Anthony Clark Evans looks around Clifton and Renee Smith's Lexington home. "This is the nicest house I've ever been in," he says matter-of-factly. A few minutes later, the house is his performance venue.
Evans entertains the small crowd of musicians and arts supporters at the Smiths with a rendition of Hai già vinta la causa!, a plotting aria from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro sung by the Count, whom Evans privately describes as a jerk.
His baritone voice is full and commanding, and in the performance you get the idea the guy he's playing is up to something, even if you don't understand the Italian. Minutes later, Evans, 27, grabs a beer and sits down with his wife, Kim, and some guests thrilled to be in the company of a man who is one of the opera world's stories of the year.
Evans was selling cars at Swope Toyota in Elizabethtown when he took part in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. He advanced to the Mid-South Regional round in Memphis in March, and attracted widespread attention when he moved on to the national semifinals on the Metropolitan Opera's stage in New York. In March, he was named one of five winners in the prestigious competition.
"I just expected to go out and do what it is I thought I could do," Evans says. "I never got nervous, because I had nothing to lose. I was a car salesman trying to win an opera competition. What did I have to lose?"
It's not as if Evans came completely out of nowhere. He studied voice at Murray State University and worked with programs including Opera in the Ozarks in Eureka Springs, Ark., where he had major roles in Puccini's La bohème and Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. But then he got married and left school to get a job to support himself and his wife, who is now a middle school music teacher.
While many of his competitors were still in school, drilling daily with teachers and coaches to prepare for the Met auditions, Evans was selling Corollas and Camrys, and was several years removed from his voice lessons.
"Obviously, I had this fantasy of, 'This will be so cool if I win the whole thing,'" Evans says. "But I was more wondering, 'Are they going to take me seriously?' I don't have my college degree. Nobody's ever heard of me in any other facet of singing. Are they really going to take me seriously? And to tell you the truth, none of that stuff really matters when you can put something on the stage that people enjoy."
Evans recalls that he met some singers during the competition who joked that they must have wasted their time and money going to college.
But he wasn't rattled taking the stage for the Grand Finals Concert of the Met competition.
"He went first, which is a really intimidating place to be," says Henno Lohmeyer, who has seen many Met competitions as a producer and the husband of Gail Robinson, the late University of Kentucky voice professor who for decades directed the Met auditions. "You worry that people will forget you going first. But he came out and let everyone know he was the one to beat."
By that time, he had a little help from Lexington.
A year before, at the suggestion of his former Murray State professor Randall Black, Evans had tried to engage retired UK voice coach Cliff Jackson as a coach, but the timing wasn't right. A year later, as Evans was getting ready for New York, it worked out.
"He didn't give me a lot to do," Jackson said of Evans. "The voice was there, the high notes were fantastic. He just sings."
Jackson, who has worked with stars such as Kathleen Battle, says he understands how some might look at Evans' success and question the academic side of singing.
"Randall Black did give him a great foundation" at Murray State, Jackson said. "But some people do better out of school. He enjoys doing what he wants to do."
Evans is enjoying being a canned-beer guy in the wine-and-cheese world of opera.
He left the Toyota dealership and is managed by Lohmeyer's United Artists and Authors Agency, which is presenting him in recital Saturday night at the Singletary Center for the Arts with Jackson and UK soprano Julie LaDouceur.
Evans has continued on the competition trail, reaching the finals of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation's international contest, where he was awarded a career grant and will perform in its fall gala concert. One of the next stops is Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he hopes to enter its young artist program.
"I'm just a regular guy who got put in the right place at the right time," Evans says, "and I just decided to do it."