Just in time for his next Philadelphia appearance, locally born and trained tenor Stephen Costello has been awarded one of the top honors for up-and-coming opera singers: the Richard Tucker Award. Past winners include Eric Cutler, Matthew Polenzani, Joyce DiDonato, Stephanie Blythe, Deborah Voigt, and David Daniels.

The choice is not a great surprise. Costello, 27, has long been the subject of attention from the Richard Tucker Foundation, having been awarded a study grant at 24 and a career grant at 25. The six-member selection panel, however, changes each year. The 2009 version included representatives from the Houston, Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, and Metropolitan opera companies.

Foundation spokesman Peter Carwell emphasized that Costello had been chosen for much more than his voice. "They felt that he's not just a singer. He's an artist," Carwell said. The award was also based on a perception that the tenor is headed for a major career.

Typically, the top Tucker award consolidates careers - and that's the case with Costello, who reached a major milestone last summer when he made his debut at the Salzburg Festival in Verdi's Otello, singing the role of Cassio under Riccardo Muti. The production was beamed to movie theaters around the world, showing off not only his youthful lyric tenor but his great strides as a stage presence.

Unlike many tenors, Costello didn't take the conservatory route. The Northeast Philadelphia native went from George Washington High School to the University of the Arts. From there, he leapt to Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts, which is often more about finishing vocal talent than developing it.

There, he met his wife, soprano Ailyn Perez, who is often his leading soprano. The couple are the talk of opera chat rooms, in which fans are planning to hear their next joint appearance, Puccini's Gianni Schicchi next Friday to May 3 at the Academy of Music, produced by Opera Company of Philadelphia. The company also has the pair contracted for Gounod's Romeo et Juliette in the 2010-11 season.

Costello's local credits include performances at the Academy of Vocal Arts, from which he graduated in 2007, the same year as his Metropolitan Opera debut in Lucia di Lammermoor.

He has coming debuts at many of the great opera companies - including the Glyndebourne Festival, Vienna State Opera, and San Francisco Opera - and sings the role of Ishmael in the world premiere of Jake Heggie's Moby Dick at the Dallas Opera in the 2010-11 season.

The Tucker foundation is negotiating with Lyric Opera of Chicago to release him from his scheduled obligations in The Merry Widow so he can appear at the Nov. 22 all-star Richard Tucker Foundation Gala at Lincoln Center.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.