Leontyne Price may have retired from the opera stage, but it was clear as she helped preside over last night's Eighth National Music Theater Awards that she remains America's reigning diva.

It's not that she had all that much to say. The queenly manner really speaks for her.

Tony Randall set the tone in his introduction: "Some people ask if this is a golden age of singing. Leontyne Price is herself a golden age." That set up the best line of the evening, somewhat later, when Houston Grand Opera impresario David Gockley accepted a prize from Price with the comment: "That's the first time I ever accepted an award from a golden age before."

There were nine young singers competing for three grand prizes before the audience in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. All had received grants from the National Institute for Musical Theater, a program benefiting young singers that was established by the eminent bass-baritone George London in 1971. Last night, the grants were renamed in honor of London, who was severely crippled by an illness several years ago. His wife, Nora, was present to accept the honor.

Other celebrities participating included composer Stephen Sondheim and playwright James Lapine, who were given a special award, presented by Kennedy Center Chairman Roger L. Stevens, for daring to be "innovative and controversial" in their current Broadway musical, "Sunday in the Park with George." The beautiful sextet that ends the show was sung at the conclusion of last night's concert.

Producer-director Harold Prince also presided.

In the competition, six of the performers sang arias from operas and three from musicals. Perhaps none was a Leontyne Price, but all were impressive.

Baritone David Malis won the gold medal from his winning performance of "Largo al factotum" from Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." He has a rich, smooth voice and was clearly an outstanding opera singer from the acting point of view.

The silver prize went to mezzo soprano Alteouise DeVaughn, a singer of considerable stage presence who sang a fiery version of "O Mio Fernando" from Donizetti's "La Favorita."

Third prize went to Louise Edeiken, who performed a wonderful song, "The Golden Ram," from Martin Charnin's and Richard Rodgers' underrated musical, "Two by Two."

Another particularly fine performance was by Davis Gaines, who sang "Everybody Says Don't" from Sondheim's "Anyone Can Whistle" -- a delightful song.

Also outstanding was baritone James McGuire, with a lovely cantabile sound in "Ah, per sempre io ti perdei" from Bellini's "I Puritani."

Other contestants were bass Richard Cowan, tenor Damon Evans, mezzo Marietta Simpson and soprano Phyllis Treigle.

An award went to Lee Breuer and Bob Telson for "The Gospel at Colonus." There was also an award to the innovative Music Theater Group/Lenox Arts Center.