Carl has the most interesting story one can imagine: from truck driver and bounty hunter to international star as a drammatic tenor with numerous roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City (where he has just finished on January 10 another run of Aida) and all the other major prestigious houses around the world such as La Scala in Milan, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Bolshoi in Moscow, the Liceu in Barcelona, the Teatro Real in Madrid, the Colon in Buenos Aires, and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, also with performances in Tokyo, Paris, San Francisco, Washington DC, etc., and recitals in prestigious halls such as Carnegie Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

This was a longer interview, conducted over the phone, and is Opera Lively's interview # 157. It hasn't been revised by the singer yet, but since the show opens in three days, we are publishing it in provisional form, and will make corrections if the singer so desires.

Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – Let’s talk about the character Calaf – his psychological traits first, then his music next. How do you describe the characters’ psychology?

Carl Tanner – Nobody talks much about Calaf. Instead we say he is the Unknown Prince. We know that his father has been usurped from his kingdom. He tells his father to keep quiet because there are spies around and they’ve been kicked out from their kingdom. From that point on, he is not going to tell anybody his name. The Mongolian use their last name ahead of their first name. Calaf is Mongolian, not Chinese. He is a strange in a foreign land. Most directors don’t play it this way but if I was a director, when Calaf comes on stage I’d have people looking at him and noticing him – not only him but Timur and Liù, all subject to everybody’s stares. He comes in, nobody notices him, he sees his father, runs to him and reconciles with him, tells him to keep quiet. But his bravado as a young prince goes away when he sees Turandot. It’s not love at first sight or an attraction. There is an absolute devotion to winning whoever this is. He solves the riddles and she says, “father, don’t make me marry this one; there were all these heads of state and all the people who have died trying to solve these riddles, and now a complete stranger does it!” He throws a riddle right back at her: “You don’t know my name. Nobody knows my name. If you can tell me my name I’ll gladly die for you.”

OL – Why do you think he did that?

CT – I was asked that by the stage director yesterday. My thought is that he wants to challenge her. I think it’s very simple. She is good. She put him through these very difficult riddles. He then says that if she guesses his name he will die for her. “You don’t need to kill me. I will die for you.” I think he does that because he knows that no one is going to say his name. But if you remember, let’s back up. In the middle of the act Liù stands up and gives her a clue. She talks about love. It’s a hint. It’s a riddle in itself, because at the end of the opera Turandot says that his name is Love.

Calaf is a guy that comes in and stops the killing, basically. He stops the flow of blood. All that he has shown is respect for this woman. He throws the riddle back at her to challenge her. I don’t think it is any deeper than that. So between this and the third act, she has put up a decree that no one shall sleep until they find out his name or else they’ll be killed. Again, pushing everyone around and getting her way. Then he comes out and sings that he wants to be victorious. It wasn’t his intention to make people not sleep, because he didn’t think she would be that ruthless. Furthermore she tortures his father and Liù, who kills herself instead of revealing his name. There is some debate if Liù actually knew my name. She does say “Amore”, Love. So maybe Liù thinks his name is Love. Maybe she thinks that he is nothing but love. We know she loves him. I can understand that; she is a young girl also, but she is not of the same ilk as a prince and she knows it will never happen.

Then we get to the third act duet and the first thing Calaf says to her is “I’m over it, princess of death, princess of ice.” They’ve arrested Calaf and are torturing his father. Anybody would think that if he is a good guy he would tell his name to save his father. He doesn’t come out until he kisses her and breaks her cold heart, and he says, “the mystery is solved; I am Calaf, son of Timur.” I like what the director does – he has her go and get a guard; Calaf is left wondering what she’ll do next. She says “Father, I know his name. His name is Love.”

OL – I wonder if he does it not for love, but more for the sake of triumph. You know, his signature moment is the “vincerò” – maybe he wants to put his family name up again, since his father was dethroned and he is an outsider. Triumphing is what is important and maybe is the biggest drive for him.

CT – Absolutely! I agree with that! There are different takes you can have on it. He does say “Vincerò” – “I will be victorious!” He adores his father, and that’s right, he is putting his family up again by triumphing.

OL – The music for Calaf has the notorious “Nessun Dorma.” Are those “vincerò”s really hard to sing? Are there other musical challenges in this role?

CT – Yes, it’s a very high role. What makes it more difficult, what compounds that aria, is that Pavarotti took it and made it his calling card, and that’s OK, but for years to come – and I’ve talked about this with other tenors who have said the same thing – whenever you heard this aria in commercials, television, or movies, it was most of the time Pavarotti’s voice. He had a lighter spinto voice. He wasn’t a dramatic tenor with a heavier voice. Pavarotti’s voice sat naturally high, so it wasn’t a difficult role for him. He could singer it easily. It isn’t easy but he made it sound easy. So every tenor who came after him knows that the horror of this song is that if you don’t sing it well people are going to compare you. They will say “he is OK but he isn’t Pavarotti” and that’s what makes it scary. It is a difficult piece because it is so high that it stays in the passagio, for the tenor.

OL – Illustrious predecessors have sung this role as well, besides Pavarotti. You’ve done it multiple times. In your preparation, did you get any inspiration from predecessors, and if yes which ones, or do you prefer to just approach the role on your own?

CT – I pay a lot of attention to great tenors who have done it before me. Del Monaco, Björling, Tucker, and also people living today; Domingo, Giuseppe Giacomini who is one of the greatest and didn’t get the recognition that was due to him. I look up to them and listen to their take but ultimately I’ll have to sing it the way I have to sing it. I learned from my coaches and my voice teachers. I had three great voice teachers in my life – Bill Schumann, Jackson Sheet, and Lloyd Webb in college. [Editor's note – we are not sure of the spelling of the names of the latter two gentlemen; we'll correct the spelling once the singer revises the interview] Lloyd was the one who told me that I was not a baritone; that I was a tenor, because I was singing baritone roles in college. I had two coaches. One of them, Gerald Brown in New York. I learned 73 roles and he taught me 71 of those roles. My other coach is Steven Brown and he is in the Washington area who has a great knowledge of the voice, technically.

OL – What is your recipe for a great performance of Calaf?

CT – Rest the night before, a good night of sleep. Then have a good carb that is slow burning to carry me energy-wise through the evening, and that’s usually a big plate of pasta, a prayer before I go on stage, and dedicate the opera to my parents. My parents died very young, in their fifties so they never got to see me sing so before I take the stage I say a little prayer to them.

OL – Now that rehearsals have started, have you had a notion of what the production is like? What can the Opera Carolina public expect from this show?

CT – They are going to receive a great and epic show. All of the principals are seasoned artists who have sung their roles everywhere. Othalie Graham has sang Turandot in many, many big houses everywhere in the world. Kevin Langan the bass singing Timur is amazing. He and I have done this opera together probably ten times. I do not know the Liù very well but I’ve heard that she is wonderful, so I think the audience is going to be very excited.

OL – Yes, Dina Kuznetsova doing Liù is very good; I’ve heard her twice, live. You did the title role in Moby Dick for the Washington National Opera a year ago. This is a great role. What can you tell our readers about it?

CT – It was the most difficult role I’ve done to date. The music is complicated. He is a complex character. People say he is bent on revenge. I’d say he is not bent on revenge – he is obsessed with Moby Dick. There is a difference. He is not crazy, he is obsessed. What makes this contemporary opera work, besides great music, is that he is a charismatic character. I don’t do contemporary opera very often but this music fits my voice well, and I empathized with the character. There is a scene where he misses his home in Nantucket, his son and his wife. I’m on the road nine or ten months out of a year, and I miss my home and my son, and personally I think of me as tenor, and my white whale is the next opera I do. I wanted to really become Captain Ahab and inhabit him.

I was warned by Ben Heppner and Jay Hunter Morris that the most difficult part of this opera is to walk around on one leg. I thought this was the easy part. I am very physical, I played football as a kid, I was a bounty hunter and a truck driver. I adapted well to the leg and found good balance and never fell once. What was difficult was to create the character for me, bringing something different than Ben and Jay. I wanted to make him a bit fun, with a bit humorous aspect so that the guys are willing to risk their lives and follow this character. If we portray him as crazy, why would those guys follow him to their deaths? It’s because they loved him and loved what he stood for. He was a great leader and I wanted to create that. I hope I did, regardless of what the reviewers said. I don’t read reviews – they are one person’s opinion. So I don’t know if I got good or bad reviews. My review is that at the end of the evening I got a standing ovation. That’s what is important to me. There were people at the stage door asking for an autograph and saying that I inhabited the character. It was a great role. I think, I’m not sure but knock on wood, that I will be playing the role again in Barcelona in about a year or two.

OL – Nice, good for you. Another role I love is Peter Grimes which you just did. Is it psychologically exhausting to portray, given its heavy and depressing story?

CT – Absolutely. I went home every night psychologically drained. My son is six years old, and these children that are portrayed in the movie that supposedly he kills are not much older than my child. Here you have another obsessed character. I think Peter Grimes the character has a little aspect of Asperger’s. He is driven, obsessed with fishing and with proving that he can be successful, unlike Captain Ahab who is already successful and barely has to rally his men to go after this impossible killer whale.

Peter Grimes is a good fisherman, but in all other aspects of his life he has had no success. He doesn’t know how to love, he has no human compassion, nobody cares for him, and this one woman who loves him, he doesn’t know how to reciprocate. All he knows is fishing but he doesn’t know how to relate to people. His sister and mother died and his father didn’t give a damn about him. I think of these characters in terms of what was their childhood like – were they kissed by their father? Sure their mother kissed them but did their father? Did their father say “I love you”? Did he validate them as children? Probably not – their father was the machismo type who was never around. I think that’s what happened to Peter Grimes. Maybe I’m wrong but that’s the angle I use – who is this person? Can Carl Tanner become this person?

OL – You recorded a nice Christmas Carols CD – I heard tracks and find them very good. I know that you do have two operatic recordings on CD and one on DVD, but what was involved in choosing to do this Christmas CD rather than recording a CD with operatic arias? Is there something to do with your mother or your father? I know you very much praise their memory.

CT – It did. Christmas time was a very special time for us. I used to sing in church. They got to hear me sing one time, in church, Amazing Grace. I gave up music for a while and was driving a truck. Right after I decided to go back to music and moved to New York, two months into it I got a call from my mother – my father had been diagnosed with cancer. I was working as a telemarketer in New York, driving a truck, and doing bounty hunting on the said, and my father passed away eight months later. I was trying to get my career going as an opera singer – and it’s not like you go to New York and you go to the Opera Singers’ Office and you apply for a job. It’s not like that. You don’t know where to start. Then when I finally broke into opera at Santa Fe Opera at age 32, my mother got worse from her emphysema and by the end of that summer I went home and was with her for a week, and she passed away. I had done two other recordings, and I was advised to make an operatic recording. But I was already known in the opera world, I was singing at Covent Garden, La Scala, the Met, and San Francisco, and I thought I wanted to do first what I wanted to do, and I want to make a Christmas album as an homage to my parents.

Someone did a bootleg recording of a recital where I sang Holy Night, and they put it up on a website with other versions of it with Pavarotti, Nat King Cole, Leontyne Price, Bing Crosby, major names, and this no-name person Carl Tanner at the bottom. The website showed how many people listened to each version, Pavarotti had 23,000 hits and all the others had thousands of hits. I had 130. I laughed. But the following year I had 56,000 hits, only behind Pavarotti.

So Sony got interested but they proposed me a nominal one-time fee and they’d retain all the profits. I asked if they’d donate profits to a charity and they said no. So I declined. I thought if Sony wanted it, then it was because there was major interest. So I mortgaged my home and did it on my own, and made that album called Hear the Angel Voices, and inside the jacket I dedicated it to my parents. That first year it sold 23,000 copies.

If a pop singer or rock band sells 100,000 copies of an album it’s considered a failure but if a classical album sells more than 1,000 copies it’s considered a success. That tells you that classical music is a dying art form, because people are not buying recordings. So just by the end of the first calendar year – and it was released in October – it sold 23,000 copies and it’s been selling a lot every year, but I did the bad business decision of giving all that money away. I gave it all to charity because that’s what my mom would have wanted me to do. Every year I select a different charity and give them the money. I shouldn’t say it’s a bad business decision, because it brought me great karma.

There is a singer who reviewed my CD for the Amazon site and was nasty about it, while everybody else liked it. I guess the guy was a disgruntled singer and got jealous. People said to him – “this guy did this for his parents and gave the money to charity, how could you be so nasty?” Go figure! But the CD has been only distributed domestically. Now we’re are remasterng it and it will be distributed worldwide.

OL – Wow, congratulations! Your background story is fascinating. You went to musical conservatory and graduated but then became a truck driver and bounty hunter. You went back to music when a lady driving by your truck heard you singing out loud and told you that you had missed your calling – at the same time, you went to pick up a teenager and he shot at you 17 times, and another one killed himself jumping from a window. You had nightmares and quit that life, went to New York with little money in your pocket trying to break back into opera, did odd jobs and became a singing waiter, when you were then discovered by the general manager of Santa Fe Opera who had dinner in that restaurant where you were singing. Wow! What a story! But let me ask you this: what was more terrifying – being shot at 17 times by a teenager in your bounty hunting days, or facing the audience at La Scala with the possibility of getting booed by that notoriously difficult-to-please crowd?

CT – Walking out on stage in opera, unfortunately is more terrifying. I’ve said this before – opera fans can be fairweather fans. I hate to say that. Not really the fans, though. The fans do like you. I used to believe you are only as good as your last performance. It seems like it’s becoming worse now – you are only as good as your next performance. It’s terrifying to walk out on stage and deliver to the audience’s expectations, every night, because you are only human. You don’t know exactly what is going to come out every night. You can warm out backstage, but you come out and anything can go wrong – maybe it’s the acoustics, or the people on the seats, or your hair, or your nerves, whatever. You might not do a stellar performance. You are there to do the best you can and hopefully the audience will be appreciative.

I have friends who are country music stars, rock stars, movie stars, and if they give a bad performance they are forgiven. In opera, you give bad performance and your career could be over, seriously. I commented on it on Facebook, recently. If a reviewer says “Was Mr. Tanner sick?” That’s one thing. That’s fine. But if you say “Was Mr. Tanner sick? Because he sounded bad!” That’s completely different. A colleague of mine on the radio said one of these days that “Mr. Tanner sounded sick. He sounded like he is at the end of his career.” This is a comment that doesn’t need to be said. People forget that maybe your mother died the day before, or maybe it’s that time of the month if you are a female. Maybe your child is sick. Maybe you went to the doctor the day before and got devastating news about your health, God forbid. But the audience most of the time will go “Oh well, next…” The opera world will chew you up and spit you out if you are not a 100%, a 100% of the time – and you know what, we are all human.

When I go see a show and hear other colleagues, I don’t judge, because I’ve been in their shoes. I’ve had very off nights, and I’ve had very on nights. I’m lucky to be in a fach that has longevity, dramatic tenor. I can sing as long as I want, so I’m lucky, but I’ve heard colleagues of mine give their all and still not get enough from the audience. I scratch my head and I think, what do these people want, blood? And it’s not always the audience; it can be the people around the world in the fabric of opera that are just unforgiven, and sometimes it takes the enjoyment out of the field. We do this because we love it. Most of us don’t do it for the money.

OL – You would like our website, then. It’s one of the few places where people understand what singers go through, how difficult it is to sing, how much training is required, and we respect singers. Our reviews tend to be mild when there is a problem, because it’s live theater; things can go wrong and singers can have off nights. We also don’t do gossip. We love the art form and are appreciative of singers.

CT – That’s great! I want to thank you for that! Obviously you are an educated person in the music field. You go to the opera house to hear live singing and people are not always 100%. If you want perfection, get yourself a digitally mastered album. A lot of the people commenting are not like you.

OL – Hm, interesting. Moving on a little. I believe that the truck-driving community is strong in sustained friendship, for example, with drivers remaining in contact by amateur radio. Once you became a famous opera star, have you kept in touch with your former colleagues? Has it happened that some of them came to see you perform opera?

CT – Yes. The company I used to work for, they followed my career and I’m still friends with the owners. My boss tracked me down from some of my publicity. Truckers Magazine interviewed me at some point. I receive a lot of fan email from truck drivers saying that I inspired them. This guy said he always wanted to play the guitar but never thought he could do anything with it, but then my story inspired him to pick it up again. Another gentleman said he used to sing classical music.

I don’t think I’m special or better than anybody else; I just don’t take no for an answer. If you want to make me do something, tell me I can’t do it. If you do something long enough, either you’ll do it badly all the time [laughs] or you will figure out how to do it well. That’s what I think I’ve done. I did it for long enough to figure out a niche for myself. Fifteen to twenty truck drivers have emailed me saying that they were coming to my shows.

I kept my CDL, my commercial drivers’ license. Not that I’ll go back to driving anytime soon, but I couldn’t part ways with it. One of these days I helped a guy who got his truck stuck in the snow in front of my driveway. He didn’t know how to not flood it and his wheels were spinning, so I got into the truck and freed it for him, and taught him to idle it and go down the hill in low gear applying the brakes just a little bit, without sliding. He was amazed, and said, “you live in this house, and you can drive a truck?” I said “I used to be a truck driver.” He said, “what do you do now?” I said “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.” [laughs hard]

OL – [laughs] Great story! How do you describe yourself as a person, in terms of your personality and your take in life?

CT – I was very close to my parents. I was a mama’s boy. My parents always taught me to be fair, sweet, and nice. I’m not always cheery and all that, but as a person I’m not prejudiced. I have a partner of 23 years, I’m gay; we have a beautiful 6-year-old son. I’m accepting of everyone on Earth if you like to live in peace. That’s me. I’m not judgmental at all. In your turn, if you judge me, you are going to have a problem. That’s how I am. I like to think that everybody is equal and even. There is no one better than anybody else.

OL – I hear that you still like target practice in ranges. Other than that and opera, what else do you like to do?

CT – Hehe. You know, I actually don’t do that anymore. I haven’t done it in a while. I used to like doing it. I’m a certified jeweler. When I was in college I learned how to fabricate jewelry. I took glasses and learned how to become a goldsmith and a silversmith. I do that on my off time, to be creative. I still love driving. I drive a lot; I can drive to a job instead of flying, I love doing that. There is nothing that I love more doing on the face of the Earth than being with my son. I enjoy being a father more than anything else. He has changed my life.

OL – This was a very interesting interview. Thanks a lot.

CT – Will it be in print?

OL – We first put it online on the website, then we publish it on paperback and Kindle e-book in our Opera Lively Interviews series.

CT – Great. I want to keep a copy of it, because Michael Keaton, the actor, and Stan Chervin who wrote Moneyball they are in the process of doing a movie about my crazy life. Anything that goes in writing about me I love to keep for my memoirs and etcetera.

OL – Wow! Spectacular! Your life is indeed the stuff of movies. You have a lot of stories to tell.

CT – Thank you, I appreciate that, I really do.

OL – I look forward to seeing your performance this Saturday. I mentioned to my wife your story, she will be there too. She was impressed and she looks forward to meeting you too.

CT – Thank you very much. I’m battling some bronchitis but I’m just starting to feel better, so, fingers crossed for Saturday night. It will be great.

OL – It’s not easy to sing Calaf with bronchitis!

CT – Exactly. It’s never easy to sing sick, but especially Calaf!

OL – Toi toi, then. I hope everything goes well. Good night!

CT – Good night!

Interview by Luiz Gazzola from operalively.com – click here to visit the full article.