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.

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

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

andquot;You go through a lot of time zones,andquot; 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 andquot;because I needed the job.andquot;

andquot;It was 'Rigoletto,' and I loved it,andquot; 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.

andquot;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,andquot; 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.

andquot;I started singing professionally in 1984, most opera conductors were booking me for my voice,andquot; 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 andquot;the scope of opera has changed.andquot;

andquot;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,andquot; he said. andquot;The great years of opera singing were between the 1930s and 1970s. They didn't fly as much and they had it easier.andquot;

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 andquot;Samson and Delilaandquot; by French composer Camille Saint-Saens.

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

He also likes andquot;Carmenandquot; because andquot;you get to stab the mezzo (soprano),andquot; he said.

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

andquot;A good conductor breathes with you,andquot; 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 andquot;see the pages turningandquot; when he's on stage.

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

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

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

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

Of his family - Rural Human Services Director Larry Lakes is his older brother - Gary Lakes said he got andquot;the pipes,andquot; Larry andquot;got the brainsandquot; and his sister Gayle got andquot;the looks.andquot;

Lakes wants to return to Crescent City.

andquot;You live in a beautiful place,andquot; he said. andquot;I rented a convertible on purpose for the drive up from San Francisco,andquot; he said. andquot;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.'andquot;