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Updated 11:00am - Nov 26, 2014

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Decorated tenor visits Crescent City

Lakes ().
Lakes ().

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

Grammy award-winning operatic tenor Gary Lakes has attained the enviable position of getting to perform when and where he wants to.

That's after crafting a decades-long career that reached the pinnacle of the operatic world: Fifteen years of performing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

"That's tops for America," Lakes said modestly. "They book you four to five years in advance, and there's a lot of traveling."

For instance, having to fly from Japan to America to get to a performance in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

"You go through a lot of time zones," he said.

The operatic tenor performed Thursday night in Crescent City as part of the Tall-Masted Ships Celebration.

Lakes was once a football player during his college years in Irvine, Texas. He didn't know he could sing then, but discovered that he enjoyed it after singing his first opera "because I needed the job."

"It was ‘Rigoletto,' and I loved it," he said of the opera by Giuseppe Verdi.

He also didn't yet know he had the type of tenor voice that's God-given and highly sought after in the operatic world.

A Washington state voice teacher, William Eddy, is the man who explained Lakes' gift to him.

"I'm a Helden-Tenor ... it's a larger-sized voice that can carry over an orchestra of 110, and I have a strong top range," Lakes said.

That translates in the world of opera to a voice custom made to sing operas by Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss and Ludwig von Beethoven — a voice whose jobs are guaranteed because of its rarity.

"I started singing professionally in 1984, most opera conductors were booking me for my voice," he said.

Lakes has voluntarily removed himself from the stage because his knees trouble him — a problem if you're known for Wagnerian opera singing: the operas last up to five and one-half hours.

Besides the length of the operas, Lakes said standing on a tilted stage put all of the weight of his 6 feet 4 inch frame squarely on his football knees.

Another factor in his decision was that "the scope of opera has changed."

"It used to be about the star, now it's all about the stage director — they would dress me up in pajamas and a hat with a flower on it, I felt silly," he said. "The great years of opera singing were between the 1930s and 1970s. They didn't fly as much and they had it easier."

Lakes was born too late to have sung with opera diva Maria Callas, – but if the two had been contemporairies, they very well could have performed together because of his vocal qualities.

Lakes said his favorite role is Samson in "Samson and Delila" by French composer Camille Saint-Saens.

"At the end you get to lean against the (set's) columns, and the whole set comes down," he said.

He also likes "Carmen" because "you get to stab the mezzo (soprano)," he said.

He treasures working with tenor Placido Domingo, who conducted him during Lakes' performances of "Carmen" by Georges Bizet at the Met. Lakes also "covered" (stood in) for Domingo when necessary.

"A good conductor breathes with you," he said.

He also speaks highly of his co-stars Deborah Voight and Jessie Norman.

Lakes' other performance gift is that he has a built-in prompter: he can visualize the music's score and "see the pages turning" when he's on stage.

Performing at La Scala Opera House in Italy was "a victory."

"It was bombed during World War II, but backstage was intact," Lakes said. "I was in the same room that Enrico Caruso changed costumes in."

Lakes doesn't miss the world of performance, however.

"It's time to do some fishing," he said. "I startled everyone when my career became apparent – it startled me too, I was just a Texas redneck."

Of his family – Rural Human Services Director Larry Lakes is his older brother – Gary Lakes said he got "the pipes," Larry "got the brains" and his sister Gayle got "the looks."

Lakes wants to return to Crescent City.

"You live in a beautiful place," he said. "I rented a convertible on purpose for the drive up from San Francisco," he said. "I'd seen the redwoods before, but when I got to the Avenue of the Giants, I parked and looked up, and I thought (of the trees) ‘you must be gods.'"

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