalong. They seem unprepared for POPSearch semifinalist Yvette Ferreira, clad in a dressy black bustier that reveals her slim midriff. Her rendition of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" includes arm movements last seen in an Eminem video, and she does the unthinkable - she grabs the microphone off the stand, clambers on top of the conductor's podium, and yells at the audience, imploring them to clap along. She may be too pop for the Pops.
She's followed by Nili Riemer, a Jennifer Connelly look-alike whose selection from an operetta generates great applause. This time the audience response is key. They're the judges for this round. In large part, it's the will of the people who will determine who sings on July Fourth. The orchestra and Keith Lockhart also get ballots.
Tracy Silva is last on stage. After introducing her, Lockhart stands at the side of the stage and looks on. The small Pops band at the back of the stage strikes up Silva's tune from "Ragtime." But all is not well.
"I was struggling with my voice," Silva says later. "When we rehearsed, I had trouble with some of the high notes. In my mind I'm thinking, 'It's over.' "
Until that point, the mother of two had been having the time of her life. Her husband and the young children she drives to school have noticed her joyful demeanor since she'd made the final 15. When she arrived at the concert hall wearing a friend's red satin dress, she was touched by the star treatment from the Pops. "They made us these little plaques that had our names," she exclaims.
But she's disappointed with her performance, feeling that she let everyone down.
The voters disagree. When Silva is announced as the first finalist, her mother weeps for long minutes. Silva's immediate impulse, however, is to worry about the other two singers. "My friends [said], 'You can't think about that.' But for a second I could have cried [for them]," she says.
The next round a few evenings later is no less dramatic. And not just because Keith Lockhart dons a fedora, trenchcoat, and dark glasses for an evening of spy-movie music that ranges from James Bond to Austin Powers.
The night belongs to Kathy Porter. Her husband and two sons, one of whom has flown in from Florida, are there. So are many friends, including one she hasn't seen in years.
"It's given me an opportunity to tell people that I'm sorry that I didn't stay in touch," she says. "Isn't it funny how life works?"
Shortly before 10 p.m., Porter is named that night's winner. But she mishears the result and is confused when the other two contestants hug her. "I said, 'Did I win?' I was the last to know."
The third and final evening of the semifinals offers a strange combination. Contestant Wayne Hobbs, who had once chased opera stardom, will sing Verdi at dance night at the Pops. A space has even been cleared at the back of the hall so audience members can show off their Arthur Murray steps. But the incongruity does not keep Mr. Hobbs from delivering a commanding rendition of "La donna è mobile" from "Rigoletto." The tuxedoed tenor hits a high note midway through and the crowd erupts. He's a clear winner.
A few years ago, Hobbs studied with the late Carlo Bergonzi in Italy. But when Hobbs's funds dried up, he settled down in a hamlet in Vermont where he's the vice-president of a bank. Now he's a Pops star.
"It could be a very intimidating experience but I felt very much at ease," he says. "It was a very comfortable feeling. I just thought, 'This is what I'm meant to do.' "
Symphony Hall, a red-brick building with Roman columns on one end, is buzzing. Several TV news vans - with rooftop satellite dishes that seem large enough to detect extraterrestrial life - are lined up to do live feeds to local stations.
Opening the evening's festivities, Lockhart introduces the final judges: Tim Fox, president of Columbia Arts Management; Broadway singer Maureen McGovern; and Sam Harris, winner of the first "Star Search."
Then, it's showtime. Kathy Porter emerges in an Oscar-worthy red dress. Loud cheers cascade from the left balcony. "Kathy brought her own partisan crowd," jokes the conductor.
The singer delivers her best performance yet, ending on the line "maybe this time, I'll win," with her arm raised.
Hobbs again exudes confidence. The crowd murmurs when Lockhart announces that Hobbs will sing the Verdi. His stellar vocal is served up with a side order of wide-eyed dramatics.
The pressure is on for Silva, who injured her ankle exercising. Her fan club, too, is out in force, whooping as she starts "Fools Fall in Love," from "Smokey Joe's Café." It's a performance that starts gingerly but builds to an impassioned climax as the singer dazzles the audience by sustaining long, high notes.
If there's ever been a contest that's too close to call, this is it.
An hour later, the panel delivers an envelope to the stage. Strobe lights flash. Dozens of flash bulbs stand ready as Lockhart eyes the result. "The winner of POPSearch 2004 is Tracy Silva!"
The crowd is ecstatic. The beaming singer hugs everyone and anyone near her.
"My mother said to me today, 'This is the biggest thing you will ever do in your life other than give birth,' " says Silva, reflecting on it all moments later. Then, after musing how the children on her bus will be helping her practice for the Independence Day concert, she turns and hugs the first in a long line of wellwishers.