High school singer Katrina Roth walked into the quiet of the Pasadena Public Library last year to audition for the Spotlight Awards.
She was nervous. Her throat was dry--not good for a contender in the classical voice category. She sang "Batti, batti, oh bel Masetto"--a Mozart aria from the opera "Don Giovanni." And she lost.
Undaunted, the freshman attended the Spotlight Awards ceremony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to hear the two singers selected ahead of her.
This year, the John Burroughs High School sophomore from Burbank fared much better, joining 11 other finalists picked from among hundreds of high school singers, dancers and musicians from seven Southern California counties.
Roth, 16, changed her approach this year, singing the pop song, "I Will Always Love You," by Whitney Houston. "I went for contemporary," she said. "I think this song fits me. That's why I'm really confident about it."
Roth and Heather McGreevey, 15, a Valencia High School freshman ballet dancer, are two local talents competing for $500 and $2,500 scholarships that will be awarded after performances Tuesday at the Music Center.
The other Los Angeles finalists are Miles Mosley, 17, a jazz bassist from Hamilton Academy of Music; Benjamin Lysaght, 17, a jazz guitarist from Crossroads School for Sciences and Arts; Misty Copeland, 15, a ballet dancer from the City of Angels school, and Jacqueline Ahn, 17, a classical flute player also from Hamilton.
Alex Navarro, 18, of Norwalk High School, is a finalist in the visual arts category.
Organizers say the Spotlight Awards, celebrating their 10th anniversary this year, have played a key role in the development of thousands of young Southern California artists. Many former finalists now work in professional dance companies and operas or have joined conservatories.
"It's a marvelous accomplishment for the Music Center and great for every part of Southern California," said the awards' creator, Walter Grauman, a television producer and Music Center supporter.
Grauman--whose credits include the TV series "The Streets of San Francisco" and "Murder, She Wrote"--was inspired to begin a competition in the mid-1980s after hearing students on a Music Center tour say they did not feel welcome there.
The students were awed by the elegance of the facility, Grauman said, its marble floors and chandeliers. Then one teenager was instructed by a Music Center employee to not sit on the furniture because it might get dirty.
"I remember he said, 'This place is not for me,' " Grauman said. "It upset me that there would be an elitism to the Music Center."
The competition drew about 100 students its first year. Now, several hundred compete in six categories--ballet, jazz/modern dance, classical voice, musical theater/pop voice, classical instrumental music and jazz instrumental music. Two finalists in each category are selected from auditions throughout Southern California. Professional artists and musicians serve as judges.
The program is more than a competition to find a dozen of the region's brightest talents, said Spotlight producer Barbara Haig. It is also intended to promote appreciation of the arts among the high school students who try out.
After auditions, for instance, each teenager receives a written evaluation from judges that points out his or her strengths, as well as tips for improvement.
"For a lot of them, this may be their first audition," Haig said. "Their eye contact may not be there because their hair is in their face. They may not know that a song is in the wrong key for them."
Haig said some teenagers write back to thank the judges for the advice.
In past years, some finalists found the contest to be a high-pressure, impersonal affair--an intimidating performance before 3,000 people.
To make it more personal, Rick Wilson--a member of the Fraternity of Friends, a Music Center support organization--began a mentor program five years ago that matches members from the fraternity with each of the finalists.
In the month leading up to the awards, the mentors--business and entertainment industry executives--attend a luncheon with the finalists. Many of the mentors also take teenagers and their parents on social outings to the movies or concerts.
"There was always a need to do something on a personal level," said Wilson, co-owner of a wholesale packaging company. This year he is Katrina Roth's co-mentor.
Over the years, Wilson said, mentors have aided the artists long after the Spotlight Awards. Some have paid for music lessons for students who could not afford them. They have written letters of recommendation for students and introduced them to influential professionals.
"To write a check is one thing," Wilson said. "But to feel that you have helped somebody at a personal level makes people feel a much stronger bond."
Roth plans to sing and dance professionally. She says Tuesday's competition figures to be the highlight of her still young career.
"I don't get nervous unless people bring it up," said Roth, a soft-spoken girl. "I'm more excited to see the other finalists."
Roth has studied classical music since she was 8. Among her performances, she has played roles with the Burbank Civic Light Opera. Last year, her Burroughs High choir won a national competition at Disneyland.
Roth, whose mother was born in Argentina and raised in Central America, said she has also developed a taste for Spanish music, sparked by the pop singer Selena, who was killed soon after Roth began listening to her music.
"When I was little I did not like Spanish music at all," she said. "[Selena] was the first person that got me liking tejano music."