Trucker Turned Tenor Sings 'Samson' Robert Siegel talks with a tenor who used to do more than sing for a living. Before becoming an opera singer, Carl Tanner drove a truck. He also made his living as a bounty hunter. But it wasn't his calling. So Tanner is now singing the role of Samson in the Washington National Opera's production of Samson and Dalila.
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Trucker Turned Tenor Sings 'Samson'

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Trucker Turned Tenor Sings 'Samson'

Trucker Turned Tenor Sings 'Samson'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

When you see and hear Carl Tanner singing the role of Samson in the opera "Samson and Dalila" by Camille Saint-Saens, he is one convincing barrel-chested strongman.

(Soundbite of "Samson and Dalila" recording)

Mr. CARL TANNER (Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: This is a recording of the 43-year-old tenor rehearsing "Samson" at the Washington National Opera. This year he also sings in Dresden, Berlin, Tokyo, the Canary Islands and Santa Fe. It wasn't so many years ago that this son of a blue-collar household in Arlington, Virginia, saw the world driving a 14-wheel truck around the suburbs of Washington, DC.

Tanner was a big kid with a big voice. He sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" before high school football games. In shoulder pads, he sang and then he played. He also sang the national anthem at Washington Redskins games. But he went to college, he says, more to humor his mother than out of any great ambition. And when he got out of Shenandoah Conservatory, he assumed that his work life would be far from the opera house.

Mr. TANNER: When I left Shenandoah, you know, I loved music, but I didn't have the will to become an opera singer. I didn't have the drive. I didn't want to work that hard. And I knew that whatever I did, I needed to make money, I needed to make a living at. And I knew that I had colleagues that were just as good as me that had the will and had the knowledge and the know-how to become a better singer than I, a better artist than I was. So I said, `Well, then if I'm lucky, I'd make it.'

So I went back into driving a truck. And I was complaining to a friend of mine one day about, after taxes and everything, I was bringing home $200 a week, $250 a week. And I said, `Listen, I don't know what to do,' I said, `because I don't think I have it to be a singer.' And he said, `Listen, I have a friend of mine who's a bounty hunter, and you're a big, tough guy, and, you know, you're quite patient, and, you know, you're a funny guy, you know. You're just easygoing.' He said, `I think you'd make a great bounty hunter.' And I said, `You must be crazy.' I said, `You know, I don't have training for that.' And he said, `Yeah, but what you lack, you make up for in just common sense and other things.' He said, `You want to look into this. I'm going to put you in touch with him.'

So he put me in touch with this guy that had been working as a bounty hunter that decided it had gotten a little more dangerous than he wanted it, so he wanted a backup; he wanted a guy to come along with him. And he still is a bounty hunter, and he's out there. And he's a tough guy, I'll tell you. And I pray for him every day because it's getting more dangerous.

SIEGEL: And you went out and you hunted bail jumpers or fugitives, or what were you doing?

Mr. TANNER: Yeah. What we did is we got capiases signed by judges, which were bench warrants signed by the judge. After you're processed, after you're arrested for your offense, you are either let go on your OR, your own recognizance, or you are--there's a bonds placed on your head if you are a habitual offender or if you're a bad guy. And that's what usually happened. Bondsmen would put up the money to secure your return to the court system, and when you didn't return, they called me.

And I found that I was pretty good at it. And I had a lot of patience with people, and I was able to meet people on their level and stuff. And I was fair with them. I said, `Look, you know, we can--if we have to do it my way and I lose my temper, you know, it's not a fun thing.' So I carried a Mossberg 500 pistol-grip, sawed-off shotgun, which was very intimidating. It was never loaded. And I carried it on the outside of my coat so you could see that I was serious. Under my coat, I carried a 9mm Beretta that was fully loaded and a .25 strapped to my ankle for backup.

And, you know, I'm a big guy, so I was kind of intimidating. My partner, who was much shorter than I am, was actually the mean guy. He was the tougher guy. And, I mean, he'd rather kick your door down and just jump on you than talk with you. But in two years--I did it for two years in 1988 through 1990. In two years I had 178 cases and picked up 169 people. So my record was pretty good at it. But my last two jobs, they went kind of crazy, and I decided, `You know what? My number's coming up. I gotta get out of this.'

SIEGEL: You realize that the story of a bounty hunter who's really sort of--this is an interruption in his career that will conclude in his being an opera singer and who used to sing the National Anthem at Redskins games, it's a preposterous story. It just doesn't hold up.

Mr. TANNER: Yeah.

SIEGEL: I mean, no one would ever believe this story.

Mr. TANNER: Right. Right. Yeah, I know that. But I'm glad you brought that up. I mean, a lot of people refer to me as the bounty hunter that became an opera singer. And I have a triple minor--I have a child psychology minor, a piano and violin minor. And I have a degree in music. So I--it's hard to believe that someone would go from opera, getting a degree in music, to driving a truck, to being a bounty hunter at nighttime and then one day getting shot at and then witnessing a guy jump out a window and kill himself, go right back into music. But, I mean, hey, for me, that was a normal, a natural progression because I thought, `You know what? It couldn't get any worse,' because my last two jobs were so tough for me to deal with. And I thought, `You know what? This is not me. I'm not this kind of guy. You know, there are people out there that are meant to do this.' And I had a calling to music. So I thought, `I'm going to go back into it.'

SIEGEL: You said, `Opera can't be worse than this.'

Mr. TANNER: (Laughs) Exactly. And boy, was I wrong. No. No, I--you know, look, opera's tough. It's tough. And sometimes it gets dangerous. But...

SIEGEL: Doesn't sound as dangerous as what you were doing before.

Mr. TANNER: No, no, no, no. No. I mean, you don't have anybody shooting at you. So, no, I--but you know what? I've enjoyed everything I've done up till now. I mean, it was great that I was able to experience everything that I did because I bring, I think, some--I think I bring the passion of my other jobs to my opera career. And, you know, if opera were to end for me tomorrow, I can't say I'd go back into being a bounty hunter, but I'd probably go back to driving a truck.

SIEGEL: Really?

Mr. TANNER: Yeah.

SIEGEL: What's the moment when you are involved in a production of singing--what's the moment of the peak gratification for you?

Mr. TANNER: Honestly?

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TANNER: A lot of people walk out and wait for--you know, they go through the performance, and the gratification is waiting for one person's opinion in the newspaper--you know, one critic. They wait. And they run to the newsstand to get that paper. That's the last thing I care about. When I walk out on stage at the very end of the show and the people applaud, those are the people paying my salaries. That's what I do it for. I mean, honestly, I do it for them. And for each major show that I do, I purchase two tickets for my mom and dad. They passed away in the early '90s, but they're always with me, and they're always sitting in the audience. So for each show that I do, always get two tickets in the audience. And I try to get the ushers to not let anybody sit in those seats unless it's a full house, and they, you know--and so I do it for my mom and dad--you know, for my mom, who wanted her son to be a success.

SIEGEL: Well, Carl Tanner, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. TANNER: Thank you very much for having me.

SIEGEL: That's tenor Carl Tanner. Here's a recording of him singing the role of Edgar in Puccini's opera of the same name.

(Soundbite of "Edgar")

Mr. TANNER: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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