August 31, 2005


In the Opera Hall, This Trucker Delivers: Carl Tanner's Career Is Picking Up Speed (T.R. Reid, August 28, 2005, Washington Post)

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). [...]

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, .)

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."

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 31, 2005 6:03 AM

Oh solo mio

You missed me by a mile-o

Posted by: AllenS at August 31, 2005 9:17 AM

The bluestate elite looks down on truck drivers because they're uncultured rubes with no sense of asthetics or appreciation of the finer things.

Shows you what they know.

Posted by: Mike Morley at August 31, 2005 9:56 AM

I particularly liked the assumption that it's better to be an opera singer than a truck driver. If both dissappeared, I know which one would be missed first.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 31, 2005 1:26 PM

Its easier to make a living as a Truck Driver.

PS. why was he driving a 16 wheeler instead of an 18 like the other truckers?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 31, 2005 1:46 PM

Curious. There's an old Harry Chapin song called "Mr. Tanner," about a man who loves to sing opera, but has had no formal training, and is convinced by his friends to perform at a recital. He is savaged by the critics, and returns home to continue singing, contentedly, for his own pleasure.

As for the assumption that it's better to be an opera singer than a truck driver, it would seem that Carl Tanner thinks so. And which would you rather be, given the choice?

Posted by: M. Bulger at August 31, 2005 3:06 PM

As he notes himself, he is in a very particular situation. I bet that truck drivers have a higher average wage than opera singers. In any event, my point was that, like water and diamonds, the consumer surplus for truck drivers dwarfs that for opera singers.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 31, 2005 3:10 PM

Truckers might make a better wage than opera singers; I honestly don't know. And of course there's a higher demand for the former than for the latter. But is it possible that the writer, rather than applying some sort of hoity-toity "bluestate elite" mentality in evaluating the relative merits of the two professions (although, to tell the truth, I can't find any such evaluation in the article), is in fact taking his/her lead from Carl Tanner? And if so, wouldn't this only be fair?

Mike Morley could probably find "bluestate elite" bias in a magazine's choice of font size. You seem more reasonable.

Posted by: M. Bulger at August 31, 2005 4:44 PM

M: I get a sense of "what a waste" from the article. Tanner, in the biography on his website, presents himself as a singer who drove trucks for a while, not, as the Post presents him, as a truck driver who sings.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 31, 2005 7:12 PM

You have had a great career. Pay no attention to the loosers. I hope my sons career can be as postive yours good luck and enjoy the ride.

Posted by: Tommy Sr at September 1, 2005 10:58 PM