In the Opera Hall, This Trucker Delivers

Carl Tanner with Kevin Langan and Serena Farnocchia in the Santa Fe Opera's
Carl Tanner with Kevin Langan and Serena Farnocchia in the Santa Fe Opera's "Turandot" this summer. He will sing at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007. (By Ken Howard -- Santa Fe Opera)
By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2005

Interstate 95, as usual, was one long traffic jam. Carl Tanner, as usual, was singing to pass the time, up in the cab of his 16-wheeler. As the trucker inched forward on the exit ramp toward Old Keene Mill Road, he launched into the Puccini aria "E lucevan le stelle."

In the next lane, a woman in a convertible called up to him: "Is that you, or is that the radio?"

"That's me, lady," Tanner replied.

"Well then, you've missed your calling," the woman declared. "You should be singing for a living, not driving."

That proved to be a comment with fateful consequences, sparking Tanner's transformation from trucker to tenor, with a stellar career and now a date with the Metropolitan Opera. But for Carl Tanner, the suggestion was hardly novel. Ever since his junior year at Washington-Lee High School -- when he used to sing the national anthem before football games and then trot out to play center for the Generals -- people had been telling the Arlington native that his voice was his fortune. He even earned a college degree in vocal performance. But that didn't produce any gainful employment.

So Tanner enrolled in the Northern Virginia Trucking Academy and spent the better part of the 1980s driving big rigs for employers like Fairfax Movers and the Northern Virginia Florists' Pool.

To pick up extra money on the side, he moonlighted as a bounty hunter for Arlington area bail bondsmen.

"I was carrying a 9mm Beretta with the extended clip, the one that holds 23 bullets," Tanner recalls. "Ridiculous weapon. You gotta be a pretty bad shot to fire at some guy 23 times and not hit him."

All of this seems immensely far removed from the glamorous world of today's Carl Tanner, an operatic tenor of international stature whose huge but bright voice has been heard from Covent Garden to La Scala, from New York to Berlin to Naples to Washington (he sang the lead in the Washington National Opera's "Samson et Dalila" in May).

This summer the 43-year-old Virginian is performing a juicy tenor role, playing Calaf at the Santa Fe Opera's production of Puccini's "Turandot." In 2007 he will get a starring role at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

His operatic schedule is so full that he expects to make between $1 million and $2 million annually for the next five years. But in many ways the tenor is still a trucker at heart. He looks and talks like the central casting version of a burly truck driver, right down to the 2 1/4 -carat diamond ring set in a big block of platinum on his finger. And he is clearly astonished at what has happened to him in the decade since he took the advice of that woman on I-95.

"I'm standin' in the 7-Eleven on Lee Highway one day, I'm buyin' a Slurpee, and some kid comes up to me and says, 'Aren't you Carl Tanner?' I mean, it blew me away. And last year I'm in Vegas, I'm takin' in a show, and all of a sudden I hear Wayne Newton -- I mean, it's Wayne Newton! -- saying, 'Ladies and gentlemen, we have one of the great American tenors in our audience tonight.' "

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