The Accidental Tenor
Raised on country and bluegrass, Carl Tanner worked as a truck driver and a bounty hunter. Until opera found him.
The framed white shirt in Carl Tanner’s dining room bears a scrawled autograph, but it isn’t a sports jersey. Tanner wore the shirt in his 2006 debut as Don José in Bizet’s Carmen at the Hamburg State Opera in Hamburg, Germany. And the autograph belongs to Plácido Domingo, who donned the garment years earlier for the same role.
It’s a Saturday in August, and Tanner is showing me around the large, bright house in Arlington that he shares with his longtime partner; their son, Oliver, 5; and two Jack Russell terriers. Shelves display beautiful art glass that he has collected during his world travels. Vintage, framed sheet music hangs on the walls near Oliver’s artwork. On the dining room table is a set of architectural drawings, mapping out the two sunporches that are soon to be built in the backyard. They’ll go near the wood-burning pizza oven that Tanner built himself after returning from a tour in Naples.
It’s nice to be home, he says, noting that performances keep him on the road nine to 11 months a year.
For two decades, Tanner has delighted opera fans and garnered critical acclaim for his soaring performances in productions such as Verdi’s Otello and Aida, and Puccini’s Turandot. And while it’s hard to believe anything could be richer than that voice, his backstory comes very close.
Born in 1962 in the original Arlington Hospital (now Virginia Hospital Center), Tanner grew up in Cherrydale, the youngest of four brothers in a family that was just making ends meet. His father worked two jobs—as a painter and as the custodian at Central United Methodist Church in Ballston. His mother, whom he describes as “a tough-ass substitute teacher,” also worked as a civilian employee with the Arlington County Police.
“Our house was rambunctious,” recalls his older brother Tony Powell, a construction supervisor in the D.C. area. “We were always into something. Carl was the baby and a mama’s boy.”
In high school, Tanner made the wrestling team and played starting center on the football team at Washington-Lee. He played violin in the orchestra and starred in a few theater productions alongside a girl two grades below him named Sandra Bullock.
But he also had a hidden talent—one that he had discovered at age 10 but kept secret. “I was raised on country and bluegrass. I knew I could make this big sound,” he says. “I thought it was abnormal. Then one day I was singing in the shower and a neighbor who lived three doors down heard me. I guess I was really loud. She said, ‘You sound terrible singing Elvis songs, because you have an opera voice.’ ”
The neighbor urged Tanner to join the school chorus. He told her that choir was for sissies. She responded with a persuasive argument: Luciano Pavarotti’s annual salary.
Not long after that conversation, Tanner skipped football practice and auditioned for the school choir, belting out an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” after bluntly disclaiming that he could not read music. Choir director Robert Baxter was stunned. “Is this a joke?” he asked. “Holy cow, kid, if anyone is born to be a singer, it’s you.”
Tanner agreed to join the choir on one condition: no solos. “I just want to be a fly on the wall,” he said, fearing the mockery of his classmates. Baxter replied, “If you don’t shine with this voice, it’s a sacrilege. At the end of the year, you’ll sing and the whole school will drop their jaws. No one will laugh.”
Baxter was right. During the closing assembly of Tanner’s senior year in 1980, his mom walked in just as he was about to sing a solo in the spiritual “Lord, I Keep So Busy Praising My Jesus.”
“It added to my nerves, but I was very moved that she was there,” he recalls. Afterward, he received a 10-minute ovation. His mother wept.
A baritone at the time, Tanner went on to win a few local voice competitions and even sang the national anthem at several Redskins games. But money was tight, and a career in music seemed only a dream. Unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, he enrolled in classes at the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College, focusing on music education and music theory.
“[But] he never sang and didn’t discuss singing,” says Arlington resident and close friend Melody Ward, who was dating one of Tanner’s friends at the time. “It was amazing the first time I heard him sing. His speaking voice is so gruff, and then…out of the blue, this amazing voice comes out. I was blown away.”
Eventually, Tanner transferred to Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, where his studies would have ended prematurely had a long-lost relative not stepped up to pay the remainder of his tuition. It was there that he was identified as a tenor by a professor who informed him that tenors make more money than baritones.
Still, that assurance didn’t pay the bills. After graduating from the conservatory in1987, he spent four years driving a semi truck, delivering large framing supplies for an art supply company.
During much of that time, he also worked as a bounty hunter.
“I arrested about 200 people,” says Tanner, whose plainclothes uniform back then included a Beretta M9, a Mossberg pistol grip shotgun, and a .25 pea shooter strapped to his ankle. “My scariest arrest was going into a drug den in Alexandria, knowing that not only was my suspect there but other wanted individuals could possibly be there too. Instead of storming the residence, I waited the suspect out. Within four hours, the guy came out of the house and I arrested him.”
Tanner says the job was lucrative and he never had to shoot anyone, but he remembers the day he decided to give up bounty hunting. A suspect attempting to escape jumped from a second-floor window and grabbed some live electrical wires overhead. The man fell dead at Tanner’s feet.
In 1990, the would-be tenor moved to New York City with very little money but renewed musical aspirations. By late 1991, he was working as a singing waiter at the renowned Greenwich Village restaurant Bianchi & Margherita, famous for its operatic servers. Fortune smiled on him the night that Richard Gaddes, head of the Santa Fe Opera, came in for dinner. Convinced of Tanner’s talent, Gaddes arranged for him to join an apprenticeship program in Santa Fe for two years.
Tanner’s first big break came in 1994, when he landed the title role in Puccini’s Edgar with the Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia (now the Opera Guild of Northern Virginia). Other roles followed, and he sang his way across Europe, Asia and the U.S.
Critics have since taken note of his stage presence and natural ability. Last summer, British reviewer Mike Reynolds attended a performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades and described Tanner’s virtuosity thusly: “He has a ringing Heldentenor quality at the top of his voice, and a much richer, almost baritonal sound at the lower end of his range and in the middle.”
Tanner doesn’t look like the stereotypical opera singer. No sweeping cape or dark, bushy eyebrows. He is a barrel-chested man with blond hair and kind eyes, handsome but unassuming. If you saw him at Safeway, you might think he was a teacher or a football coach.
And few would ever guess that he has sulcus vocalis, a disorder that causes scarring of the vocal cords and results in hoarseness. (Powell often describes his baby brother’s raspy speaking voice as reminiscent of Kenny Rogers’.) The diagnosis came 10 years ago from a specialist in New York, whom Tanner consulted after experiencing a prolonged sore throat. “It’s almost a miracle that you can sing with your vocal cords like that,” the doctor told him. “You are a freak of nature.”
But the condition has not impeded his singing career. Last year, after stepping in for the ailing lead in the Metropolitan Opera’s Aida, Tanner garnered this review from New York Times critic Corrina da Fonseca-Wollheim: “From his demanding opening aria, ‘Celeste Aida,’ Mr. Tanner left no doubt about his prowess, singing with a firm, generously sized voice and producing clarion top notes. His phrasing sometimes bordered on the formulaic, but his final duet with Ms. [Liudmyla] Monastyrska was tenderly delivered.”
What’s his favorite performance to date? “Every time I do a new role, it’s my dream role,” he says diplomatically, although when prodded, he confesses: “The role that I had the most fun with was Ramirez, alias Dick Johnson, from [Puccini’s] La Fanciulla Del West [The Girl of the Golden West]. Ramirez is the outlaw. I love being the bad guy who turns into the good guy who gets the girl in the end. When I was a real-life bounty hunter, I was always the good guy who went home alone!”
And yet, his most challenging role may well be his next. He’ll soon debut as Captain Ahab in the Washington Opera production of Moby-Dick, which will run from Feb. 22 through March 8 at the Kennedy Center. As the protagonist in Jake Heggie’s reinterpretation of Melville’s classic novel, Tanner will be onstage for 80 percent of the show, wearing a heavy overcoat and a peg leg that weighs 12 pounds.
“It is physically strenuous, in that my [real] leg is strapped up behind me,” he explains. “The entire production takes place on a ship on the water. It’s stunning. And it’s very approachable, musically speaking. It could easily be adapted for Broadway because of its musical style and story.”
Until then, he’s embracing the holidays and the chance to mix up his repertoire with carols, gospel and spirituals. He takes a moment to plug his Christmas CD, Hear the Angel Voices, most of the proceeds from which are donated to A-SPAN, a local nonprofit serving Arlington’s homeless. (The CD has been on Billboard’s Top 10 and Top 25 charts for four years running.)
For many fans, Tanner’s rendition of “O Holy Night” is the definitive one. He sang it at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in 2004, after which President George W. Bush told him, “You’re not supposed to make the president cry.” This year, on Christmas Eve, he’ll sing it at the 5:30 p.m. service at his church, Central United Methodist—the same church where his dad once worked as the custodian.
When he is not singing, Tanner is still a man of many talents. Stepping into his basement, he shows me the little studio where he makes jewelry in his spare time (what was once a secondary source of income is now simply a retreat from the spectacle of the stage). Antique reproductions are a specialty, he says, proudly recalling one commissioned piece, reminiscent of the Hope Diamond, that he cast in silver with a platinum overlay (the stone was a lab-grown diamond). Another chain and pendant—a replica of the Heart of the Ocean necklace that played an integral role in the film Titanic—was fashioned out of white gold with a 178-carat lab-grown sapphire. Soprano Sylvia McNair wore one of his pieces when she made her solo debut at Carnegie Hall in the late 1990s. These days, however, his time is limited and he mostly makes rings for fun.
As our conversation concludes, I wonder aloud what direction Tanner’s career might have taken had he been born 30 years later. Perhaps he could have skipped bounty hunting and achieved instant stardom through a TV show such as The Voice or American Idol.
Or perhaps not. “I’m not sure I would have auditioned if it existed when I was younger,” he muses. “My techniques, nerves, experience and many other things were just not ready. True classical singers develop over time, not overnight. For every overnight sensation we hear about in the music world,” he adds, “there are countless deserving artists who go unrecognized.”
Now 51, Tanner is still learning and discovering new dimensions of himself. He continues to study voice and music theory with his coach, Steven Brown, and with voice teachers Bill Schuman and Jackson Sheets, all the while listening to Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill and Alison Krauss when he’s not working.
He doesn’t view opera as an elitist artform. “Opera is accessible for the average Joe, especially as prices are going down. At least 95 percent of operas now have subtitles,” he says. And the themes are universal. “Opera is real life put to bigger voices. There’s death, happiness, life, drama.”
Still, it’s an acquired taste for Oliver, who told his Papa during one recent rehearsal, “Oh, this is so annoying!”
Not long after, Oliver watched his father signing autographs after a concert and asked, “Why do the people want you to draw pictures for them?” Once he grasped the concept of fame, he insisted on signing a few of his own.
Tanner will likely have many more autographs to sign in the future. According to Hollywood buzz, the actor Michael Keaton is planning to make a movie about the tenor’s life story, with a script by Stan Chervin, who wrote Moneyball.
On that note, Tanner looks at his watch and realizes it’s time to take Oliver to gymnastics. Bidding me adieu, the man who holds audiences in rapt attention with his powerful voice—a sound so large and embracing that you swear you can see the decibels coloring the air—gently guides his young son to the car. It’s a summer afternoon in Arlington, and opera sensation Carl Tanner is just another devoted dad, ferrying his son out to explore all that the world has to offer.
Tamar Abrams has written for publications including Washingtonian, The Huffington Post and Washington Jewish Week. She lives in Arlington.