He curses like a sailor and sings like a virtuoso. He speaks with a slightly gruff timbre that disappears on stage. Michael Keaton is planning to make a movie about his life, but that’s hardly the most interesting thing about Carl Tanner.
That would be the story of how Mr. Tanner, 51, went from poor Virginia boy to truck driver and bounty hunter and, finally, Met-quality opera singer. Last month, he made his Pittsburgh Opera debut as Radames in “Aida.”
At times, his story sounds like a plotline from the television show “Glee.” When Mr. Tanner was attending Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., he was a star wrestler and football player. Upon hearing him sing in the shower, a neighbor encouraged him to try out for the choir. At first, Mr. Tanner wasn’t interested — he said he thought guys in the chorus were “sissies” — until the friend told him how much Luciano Pavarotti made.
Carl Tanner, a former bounty hunter and truck driver who now is an acclaimed opera singer, is shown here in performance with Pittsburgh Opera. (YouTube video; 11/13/2013)
For Mr. Tanner, money was an important consideration. His father left school in the sixth grade to work in a sawmill. He eventually became a painter for the government, retiring with an annual income of $23,000. His mother had been a detective for the Arlington County police. Mr. Tanner was the youngest of four boys.
After joining the chorus junior year, he took a few lessons from his choir teacher. Out of high school, he made plans to play right tackle at the University of Maryland. He attended for only a week, deciding he wasn’t college material.
So he drove a florist van instead, picking up and delivering flowers around Washington, D.C. He enjoyed the independence of the job, spending his days listening to the radio. But he was ashamed to tell his friends what he was doing, so after driving for a few more months, he decided to try singing again.
Mr. Tanner auditioned at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va. He knew only a few songs — “O Holy Night,” “Amazing Grace” and “Arm, Arm, Ye Brave” from Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus” — but won over the audition committee nonetheless. He became the first in his family to graduate from a four-year college. His mother asked him what he wanted to do with his new diploma.
“I said, ‘I think I’m gonna drive a truck’ … Even though I was a good singer, I didn’t want it bad enough.”
He got a commercial driver’s license and drove a truck for a picture frame company for four years. During that time, a friend told him about a bounty hunter, an aging ex-Green Beret, looking for a partner. So began Mr. Tanner’s two years both truck-driving and chasing people down, from Haitian drug kingpins to old ladies operating an illegal day care center to lawyers who wouldn’t pay child support. During his first year, he made $80,000. He had never seen so much money in his life.
“It wasn’t easy. I wrestled people to the ground. I got punched in the face,” he said.
His stories go on and on. Sometimes, his dates don’t quite make sense, but you don’t want to interrupt him.
In one job, he hunted down a 16-year-old delinquent hiding out in a West Virginia cabin. When he approached from the front, the teenager started firing at him with a rifle. He and his partner eventually hog-tied him in their truck.
On the ride home, Mr. Tanner lectured the teen. “You can start your life over every day when you’re 16,” he told him.
Years later, at a 7-Eleven, Mr. Tanner saw the young man. He thanked him for helping him get his life in order and said he was now working at a nearby Honda dealership. And Mr. Tanner?
“I said, ‘I’m an opera singer.’ He said, ‘You’re [kidding] me, right?’ ”
Mr. Tanner gave up his bounty-hunting and truck-driving career not long after a man he was chasing was electrocuted by a power line right in front of him. “I saw him light up like a Christmas tree. Slowly, my mind healed after that.
“I’ve seen much worse in opera.”
He moved to New York City to pursue a singing career, taking a job as a singing waiter. After singing an aria from Puccini’s “Tosca,” he was approached by Richard Gaddes of Santa Fe Opera, who recruited him to be an apprentice with the summer opera company.
The gig would launch his career. He was too old, and had too mature of a voice, to do traditional opera training programs. But the tenor signed with an agent, took the occasional gig and learned technique and repertoire. He earned roles on the regional circuit and then in larger companies, from New York City Opera to La Scala.
Before his in-house debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 2010, Mr. Keaton stumbled upon a New York Times article about Mr. Tanner. Mr. Keaton, a Pittsburgh native, contacted his agent and then Mr. Tanner to discuss the possibility of making a film based on the tenor’s life. Like all budding Hollywood movies, its fate is unclear, and it’s too soon to tell whether it will ever make it to theaters.
“I like Carl so much, and I thought his story was so great, and he’s such a decent dude,” said Mr. Keaton, who plans to direct and produce the film. “[The project] has already gone a little farther than a lot of other projects I’m working on.”
Stan Chervin, who wrote “Moneyball,” wrote the script for the latent movie, which Mr. Keaton said will be a comedy.
“It’s not a quiet study. He was a bounty hunter,” said Mr. Keaton.
“As long as it doesn’t make me look dumb,” said Mr. Tanner, a self-described “educated redneck.” He enjoyed his time in Pittsburgh and is even considering moving here with his partner and 5 year-old son.
Having numbers of Mr. Keaton and other famous Hollywood types in his phone is a little bizarre for Mr. Tanner. Then again, it’s just one in a long list of surprising things about him.
“At the end of the day, I’m a poor boy from Virginia, and I’m blessed. And that’s it.”
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1750 or Twitter @BloomPG. Blog: Measured Words at www.post-gazette.com/measuredwords.