Opera singer was a truck driver and bounty hunter. Now he's on world-class stages.

Tenor Carl Tanner will star in N.C. Opera’s production of “Samson and Delilah” at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh April 29.
Tenor Carl Tanner will star in N.C. Opera’s production of “Samson and Delilah” at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh April 29. Piper Anselmi Artists Management

The Biblical story of Samson and Delilah, about the superhero seduced into divulging the secret of his strength, has been told in many formats.

When N.C. Opera presents French composer Camille Saint-Saens’ dramatic musical version in concert April 29, its Samson will be tenor Carl Tanner, whose life story could easily make an opera or a film.

The cliché movie plot about a singing truck driver plucked from obscurity to become an opera star might seem far-fetched, but Tanner’s real-life version has even more twists. Actor Michael Keaton has expressed interest in producing a movie about the singer’s story.

Tanner was a muscular football player and wrestling champ at his Arlington, Va., high school before being convinced to join the school choir and sing solos in church. He went on to earn a conservatory of music degree but didn’t think he could make a living that way.

After considering pro football and police work, Tanner first became a truck driver, and then, to supplement his income, began working as a gun-toting bounty hunter on nights and weekends. He even operated a mall jewelry store for a while.

But after years of low pay and dangerous assignments, Tanner decided to take a chance on singing. He moved to New York in 1990 at 28, became a singing waiter, and, just like in the movies, was overheard by an opera company administrator.

Three years later, he sang his first leading role, and soon was appearing at major opera houses, from the Met to the Bolshoi.

In a recent call from his Arlington home, Tanner talked about his career, jewelry design and singing Samson. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: What changed your mind about becoming a singer?

A: I was hunting down a 16-year-old who was dodging a DUI charge by hiding in a rental house. When my partner started kicking in the front door, the boy jumped from a window several stories up, grabbed onto the attached powerline and fell dead at my feet. After that, a singing career became much more appealing.

Q: Have any of your bounty hunting experiences come in handy as an opera singer?

A: Yes. During those years, I came to realize that some of us are not fortunate enough to have the basic elements to make our lives work. I arrested 168 (people) who wanted a better life, including a 72-year-old grandmother running an illegal daycare because her social security wasn’t enough. Now, when colleagues exhibit any diva tendencies, I remind them how lucky we are getting paid to sing for a living.

Q: What are the challenges of singing the role of Samson?

A: Although I’ve done 11 different productions, I haven’t sung it in 10 years. The role is heroic, so I really have to pace myself. But there are many tender moments also, especially the second act duet in which Samson really believes Delilah loves him.

Q: What are differences in performing an opera in concert?

A: When you sing a full production, you memorize the music by the dramatic action. In concert, without costumes, sets and lights, you can’t rely on those reminders. You also have to bring the characterization down a bit without all that, but you also get to relate better to the audience.

Q: How does raising your nine-year-old son affect your performance schedule?

A: He takes precedence over anything I do and is the joy of my life. He can’t travel for long periods during the school year, but if I’m gone for more than a month, he and my husband of 26 years come to see me for a weekend.

Q: How did you get interested in jewelry design?

A: I became fascinated with gems at 15 and began watching a local jeweler design pieces each Saturday. That led me to apprentice with him and become a certified jeweler. My interest had to take a back seat until two years ago when I was singing in Hong Kong. I bought some Tahitian pearls, rented a studio and designed my first piece, which I immediately sold. Now my pieces are available on my website, Carl Tanner Designs.


What: “Samson and Delilah” in concert, presented by N. C. Opera

Where: Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh

When: 2 p.m. April 29

Tickets: $26-$98

Info: 919-792-3853 or ncopera.org

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