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Tenor Carl Tanner is in San Diego to sing Radames, the lead male role in Verdi's Aida, a role he's already sung 145 times before. We met to discuss his background and career just before he was due at a rehearsal.
Tanner is the most unlikely tenor in the history of opera. He speaks with a husky voice caused by a rare vocal-chord abnormality discovered by a doctor early in his career. The doctor laughed when Tanner said he was an opera singer. After realizing it wasn't a joke, he blurted out, 'With all due respect, you must be terrible!' But when Tanner sang for him, to his amazement he heard smooth power without a hint of a rasp.
Adding to the unlikelihood of an operatic career, Tanner grew up in Virginia loving country music. A wrestler and football player in high school, he had no interest in opera. To please his mother, he entered the Shenandoah Conservatory and earned a music degree. But even while at music school his real ambition was to become a truck driver. After graduation he did, adding income by moonlighting successfully as a bounty hunter.
When a fugitive fired at him more than a dozen times, second thoughts began to creep in. When another fugitive jumped out a window and electrocuted himself on a powerline, he thought maybe it was time to reconsider music.
He'd often been encouraged to take singing seriously. When a woman in a car alongside his truck heard him belting out an aria from Tosca and told him he should be singing for a living, not driving, he finally decided, maybe she was right. At twenty-eight he moved to New York to give it a try.
His trucking company boss had always been impressed by his voice and gave him a $1,000 final check to help with the risky adventure. Tanner gave $900 to his parents and arrived in New York with $77 in his wallet. After a short time in the city he happened to stop for a coke at an Italian restaurant where the waiters sang operatic arias. When he discovered he could pay $8 for a coke or sing for it, he sang and was offered a job on the spot. Fortune smiled again when Richard Gaddes, a customer who headed the Santa Fe Opera, heard him and was impressed. But Gaddes believed the tenor would damage his voice without more training in vocal technique. The result was a Santa Fe apprenticeship.
In spite of his late start Tanner went on to sing major roles at Covent Garden, Teatro alla Scala, Washington National Opera, New National Theatre of Tokyo and many other companies around the world. He's twice sung at White House Christmas celebrations and debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006.
His association with the famous opera company had begun earlier. An unexpectedly colorful group features in one of his stories.
'So in 2001 I'm sitting at the Met with baritone Sherrill Milnes, Tony Randall, tenor Richard Leech, and Yogi Berra. Sherrill says, "C'mon. We're going to go see Luciano".' When Milnes noticed Tanner hadn't followed the group to the singer's dressing room he said, 'Where's Carl? Come in here!' As Tanner did, reluctantly because he'd left two auditions with the great singer thinking he'd made a bad impression, Pavarotti said, 'I know you. Yes, you sing for me two times. Let me see. What you sing for me? I remember yes, Recondita armonia. Why you sing that?' The younger tenor explained that as a boy he'd listened to the aria after buying Pavarotti's Greatest Hits at a garage sale. 'When I listened to the first track ...' Pavarotti interrupted him asking with a heavy accent, 'What's this grrrage sale?' When told it was a flea market he said, 'Go on'.
Tanner continued, 'I thought to myself, if I had even half a percent of this singer's talent I would be a major success'. Pavarotti, with Italian stress on the third syllable said, 'Impossibile!' Appalled, Sherril protested, 'Luciano, how could you say that!' Pavarotti cut him off, 'Wait. Wait. I'm not say impossibile to him. I say impossibile that Pavarotti be on sale at garrrage!' After everyone laughed he went on to tell Tanner he was a great singer. And in fact he was at the Met that day to cover in case something prevented Pavarotti's performance.
Although Tanner's career has seen many moments he can feel proud of, his Christmas album seems to have given him more personal satisfaction than anything else, and so he was especially moved when a crew member approached him on a flight to Zurich to say, 'I never listened to classical music until a friend gave me your Christmas album. Then a short time later I was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer. I truly believe the only thing that got me through my treatments was your "Lord's Prayer".' Tanner has donated all income from the album to cancer research and other charities.
Constant flights to Zurich and elsewhere around the world are a challenge to the family lives of most opera singers. 'At one time I was travelling eleven months out of the year, and I thought, "This is crazy. I'm a homebody". I have a ten year old, and I wasn't at his birth, and I wasn't there when he first walked or when he talked. I went home one day, and my son cried because he didn't really know who I was. After three weeks I was going to leave again, and he was standing at the door holding my briefcase. It's heavy for a two-year old, really heavy. As I walked up he said, "Papa, you go home now?" I broke down in tears and told him no, baby, I'm just going to my car. I'll be right back. I called my manager and said it might be the biggest mistake of my career, but I can't go anywhere now. My child thinks I don't live here.' Against the agent's advice Tanner has reduced his travel schedule to about seven months a year, and his partner Stephen Hsieh and their son Oliver sometimes travel with him.
A trained gemologist and jewelry designer, the tenor takes advantage of his operatic travels by collecting gems from all over the world. He'd brought a few recent exceptional acquisitions to show curious cast mates. Nor is that the end of his many interests. A discussion of paranormal activity, including a description of his own experiences, might have been the subject of a much longer article, if not for the impending rehearsal.
When I asked if there was something else he'd like to say before we closed, he thought a bit then recalled coming across a news crew in Manhattan several years ago when marriage equality was making headlines. The crew was asking pedestrians if they thought being gay was a choice. Everyone including Tanner had answered no - you were born that way. 'As I was about to walk away they found someone who answered yes and asked him a follow-up question. "So when did you decide to be straight?"'
Copyright © 27 October 2019
San Diego, USA