When Paul Potts strode onto a TV soundstage last year, you could almost see the sarcasm dripping from talent show king Simon Cowell. The pudgy cell phone salesman, appearing on Cowell's British version of American Idol, announced he was going to sing opera, and the crowd cringed.
But then Potts opened his mouth, and out poured Puccini's aria Nessun Dorma. Instantly, he launched an Internet sensation and a musical career.
Now the Welsh tenor is living the great American (and British) dream, having been vaulted from obscurity into sudden celebrity after he won Britain's Got Talent over the favorite, a 6-year-old girl who sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
As Amanda Holden, one of the judges, said of him, "I think that we've got a case of a little lump of coal here that is going to turn into a diamond.''
How does it feel to be Cinderella?
"A year ago I was working in a mobile phone store,'' said Potts, 37, who performs Sunday in Tampa. "Now I find myself touring to many, many wonderful places in the world. It's mind boggling.''
His audition in June quickly became one of YouTube's most popular clips, with more than 20-million hits (go to www.youtube.com and search "Paul Potts.").
Nessun Dorma, from the opera Turandot, is a stirring piece of music (Luciano Pavarotti made it the anthem of the World Cup), but there's something unusually touching about the Potts rendition that seems designed to bring a tear to the eye.
"Unbelievable! I have goose pimples,'' said Holden, an English actor who wept ecstatically as Potts sang.
Even the jaded Cowell was taken aback by Potts' performance. "So you work at Carphone Warehouse, and you did that?'' said Cowell, who goes from trademark smirk to wide grin in the course of the video. "This was a complete breath of fresh air.''
Potts himself has an intense emotional response to singing Nessun Dorma.
"I always find Puccini very moving,'' he said on Monday. "He's the expert at writing music to leave you weeping. I've always been a great lover of his music for that reason. It touches me, and hopefully I can touch one or two people with it as well.''
The tenor was on the phone from Las Vegas, where he was performing at a corporate gala on Thursday. His first U.S. tour gets under way tonight at the Seminole Casino in Hollywood, and Sunday night at the Tampa Theatre.
He is an exceedingly bland interview, sometimes offering just a yes or no to the predictable questions. But there are glimmers of sly wit, as when his old job comes up.
"I haven't actually got around to sending in my resignation. I've got to do that. I don't think I'm going to be able to call in sick from the other side of the world,'' he said.
Potts was not a novice when he entered the talent show. A former choirboy, he once took a master class in Italy taught by Pavarotti and performed the roles of Radames in Aida and Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut in amateur opera productions.
"I've just always loved singing,'' he said. "But without money, my wife and I couldn't afford for me to continue singing, so I made the decision that I'd stop. It was only through flipping a coin that I made the decision to enter the show.''
Potts' debut album One Chance has sold more than 2-million copies. It features a mix of opera arias (including Nessun Dorma), show tunes (Music of the Night from The Phantom of the Opera) and A Mi Manera (My Way in Spanish).
The tenor is touring with a small orchestra. His program includes selections from the album plus a Mario Lanza tribute, Maria from West Side Story and Cavatina, the theme from The Deer Hunter. Three Graces, a female vocal trio, will also perform.
Reviewing a concert from Potts' U.K. tour in February, Roger Clarke of the Birmingham Mail said that the tenor "comes over as an ordinary sort of bloke who struggles a bit with patter between songs but has an inherent, honest humility which carries him through.''
Not everyone loves crossover pop-opera phenoms like Potts, Hayley Westenra and another Cowell find, the male quartet Il Divo. The great soprano Kiri Te Kanawa recently took them to task as "fake singers'' because they use microphones.
"People call them up-and-coming, but they never last,'' the diva told the Weekend Herald newspaper in New Zealand. "They are the new fakes for a new generation.''
Te Kanawa backs up her criticism. Her recital last month at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center was, of course, not amplified, and she could be heard clearly from the back of 2,600-seat Morsani Hall.
"It's her opinion,'' Potts said. "I've performed without amplification in opera with reasonable-sized orchestras. The difference here is that I'm doing quite a long tour and the orchestra is amplified as well. It's a lot easier to control the balance of sound when you have got things miked up.''
After about 15 minutes on the line, Potts needed to go and do a radio interview. He had time for one last question.
Why do you think all this happened to you?
"I don't know,'' he said with a sigh. "I just take each day as it comes. I never try and second-guess what's going to happen tomorrow. I think it just goes to show that you never know what's going to be next. You don't know if things are going to work out. In the end, sometimes they do. I just hope I get to do what I love to do as long as possible.''
John Fleming can be reached at
[email protected] or (727) 893-8716.