Of all the curtain calls that tenor Charles Anthony has taken in his long career, one that he is taking this month has to be the most gratifying. In his role in Tosca at Manhattan's Metropolitan Opera House, Anthony, 74, is being celebrated for having sung for 50 consecutive seasons with the Met, a company record. In Tosca he is reaching his 2,882nd performance with the Met, also a record. "Charlie exemplifies what a Met singer is," says the opera's general manager, Joseph Volpe. "You almost can't believe he's been doing it so long. But you always know he'll give a good performance. I'd like 10 more of him."
What has kept Anthony's vocal cords robust over the years--in 110 roles in 69 operas--is as much a mystery to him as it is to others. "It must be God's plan," he says. But Anthony has no doubt about what has kept his performances focused: "Abject terror. A singer onstage in the moments before he opens his mouth is the loneliest person in the world. You never know what's going to come out." He adds, "I take it all so seriously. I think of where I am: on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera! When I was starting out, I'd look down at that stage and think, 'I'm standing on the same wood that Caruso stood on.'"
His mention of Caruso isn't random. Anthony was born in New Orleans into a working-class family of Sicilian immigrants whose name, as it happens, was Caruso. At 22, with a music degree from Loyola University and a smattering of experience with regional companies, he tried out for the Met's Auditions of the Air, billing himself as Charles Anthony Caruso. He won the auditions but lost the name: the Met's then general manager Rudolf Bing convinced him that it would be prudent not to invite comparisons with the legendary tenor.
Anthony made a striking Met debut on March 6, 1954, in the small role of the Simpleton in Boris Godunov. "Mr. Anthony had better be careful," wrote the New York Times. "If he does other bit parts so vividly, he'll be stamped as a character singer for life." The remark proved prophetic. Although in his early years he took on a number of leading roles, Anthony became what the opera world calls a comprimario--a singer of supporting roles, a specialist in character parts like the Innkeeper in Der Rosenkavalier and the police spy Spoletta in Tosca. "Sure, I feel some regrets," he says. "It's like Marlon Brando's line in On the Waterfront: 'I coulda been a contender.' But talent isn't handed out equally. It wasn't meant to be."
Anthony is a beloved figure in the backstage precincts of the Met, deeply respected for his experience with the great names of 20th century opera. The younger singers, he says, "are always asking me about Bjorling or Bergonzi or Del Monaco. How did they prepare? What were they like?" Anthony's function as a transmitter of lore and tradition, suggests Met artistic director James Levine, may be his single greatest role. "Whatever he passes on, he does so with tremendous enthusiasm, spirit and commitment. I can't imagine the place without him."
He won't have to, at least for a while. Anthony has already signed a contract for next season. And after that? "As long as I can sing and don't embarrass myself or the Met," says Anthony, "I'll sing."