TAMPA — Walking onto a stage he last performed on more than 15 years ago, Ryan Julian tried to clear his mind.
He was used to the size of the crowd and the heat of the lights, but he couldn't settle that swell of nerves before the first note.
All he could do was redirect that nervous energy into something positive as he filled his lungs with air and unleashed that iconic opening phrase:
"Oh, say, can you see …"
Julian, 40, was one of four finalists auditioning Saturday for the opportunity to sing the national anthem at the Tampa Bay Host Committee's "Salute to the Military" private luncheon during the Republican National Convention.
His booming voice filled the auditorium in the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
"Wow," one woman said.
After three female voices — artistic, beautiful and gentle — Julian's voice hit the crowd like a train of sound, pushing through every note.
While the attentive audience had stayed respectfully quiet through the previous three performances, they were unable to hold back approval. Shouts, claps and cheers erupted as Julian sang out the last verse. As he delivered those final lines about bravery and freedom, the winner was clear.
The auditions were part of a pep rally for convention volunteers. The final four contenders were chosen after entering videos on Facebook.
As the host committee showed the crowd a video, thanked them for their service and announced that each volunteer would receive a free ticket to Busch Gardens, Julian was busy posting the news to Facebook.
"I won!!!!!! Thank you everyone for your votes and support."
Photos of him on stage and a closeup of the trophy dotted his Facebook page. For the Pinellas County real estate agent, it was a step back to the days of touring opera companies and performing before crowds throughout the South.
Julian spent a couple of years in his early 20s rising through the ranks, first as a stagehand and chorus member and ultimately as the title role in Don Pasquale. He has sung the national anthem for sporting events around Tampa Bay, but this would be an unprecedented opportunity to represent the area he's called home his whole life.
"The Tampa Bay area is near and dear to my heart," he said. "I'm excited to be able to represent our area at such a big, national event. Just to be able to promote this area, it's an amazing opportunity."
Since the host committee isn't a partisan organization, Julian prefers to keep his political beliefs quiet. But he is interested in the events of the convention itself and seeing how it will all relate to promoting the bay area.
For the man who first started singing in the St. Petersburg Boys Choir and discovered his love of opera while attending Seminole High School, singing the national anthem during the RNC is an ideal way for him to show his hometown pride and love for his country.
"I never got the opportunity to serve in the military," Julian said. "But to know you have the freedoms we enjoy and have the lives we live, you want to do something. This is my way to serve."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3111.