Operagasm Exclusive: 111 Radameses and Counting with Carl Tanner
by Jonathan Blalock
JB: How the heck did a truck driver and bounty hunter end up on the stage of La Scala?
After graduating from Shenandoah University — Shenandoah Conservatory at the time — I decided for several reasons that I was not cut out to be a singer. I did, however feel the drive for the open road … Yes, a pun. I went out and trained and got a CDL (commercial drivers license) and got a job driving a semi. After about eight months, I realized that I wasn’t going to make a serious living doing that. A friend of a friend knew someone who was a bounty hunter in need of a partner. Not being one who shies away from much, I went and talked with the bounty hunter who said he would give me a try. My careers as a bounty hunter and truck driver ran concurrent, driving during the day, and bounty hunting at night.
After a run-in with a kid with a .22 rifle who shot at, but luckily for me, missed his target, and then having one of my suspects jump out of a fourth story apartment window trying to evade capture and electrocuting himself by grabbing a power line, I decided within a week’s time to park my truck and hang up my guns and revisit the idea of being an opera singer.
Opera is so full of stereotypes, and you break just about every one of them. How do you fight against people’s expectations and assumptions about you?
This is a great question! As you have said, I don’t really fit the mold of an opera singer. I was not raised on classical music or even in a household where anyone had heard classical music. We loved country, bluegrass, and folk music. As a teenage kid I grew to love Southern rock, which is really just hard sounding modern country music. To this day I still listen to and appreciate these kinds of music, but my music palate is also much more diverse. As I ventured into the opera world, I came to realize that there were people out there in positions of authority who looked down on me and doubted my talent because of my blue collar upbringing and path. My mom always said, “Opinions are like assholes … Everyone has one!” Throughout my career I have repeated my mother’s words to myself and, on occasion, aloud.
How many times have you sung Aida? What are the unique challenges and rewards for the role of Radames?
My performances at the Washington National Opera will mark my 109, 110 and 111th performances of the role of Radames in Aida.
The biggest challenge for almost every tenor I know who has sung this role is the first aria, “Celeste Aida”, performing what is arguably the one of the most difficult arias in tenor repertoire. Another challenge is to pace oneself for such a big sing throughout the evening.
What’s the wildest/craziest/funniest thing ever to happen to you onstage or in a rehearsal?
It’s pretty tame now that I think about it, but during a performance of my debut run of the role of Calaf in Turandot at the NYC Opera, at the very beginning of the third act just before I sing the world’s most famous opera aria, “Nessun Dorma”, my tights completely split from front to back all the way. However, they must have noticed how strange I was maneuvering on stage to keep anyone from really seeing anything.
How do you deal with the pressures of balancing a busy career with parenting a young son?
I have found that this is one of the most difficult things to do in life. To have a career that takes you away from your loved ones and little ones who need you is hell sometimes! Artists are blessed when they get the opportunity to actually do what they do, so we don’t want to come across as ungrateful, but having a little one who used to cry and beg you not to leave every time when leaving home for months on end makes you feel like you’re a terrible parent. I missed my son’s birth, I missed when he took his first step, I missed when he said his first word. So many milestones I have missed in my son’s young life. I made the promise to myself that I will be there for him at the first day of each school year. It’s a small gesture but it’s an absolute one.
What’s the hardest decision you ever had to make in your career?
When I started out as a singer I was very low on money and singing jobs were scarce, so it would be very difficult to turn down roles even if they were not right for me. I needed to keep the lights on and food in the fridge, but several singing jobs were completely wrong for my voice. I knew that if I wanted a career longer than a few years, I must be selective of which roles were not just appropriate, but right for me during the different stages in my career.
If you could distill your style of performing into a few words, what would they be? What can people expect when they see and hear Carl Tanner onstage?
A singing actor who tries to not only convey the feeling of the music but the soul of the character I’m portraying. If that’s too deep …
Then … someone who’s having a damn good time!
Any dream roles you’re still dying to sing? Any regrets you have so far from your career?
I’m looking forward to singing Wagner when someone asks me to! I have no regrets but a few past wishes.
I wish I would have seen, in person, Pavarotti sing more than I did. I also tell all my colleagues and friends in the business that I love them … Because you never know if your paths will cross again!
What advice would you give to anyone who is in a non-music career but dreams of performing?
What the hell are you waiting for? Take the leap! It’s truly never too late…but you don’t want to wait until you find yourself saying “I should have….could have!” You can do it NOW! Start off small and most of all…ENJOY EACH MOMENT!
We heard rumors of a Hollywood movie about your life. Is that true? What can you tell us?
Yes, these rumors are true. Michael Keaton read an article about my funny life in the NY Times several years ago and his people contacted my people, as they say in Hollywood. Michael Keaton, Stan Chervin and several other heavy-weights worked on a script about my life.
If it comes to fruition and a movie is made about my life, I’m truly blessed, but I’ve already been blessed just being able to do what I do.
God has given me many gifts and I finally found my way to them.
Catch Aida at WNO until September 23rd! Ticket information is here.