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Bounty Hunter Turned Opera Singer to Make Met Debut

By Leslie Albrecht | December 16, 2010 7:04am
Tenor Carl Tanner, a former bounty hunter, divides his time between Arlington, Virginia and the Upper West Side. He debuts at the Metropolitan Opera on Dec. 27.
Tenor Carl Tanner, a former bounty hunter, divides his time between Arlington, Virginia and the Upper West Side. He debuts at the Metropolitan Opera on Dec. 27.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

By Leslie Albrecht

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

UPPER WEST SIDE —  There are moments in life when it becomes obvious it's time to leave a job. Carl Tanner had two at the end of his career as a bounty hunter.

First a 16-year-old who was holed up in a cabin in West Virginia shot at him with a 22-gauge rifle, then a fugitive from the law jumped to his death right in front of him.

Weeks later, looking for more "peaceful" work, Tanner moved to New York to pursue his dream of becoming an opera singer. On Dec. 27 the Upper West Sider will make his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West.

In the role of Dick Johnson, he'll appear on stage dressed head-to-toe in "cowboy black" and tote a six shooter that fires blanks.

Upper West Sider Carl Tanner was once a bounty hunter in Virginia. Today he's an opera tenor about to make his debut at the Metropolitan Opera.
Upper West Sider Carl Tanner was once a bounty hunter in Virginia. Today he's an opera tenor about to make his debut at the Metropolitan Opera.
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Courtesy of Carl Tanner

Years ago, Tanner carried three guns to work as a licensed bounty hunter for the state of Virginia: a loaded 9-millimeter Beretta, a loaded 25-caliber pistol strapped to his ankle, and a Mossberg 500 sawed-off shotgun, unloaded. "That one was mostly for show," he said. The other tools of his trade included a Taser, a stun gun and, once in a while, brass knuckles.

"They're illegal," Tanner said. "I only carried them because, if I was going to have to fight somebody, I knew that one punch would take them out."

Today, the only thing Tanner is knocking people out with is his voice.

The tenor grew up in Arlington, Va., and earned a degree from Shenandoah University's music conservatory. Finding work as a singer after college proved tough, so Tanner took a job as a truck driver in the Washington, D.C. area.

But that gig didn't pay as much as he needed. When a friend told him about someone he knew who was a bounty hunter, Tanner was skeptical. He didn't even know what a bounty hunter was, he said. (They track down fugitives from justice who are wanted by law enforcement, usually for skipping out on bail or racking up too many arrest warrants.)

But when Tanner heard they make $100,000 a year, he signed up. He got certified to carry a weapon and learned self-defense techniques.

By day he drove his truck, and at night he and his ex-Green Beret partner would "collar" bad guys. A 6-foot, 250-pound blond who looks a little like the French actor Gerard Depardieu, but speaks with a Southern drawl, it's easy to imagine Tanner tackling and cuffing the unlucky few who put up a fight.

Once he caught a 6-foot-6, 280-pound fugitive who had just gotten out of prison after serving 12 years on an attempted murder charge. He was known to carry a concealed weapon and was an accomplished martial arts fighter, Tanner said.

When the bad guy refused to let Tanner and his partner take him into custody, Tanner ended up shooting the man with his Taser. Most people drop to the floor when they're Tased, but the fugitive simply pulled the Taser darts out of shirt, then sucker punched Tanner.

When he was finally cuffed, the man told Tanner, "I'm gonna find out where you live, I'm gonna find out the names of your family and I'm gonna come kill you."

Shortly after his move to New York in the early 1990s, Tanner was discovered after he performed his signature song, "O Holy Night," in a restaurant. An official with the Santa Fe Opera House was in the audience, and Tanner was hired by the company shortly afterward.

Since then, he's worked steadily and toured the world. He's sung at the White House, appeared on the "TODAY Show" and recorded a Christmas album.

As he prepares for his debut at the Met, he's living on West 93rd Street and Broadway with his partner of 18 years and 2-year-old son. Tanner is happy to tell colorful tales from his bounty hunter past, but he's also proud of the fact that he's one of about six tenors in the world who can sing the challenging role of Otello, he said.

Are there similarities between being a bounty hunter and an opera singer? Absolutely, says Tanner. Both jobs are unpredictable.

As a singer, Tanner never knows what kind of night he'll have. A set could malfunction, the orchestra could hit a bad note, he said.

"It's a live experience," Tanner said. "What makes it cool is if it goes off without a hitch."

The same was true for his job as a bounty hunter, Tanner said.

"You never knew what was on the other side of the door," Tanner said.

"If you were a Christian, you prayed and you did everything you could to minimize the danger factor, so it's very much the same. I still get nervous before I sing. If I was going after a bad guy, I got nervous, but I was confident in my abilities. The element of surprise is there when you're on stage and when you're going after a criminal."