(Photographs courtesy of Carl Tanner)
He packed a sawed-off shotgun back in his bounty hunting days and carried it right out in front so everyone could see. Under his black leather jacket was a 9mm Beretta, and on his ankle a .25, just in case.
“I was in my late 20s,” Carl Tanner began. He is a linebacker of a man, Germanic-blond mostly, and a quarter Sioux Indian that shows up in his eyes. “I had been in the business a couple years. Two parents came to me. They had a child who was unruly. He ran away with a court date coming. I said, ‘I don’t do juveniles.’ They said, ‘We’ll pay you five grand.’”
“So, my partner and I, we tracked the kid down to a timeshare property in West Virginia. We rolled up in our Monte Carlo, ditched it at the bottom of the hill. We walked up through the woods and we came across this little cabin. I’m thinking, this is going to be the easiest five grand I ever made.”
“So, I went up. I hear the TV running. I knock on the door and all of a sudden: BANG! BANG! BANG! My partner was covering the back of the cabin, and he’s watching this kid shoot at me with a .22 rifle through the door. I’m standing in the doorjamb, hoping I don’t get hit. The kid gets off 17 shots before the magazine locks up, and immediately I’ve jumped off the side of the porch and hid behind the chimney.”
“Then this kid comes running out. I see it’s a little-tiny blond kid. So I run and tackle him. Soon as I tackle him, he rolls over and he sucker punches me! You know how they say when you get hit you see stars? You do. I fell back and before I knew it, my partner had a shotgun at his head. He had it cocked. He turned to me and said, ‘You just got your ass kicked by a 15 year old.’”
“Well, I hog-tied his ass and threw him in the car, and for the next two hours as we were driving back from the country, I was talking to this kid about life choices. That’s about the time I started thinking about my own life choices. I knew my number was coming. I knew my time was up.”
I met Carl two decades later, after his life choices had propelled him all the way from the backwoods of West Virginia to the stage of the New York Metropolitan Opera. He was getting standing ovations playing the Egyptian general Radames in a production of Aida. My own life choices had brought me to that same stage, working as an extra—a pale-faced Egyptian citizen in a cast of hundreds during the victory parade. My job was to stand statue-still on the upper tier of a temple for 40 minutes as the drama unfolded below.
I hadn’t actually done anything that a mannequin could have accomplished, but when the act ended and the crowd erupted, I still couldn’t help but feel something expand inside of me. It was exactly then that the Egyptian behind me liked to whisper in my ear: “All for you, buddy! All for you!” The joke was, of course, that nobody had even noticed us.
There was truth to that. After the curtain fell and a hundred performers all exhaled at once, those of us on the upper tier had to wait for our ladder. I heard the Velcro cacophony as uncomfortable costumes were torn off. I watched the soldiers break rank and hand in their spears. I saw the dead Ethiopians resurrect inside their cart. Everybody walked off the stage without looking up, except Carl Tanner. Every night, Carl would meet my gaze, smile, and taunt me to jump. That was the bounty hunter in him—ever vigilant.
As a kid growing up in southern poverty, opera was an unknown entity. When he sang, he trilled along with country crooners on the radio. “Back then,” he confided, “I wanted to be a cop. Honestly, I wanted that feeling of having other people look at you and go, ‘Wow you helped me out. Wow, you’re a tough guy hero.’ I had that vision of grandeur.”
“There was a guy back then, his name was Captain Dan. He wore a police uniform and drove a motorcycle and flew a helicopter. One day he landed his helicopter in our schoolyard to talk to us kids about drugs and stuff. That’s what I wanted to be.”
“My mom saw something different in me. She was a landscape painter. She always wanted me to be an artist.” Of her three older sons, one entered the Army, another became a construction worker, and a third joined the Hell’s Angels. “I was the baby. I was a momma’s boy. I still am. I went to Shenandoah Conservatory of Music to sing and got a degree for her, and she proudly hung it up on the wall. Then I immediately went off and drove a truck. I loved singing but I hated the business part of it. And that, I think, broke my momma’s heart, but she understood.”
Even as a trucker and bounty hunter, Carl kept singing. He sang for friends and family. He sang as he drove. He even sang in his sleep. His trucker name was The Music Man. “Breaker 1-9, this is The Music Man,” he drawled. “And I caught shit for it too. I was going through West Virginia one time, and this guy comes on the radio, ‘Breaker 1-9, this is The Music Man.’ I said, ‘Are you playing with me?’ And he goes, ‘I am The Music Man.’ I said, ‘Why are you called The Music Man? Because you’re an Elvis fan? I’m an actual musician.’ I should have challenged him to a duel.”
Carl’s epiphany came in stages. “I was sitting in traffic one day,” he explained, “It was Tosca that afternoon. Domingo was singing on a broadcast, and I just started singing along with him. It was hot, so I had my window down. I didn’t have air conditioning. And this lady in a red convertible blows her horn at me. Being a typical truck driver, I was gonna yell something nasty, but when I looked back, she was waving. I turned down my radio to hear what she was saying. She says, ‘You’re missing your calling, buddy.’”
That night on his walk home, Carl passed through a baseball diamond. “I said, ‘OK God, I want a sign. It doesn’t have to be lightning. It doesn’t have to be angels singing, but it has to be a sign. And if it’s a sign I recognize, I will run with it.’ So I turned, and in the middle of the baseball diamond was a small piece of grass, and in the middle of this grass were all these clovers, and in the middle of all these clovers was one four-leaf clover standing up, higher than everything else. And I said, ‘Come on now, that’s it?’”
“The next day, when I went to work, my boss said he was gonna fire me. He said, ‘I’d love to keep you here if you had no aspirations. But I don’t want to be responsible for you not going anywhere. You’re fired.’”
With just $77 in his pocket, Carl was soon on a bus to New York City. His first week there, he got a job as a singing waiter. Richard Gaddes, the head of the Santa Fe Opera, just happened to be dining there and offered Carl to audition for place in his company.
With his debut came a flurry of media attention: an interview with Katie Couric, an article in The New York Times. “Carl Tanner: The Singing Bounty Hunter” made all the rounds. Even President George W. Bush was enthralled. When they met, the president made his hands into guns and shouted “Pow! Pow!” at the tenor.
“Everybody talks about the bounty hunter-truck driver,” Carl said, “and I understand it. We need that. Real opera singers need that crossover publicity. The general public has this notion that opera singers are stuffy and stuck up, and I understand why if it’s $250 a ticket.” The ultimate crossover might come soon. A film of Carl’s life, written by Moneyball screenwriter Stan Chervin, is in the works, and Carl hints that a major production company fronted by some Hollywood heavyweights have expressed serious interest.
In his latest career, Carl has traveled the world, filling the most prestigious opera houses with his thunder. Yet even in that refined opulence, the bounty hunter is at home. Opera abounds with heroes, and bandits, and soldiers, and killers - all distinguished by that same familiar badass swagger Carl honed years ago.
“I think the role I can relate to most of all is Canio, in Pagliacci. He’s my age. He’s 50 years old - the head clown of the circus. He’s reached the top. He’s famous and married to a much younger woman. But he knows he’s not striking anymore and he’s just keeping it together. And then he finds out his wife is messing around on him. So he kills her and her lover.”
Carl’s voice dropped an octave. He growled, the same way he did when he barked at a felon in his one of his stories, “I’m gonna handcuff you, and if you try to do anything stupid, I will shoot you in your back and say you tried to run.”
“There’s a guy who makes a joke to Canio earlier in the opera. He says, ‘Ha! Ha! You better watch out, Tonio might be going off with your wife.’ And Canio goes, ‘Ha! Ha!’ And he grabs the guy and he says, ‘A joke like that, It’ll get you cut.’”
“Later, Canio says, ‘Me a bad guy? No!’ And he turns to his wife and he says, ‘I love my wife.’ And then he lowers his hands around her neck.” And just as Carl spoke those words, he stretched his arms across the table and wrapped his massive hands around my neck with just the slightest bit of pressure, like a boxer holding an egg. He kept his hands there a moment, eyes cinched tight, before I felt his fingers release. “And then he walks away,” Carl continued. “I mean, that’s real life. And that’s what I love about it. You can’t overact it. You can’t overact real life.”
Although Carl Tanner may still, despite his success, be viewed as an outsider to some within the rarified realm of the opera community, the stage elevates and sanctifies all. While other singers merely perform opera, Carl has lived it.
Skip to 5:30.