Carl Tanner has performed to packed houses all over the world. But offstage, he's not what you'd expect. Before he became an opera singer, he walked around Virginia with a sawed-off shotgun outside his jacket, a nine-millimeter Beretta at his waist, and a .25-caliber pistol in an ankle holster. He listens more to Cyndi Lauper and Celine Dion than to Pavarotti.
His linebacker's frame is topped with shiny blond hair. When he tells a story, he adopts the accents of its characters: "Goddamn, did you sound beautiful. One great motha—–." That's a well-known mobster praising him on a late-night performance in a New York bar. Or "Brrravo, Carl! Wonderful!" That's Washington National Opera director Plácido Domingo backstage during last year's Il Trovatore.
This month, Tanner is the lead tenor in the opera's production of Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila at the Kennedy Center. He'll spend the rest of the year zipping from one country to the next–Turandot in Santa Fe and Dresden; Andrea Chénier in Tokyo.
"When people ask me where I go for vacation," he says, "I tell them home."
Home for the 43-year-old has always been Arlington. He grew up in the Cherrydale neighborhood and now has a house in nearby Westover.
At Washington-Lee High School, he was known for his football prowess. The only time he sang was in the shower. One afternoon in his junior year, after a spirited rendition of Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel," a friend who lived next door came by.
"I heard you singing," she said. "I know you're into football and all that, but you should join the choir."
Tanner had studied violin and appeared opposite classmate Sandra Bullock in a school musical, but he'd never taken music seriously. The next year, when an injury sidelined his football career, he gave the choir a go. The director told Tanner his voice wouldn't fit in the choir–he'd be better as a soloist.
His first performance was singing "O Holy Night" at the school's Christmas concert. As the crowd gave him a standing ovation, he remembers "a voice in my head was like 'This is what you're meant to do.' "
From then on, people stopped calling him the football player and started calling him the singer.
Tanner got a degree from Virginia's Shenandoah Conservatory, but he didn't think he was good enough to make it in the opera world. He drove a truck before a friend suggested they could make more money as bounty hunters.
He learned how to fire a gun. He printed business cards and passed them out to bondsmen. He walked around with a sawed-off shotgun and plenty of other firepower.
The money flowed in. But then, in the summer of 1990, Tanner saw one of his targets jump from a window and get electrocuted on a power line.
Two weeks later, a teenager he was chasing fired 17 shots at him. The kid missed, and as Tanner lectured him during the ride to the police station about life choices, he started thinking about his own.
A few months later, Tanner headed to New York City with $73 and a dream of becoming a professional tenor.
He got a job singing at an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. One night, the director of the Santa Fe Opera was there and offered him an audition for a lead role the next summer. Tanner got the part.
Then came roles in Carmen with the Rome Opera and Tosca with the New National Theater of Japan. Last June, he made his first appearance at La Scala. Now he's booked through 2007, when he'll make his debut at the Metropolitan Opera.
Last Christmas, Tanner sang "O Holy Night" at the lighting of the national Christmas tree.
"Wait," President Bush said. "You're the bounty hunter?" He pointed his fingers like a gun. "Pow! Pow! I want to talk about that."