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 21/4-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.' "
This particular great American tenor still lives in Arlington -- he bought himself a fixer-upper three blocks from the Ballston Metro station -- and still finds time to sing at Central Methodist Church on Fairfax Drive, where his father served for years as the caretaker.
"I suppose I will buy a place in New York, with the Met contract coming up," Tanner says. "But Arlington will always be home for me."
In his high school days in Arlington, Tanner says, he knew he was a good singer, but never thought there was a career in that fact.
"Then a teacher told me that this fat guy in Italy named Pavarotti makes $6 million a year singing opera. And I thought, 'Might be worth a try.' "
After graduating in 1980 -- two years before another Washington-Lee star alum, Sandra Bullock -- he made his way to the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester to study vocal performance. Tanner was training as a baritone there until a professor, Jackson Sheats, convinced him that his voice was really that of a spinto dramatico, the heroic tenor who sings grand opera roles like Calaf in "Turandot" or Don Jose in "Carmen." (Examples of this "dramatico" style can be heard at his Web site, carltanner.com.)
That switch proved essential to Tanner's singing career -- but it took nearly a decade after leaving Shenandoah to have any singing career at all. He spent those years driving trucks by day and chasing bail-skippers by night, singing only in the shower or in the cab of his rig.
In one sense, that decade was a detour from his operatic destiny. "It definitely slowed everything down," Tanner says. "While my contemporaries were going around to the small [opera] companies, landing roles, getting experience, I was driving a truck."
But in the highly competitive world of contemporary opera, where a stirring spinto dramatico voice is hardly enough to distinguish one ambitious tenor from a dozen others, Tanner's tough-guy background has turned out to be a spectacular marketing device. The trucker-turned-tenor, who spins out lively stories from his former life with practiced flair, is fully aware of the competitive advantage his unusual career path provides.
"I'm a huge name in opera right now," Tanner says in a matter-of-fact way. "There are a lot of other guys out there, a lot of good singers -- but they weren't truck drivers. They weren't bounty hunters who had some juvenile on the lam fire 17 shots at them. They don't have a story to tell, and I do."
Tanner's life story took its most dramatic turn two weeks after that chance conversation in the Beltway traffic jam. The woman in the convertible was just one of several people who urged him, near the end of 1990, to give up trucking and try for a singing career.
His employer at the time, FrameMasters in Fairfax, staked him $1,000 to go to New York and get started as a professional singer. Tanner found a job at a now-defunct restaurant called Asti, where the waiters sang operatic arias. He stuck with the arias he had practiced all those years in the truck.
One night in late 1991, after he belted out "E lucevan le stelle," a customer gave him a warning: "You're singing on your capital, not your interest."
That customer just happened to be Richard Gaddes, a veteran opera producer who is now general director of the Santa Fe Opera.
"It was clear he had a wonderful vocal instrument, but he didn't know how to use it," Gaddes says, recalling the evening at Asti. "What I meant was, he was going to use up that voice and have nothing left unless he learned some technique."
Through Gaddes's intervention, Tanner signed on as an apprentice for Santa Fe's 1992 and 1993 seasons, learning the basics of breathing and muscle control and the smooth legato line that can preserve a voice for decades. The tenor then set out, in standard fashion, to perfect his craft at smaller opera houses around the world.
One of his first breaks came from the Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia, which signed Tanner in 1994 to sing the title role in a rarely performed Puccini opera, "Edgar."
"I was from Northern Virginia, and they gave me one of my first leads," Tanner recalls gratefully. "And those Puccini heroes are perfect for my voice."
For all that experience, though, Tanner is still prone to rookie problems. Singing the lead role in "Turandot" before a full house at Santa Fe earlier this month, he managed to stumble on the final, triumphant notes of "Nessun dorma," the show-stealing aria that a Turandot audience waits for all night long. That resounding finish -- where Calaf proclaims, three times, "Vincero!" ("I shall prevail") -- should be one of the most spine-tingling moments in all of opera. Tanner barely got it out of his throat.
"I knew I was having trouble with my breathing," the tenor said the next day. "I was thinking, 'Carl, what's wrong here?' I tripped over each 'vincero.' "
Nonetheless, his summer in Santa Fe has earned positive reviews and loud cheers from the audience. Tanner has punched most of the standard tickets for an American operatic career -- New York City Opera, Washington National Opera, Santa Fe, Opera de Montreal. Last December he sang "O Holy Night" on the Ellipse as the president and first lady lit the National Christmas Tree.
In 20 months he is due to perform the lead in Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The tenor relishes the opportunity, but wonders why it took so long.
"The Met is the crown jewel for American singers, and I'm an American," he notes. "A decent American tenor, even one who started late, like me, shouldn't have to wait until he's 44 to debut at the Met.
"The Metropolitan Opera should be developing American singers, looking for them," Tanner continues. "But in my case, they waited until I was famous to give me my first chance. It's an American house, but they keep giving the big contracts to these Europeans."
In addition to the Met, Tanner hopes to sing more roles for director Placido Domingo in Washington, and he has a busy schedule of roles around the world through 2010 or so.
He is also trying to put together financing for a CD of Christmas songs, centering on his signature version of "O Holy Night."
In short, Arlington's Carl Tanner is looking at a glittering future in the world of opera. But if things go wrong, he says, he won't be destitute: "I still know how to drive a truck."