Singing at La Scala, one of opera's premiere stages, was only the icing on the cake.
On Sunday, a 28-year-old Bulgarian soprano, Sonya Yoncheva, and a 23-year-old Romanian tenor, Stefan Pop took the top prizes in the prestigious Operalia competition founded and conducted by the Spanish tenor Placido Domingo.
The prize serves as a launching pad into an opera career not only for the winners of the top prizes, but also for the 40 contestants who participated in the weeklong event, held this year at Milan's famed La Scala opera house.
"I already told them, win or lose, you get to go home and say you sang at La Scala," Domingo, who has just celebrated his 40th anniversary at the famed Milanese opera house, told the audience.
Pop studied music in Romania, and made his international debut at the Rome opera house in the role of Alfredo in "La Traviata." He said he has always wanted to sing at La Scala, and winning was beyond his wildest dream.
"It's a marvelous experience," Pop said. "To sing at La Scala has always been my goal."
Yoncheva and Pop each take home prizes of $30,000.
"I didn't believe my luck. It's the biggest dream of opera singers today," said Yoncheva, who studied music in her native Bulgaria and the Musical Conservatory in Geneva. She has performed at New York's Lincoln Center, Barbican Hall in London and the Alte Oper in Frankfurt.
The contest, launched in 1993 to give a boost to promising young talent, is open to singers from 18 to 30 years old and hosted each year in a different city. This is the first time it has been held in Italy.
Past Operalia winners have include the bass-baritone Erwin Schrott and soprano Maija Kovalevska. The 2005 winner Arturo Chacon-Cruz walked out of Operalia with a deal to sing "Cyrano de Bergerac" with Domingo himself.
Already, backstage at La Scala talks were under way to get many of the young singers into young talent programs, either La Scala's own or those launched by the Spanish tenor in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Valencia, Spain. And with the jury including directors of many European opera houses, the event is prime for talent scouting.
"All of them are winners. Many of them will end up with offers to be in young artist programs," Domingo said. "They can be great stars of opera."