"Twenty-five years ago, at their age, I sang in a nightclub for tips," Beverly Sills recalled last night.

Sills then handed out study and career support grants to 10 young American singers at the National Opera Institute's third annual awards evening.

The 10 recipients in the final auditions last night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater had survived screening auditions that began with 130 singers in eight cities last July.

The three judges -- Sills, the new director of the New York City Opera; Adelaide Bishop, former singer and chairman of Boston, University's opera department, and Henry Holt, director of the Seattle Opera -- needed a second round of arias before divvying up $25,000 in awards.

The auditioners are singers who already have started on professional careers and have reached a point where help in advanced studies could make a difference in their careers.

The four carer grants, with awards up to $5,000, went to Carroll Freeman, tenor, with the Houston Grand Opera Studio; Robert S. Galbraith, baritone, also with the Houston Grand Opera Studio; Linda Kelm soprano, of New York City, and Stephanie Sundine, soprano, who will make her debut with the New York City Opera this spring in the roles of Elena and Margherita in Boito's "Mefistofele."

One of the recipients of the study grants, with awards up to $1,500, was Myra Merritt, soprano, who lives in Washington and appears with the Children's Opera Theatre here. Next month she will begin a two-year study program under James Levine, musical director of the Metropolitan Opera.

Other study grants went to Claudia Catania, mezzo soporano, studying at the Curtis Institute; David Kline, baritone, graduate student at the Mahanattan School of Music; Edmund Toliver, bass, with the Vienna State Opera Studio; James Tyeska, baritone, of New York City, and Debra Vanderlinde, soprano, now touring with the Virginia Opera Association.