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When Cory Carlson starts performing an aria, it takes just a few seconds for the silverware to stop clanking and the conversations to subside.
His "opera house" is the former Minneapolis Fire Station No. 28 that's now a bistro in the Linden Hills neighborhood. Carlson has worked as a waiter and floor manager since it opened in 2002.
Singing part of an Italian opera for a guest's special occasion, his voice resonates throughout the 12-table Cafe Twenty-Eight. Guests applaud and ask for an encore, but he can't always oblige. He's just too busy.
For the guests, even the brief performance is memorable.
"I think it's a marvelous way to begin my 82nd year," said Mike Pettee, who cried as Carlson sang an aria called "Una Furtiva Lagrima" from Donizetti's "Elixir of Love" opera.
Carlson's first "performance" was in 2002, when the cafe's owner asked him to sing "Happy Birthday" for her dad.
"I sang in my best operatic presentation, and I drew an encore," said Carlson, 33, who lives in Minneapolis. "So I sang an old Italian song. From then on, it was sort of the Linden Hills rumor."
Word of mouth: "The rumor has spread, and some nights, it seems like a lot of people are asking and they'll go maybe a couple of weeks and not sing at all. I love the spontaneity of it. ... It's almost like a speak-easy kind of thing. I think it's almost in some way my responsibility to share a gift with somebody else."
The beginning: "My training was in opera specifically. After undergrad [at the University of Minnesota Duluth], I had an apprenticeship with the Minnesota Opera, where I took part in their educational outreach program for a few months."
Favorites: "I love to perform 'Una Furtiva Lagrima' from 'The Elixir of Love,' by Donizetti. I also love an old Neapolitan song called 'Come Back to Sorrento.' I always call it my gondola song. It's something that you would hear on the waterways of Venice."
Creating a moment: "For the 'Una Furtiva,' I do the first verse and same with the 'Sorrento.' There's a couple of the songs that I do here that are just long enough to where it's a moment, it's not a complete 20-minute -- you know, arias can go on and on."
Sound quality: "You couldn't ask for a better space, with the hardwood floors, the original tin roof ceiling. It's almost like singing in the shower, how good that feels. How the sound comes right back to you and just fills the space with minimal effort."
More than a hobby: "Singing is a passion and a lifestyle. I believe in sort of a holistic life, so I don't think that your career defines you. I always think the word 'hobby' downplays the emphasis in your life."
Other passions: "I am a singer-songwriter. I write and perform music for our church every week. It's called Solomon's Porch. I'm also an artist-in-residence with the Minneapolis public schools teaching poetry. I don't sing a lot of opera for the kids. But sometimes I do, just to shock them."
Return engagement: "My wife worked [as a nurse] for a boarding school in Switzerland for a year, and I was the husband in tow."
Stage presence: "We were at a Damien Rice concert [in September 2007] at the State Theatre, and he had a girl from the audience on stage. So he starts to play 'Purple Rain.' This girl shook her head and said no. There was this moment of silence, and I jump up, and I said, 'I will sing with you, Damien Rice.' I don't know where that came from. So I went up, and we closed the concert with that."
Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707