- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

Nestled into a charming old Arlington neighborhood, Carl Tanner’s vintage bungalow was recently transformed into an airy modern space boasting colorful halogen and art nouveau lighting fixtures, a sparkling new kitchen, and a spacious deck for his three rambunctious dogs. The star tenor is back home this month, debuting as Samson in the Washington National Opera’s production of Camille Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila,” opening at the Kennedy Center Opera House this weekend.

While the role fits squarely into the center of his vocal range, Mr. Tanner thinks the hardest part is singing the dramatic finale after the now-blind Samson is brutally manhandled by his enemies. “There’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on, and I have to throw myself around to make it look more real,” he says.

However, Mr. Tanner should easily vanquish the Philistines. Unlike your average opera star, he spent most of his 20s driving 18-wheelers and moonlighting as a bounty hunter.

Carl Tanner was born and raised in Arlington by a devoted mother and a hard-working father who left school in his native Orange County when he was 12. “Dad sometimes worked two jobs to support the family,” he says, “but we had a decent family life. All I aspired to was to get a regular job after high school.”

Attending Washington-Lee High School, Mr. Tanner was drafted into the musical theater troupe there after a next-door neighbor overheard him singing in the shower and urged him to get involved. A wrestler and a football player, he at first declined, figuring “theater was just for girls.” Relenting, he was soon rewarded with solo roles.

One of his fellow thespians at Washington-Lee was future movie star Sandra Bullock. “She was just the nicest person,” he says. “She didn’t regard herself as attractive, but she was beautiful on the inside, and we became good friends.”

In deference to his mother’s wishes, Mr. Tanner went to college after all, attending the Shenandoah Conservatory, where he majored in performance. “Singing was really the only thing that interested me,” he says. “When I graduated, they gave me this huge diploma. I brought it home to mom so she could frame it. Then I got a job driving trucks.”

He added bounty hunting as a sideline, partnering with a tough ex-Green Beret. Soon, he was packing a sawed-off shotgun and nabbing bad guys who’d jumped bail, much like A&E; Network’s popular “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” aka Duane Chapman.

“I actually met Dog at a bounty hunter convention,” says Mr. Tanner. “He’s tough, but he’s a good man and tries to turn some of these people around.”

Mr. Tanner’s own stint as a bounty hunter came to an end after two close calls. When he and his partner tracked a violent teenager down to a small West Virginia cabin, Mr. Tanner approached the door, “and the kid opened up with a .22, firing round after round right through the door at me, but I got lucky and didn’t get hit.”

In Arlington’s Ballston neighborhood, he and a bail bondsman tried to nab a 60-year-old crook holed up in a third-floor garden apartment. To escape, the old man jumped through a back window. Instinctively grabbing an adjacent power line “he just inverted, with his feet straight up in the air” and crashed to the ground at Mr. Tanner’s feet. “You could smell the burnt smell of death,” he says.

The next day when his car broke down, Mr. Tanner took a shortcut through a field of clover to find a telephone, thinking about those who had repeatedly urged him to become a singer. “I asked God to give me a sign,” he recalls. “And there was a perfect four-leaf clover, right in front of me.” Pressed in a tiny frame, it’s now one of his prized possessions.

“I took a bus to New York in 1990 and slept on the floor of a friend’s apartment with no idea what to do next but determined to become an opera singer.” Singing on request the few songs and arias he still remembered in a nearly empty Greenwich Village restaurant, he caught the attention of diners, including Richard Gaddes, who headed up the Santa Fe Opera. Mr. Gaddes offered him a role in a new opera the next summer, and recommended that he get some vocal coaching before he wore out his voice.

After climbing his way to prominence in the opera world during the next decade, Mr. Tanner made an impressive debut at La Scala last year in the role of Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen.” He has also sung with the New York City Opera and made his Met debut in Central Park in Puccini’s “Turandot.”

Mr. Tanner made a splash in Washington last December when he sang “O Holy Night” for President Bush on national television at the opening of the Pageant of Peace. He plans to put together a complete Christmas CD in the near future.

Just hitting his stride at age 43 in a career that might never have happened, he still remembers his father’s homespun advice. “Dad told me, ‘In life, enjoyment is not where you’re going. It’s just how you’re getting there.’”

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