Carl Tanner says he always knew he had the gift of song. And he says that singing chose him, because he would have never chosen it, let alone choose to become an opera singer.
‘It’s too difficult. There are too many facets of the business that make it very difficult for the artist,” he says.
Growing up impoverished in Arlington, Virginia, opera was unknown to Tanner. He says his mother played country music at home, but the music didn’t interest him.
But to please his mother – he says he always was a ‘mama’s boy - he picked up the violin at the age of 11. Though he never learned to read music, he played well in the school orchestra, relying on his ear and sense of pitch.
Tanner attended Washington-Lee High School Arlington. He joined the school chorus there, and upon graduation, auditioned to study voice at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music, winning over the screening committee by belting out the only two songs he knew: “Arm, Arm Ye Brave” from Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus,” and “O Holy Night.”
Of his conservatory experience, Tanner says, “I saw the other students at the university, they wanted success and were more confident in their voices, and I didn’t have that.” A natural tenor, he says, “I went there to sing and to get a degree for my mom so she could proudly hang it up on the wall.” He earned that degree in 1985.
“I love singing, but I want to drive a truck,” says Tanner. So after graduating, he took courses at a trucking academy and then spent the next several years as a truck driver. Carl also earned extra money as a bounty hunter on the side.
Life now was going well. Tanner would sing as he drove. One day, he had an epiphany.
“One day I was driving, inching along on interstate 95 and the traffic had stopped. It was hot and I sat there with my window down. I turned on the radio and I heard ‘Tosca’. It was being broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera and Placido Domingo was singing the Giacomo Puccini aria “E lucevan le stele.”
Tanner knew the song, and started to sing it as a woman in a red convertible in the next lane called up to him. She said, “That was you singing?” “Yes,” he said. “You’re missing your calling,” she replied.
He had a similar experience with his father, who told him he sounded like Placido Domingo.
“I hear you singing and you sound very similar to him,” his father said.” “I don’t want you to waste your life driving a truck.”
That was the moment, Tanner knew he could no longer ignore his gift.
Turning to a life of music
With less than $100 in his pocket, Tanner moved to New York City to pursue a singing career. While working as a singing waiter, one of the founders of the Santa Fe Opera, Richard Gaddes, took note of his talent.
“You are an amazingly talented individual, but you need to learn how to use your voice correctly,” Gaddes told Tanner.
Given an audition at the Santa Fe Opera, Tanner became an apprentice with the company. There, his singing career took flight. He was 30 years old.
“When I got into opera and r-e-a-l-l-y starting singing it, I fell in love with it,” he says.
Opera is just real life
Opera abounds with heroes, and bandits, and soldiers, and killers. It is all about emotions. Tanner sees it as ‘just real life.’
“I sing a type of opera that’s called Verismo, which means real life. Actual real life. It deals with death, happiness, marriages, it deals with normal life.”
Tanner has traveled the world, filling the most prestigious opera houses with his dramatic tenor voice. He debuted as Samson in “Samson et Dalila” with Washington National Opera in 2004 and made his official Metropolitan Opera debut in 2007.
Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti is one of Tanner's idols, however he says there are many other opera singers that have influenced his career.
Performing now at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Tanner plays ‘Radames’ in “AIDA” with the Washington National Opera. The performance is sung in Italian with projected English titles.
"Every opera company in the world has translations now, says Tanner. “Whatever country you are in, it is translated into your language, so that’s the great thing,” he says.
Tanner has made many recordings. His first solo album was produced with his own money. The 2007 Christmas opera album, titled ‘Hear the Angels Voices,’ was a success. He gave the profits to charity.
Tanner says opera takes time to learn. But this former truck driver and bounty hunter has put in the time to master his craft.
“I get to sing for people that love that music. I get to sing in countries where it’s all about opera, like Italy. It’s changed my life and when I think about my own life, I am lucky to do what I do.”