At just past noon Thursday, a gondolier named Pippo drifted under the viaduct at The Venetian, dipped a long rowing oar in the ersatz canal and began to sing an Italian aria in a strident operatic baritone.
The aria was “Nessun dorma” — none shall sleep. It was one of Pavarotti’s greatest hits. Pippo’s rendition also was making the little hairs on the back of necks stand up, at least when traffic on the Strip paused for a red light and the cabbies stopped swearing.
When Pippo finished singing about a prince’s love for a beautiful but coldhearted princess, a couple from England seated in his flat-bottomed boat applauded. So did a few people standing on the viaduct.
The gondolier said Pippo is his “water name.”
His ice name is Carnell Johnson.
When he sings the national anthem Friday at T-Mobile Arena before Game 5 of the Golden Knights’ second-round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks, it will sort of be like the gondola ride, only with fewer tildes and exclamation points and with a frozen pond replacing the tranquil canal.
None shall sleep, and all will be applauding so loudly you won’t be able to hear a cab driver swear.
It’s not over until the fat lady sings. Isn’t that what the unrefined said about the opera? And hockey fans said of Kate Smith?
“The First Lady of Radio” became famous again for crooning “God Bless America” at Philadelphia Flyers games during the 1970s, becoming nearly as big a hockey tradition as Red Wings fans hurling octopuses onto the ice during the playoffs and the winning side sipping an adult beverage (or two or three) from Lord Stanley’s Cup.
At Knights games, it doesn’t begin until the big guy sings.
Carnell Johnson stands 6 feet, 2 inches and weighs 280 pounds. When the Knights advertised for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “O Canada” vocalists, he was one of about 1,000 who applied. The Knights finally called his number — although he didn’t have one then — before the Feb. 13 game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“When I got out there, my legs started shaking,” said the 36-year-old Las Vegas native who tossed the discus and shot at Green Valley High School. “It was a combination of nerves … and it being cold down there on the ice.”
After the second or third time, his legs stopped shaking. Johnson has taken to wearing a Knights scarf to ward off the chill when he sings, along with an official Knights jersey purchased for him by one of the team’s booster clubs. It says “GOLDEN PIPES” on the nameplate over a big No. 1.
The last time anybody counted, the Flyers’ record when Kate Smith sang “God Bless America” live or on tape was 100-29-5. The Knights are 6-2 when Johnson sings. He’s 3-1 during the regular season, 3-1 in the playoffs. His winning percentage is .750.
Marc-Andre Fleury, the Knights’ puck stopper supreme, is 29-13-4 for a winning percentage of .630. While it should be noted that Johnson has never stopped a 100-mph slap shot while being screened, you don’t want to mess with a .750 mojo, especially during the playoffs.
Johnson said he hasn’t met Fleury or any of the other players, but he was told of a podcast during which forward Cody Eakin mentioned him by his nickname, that “Golden Pipes really was killing it out there” or something to that effect.
Which isn’t that easy.
Note for note
“The Star-Spangled Banner” can be difficult to sing, and the words can be easy to forget, as longtime Las Vegan Robert Goulet infamously did before the second Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fight.
Johnson prefers to sing it straight. No thunderous crescendos, no avante-garde interpretations, no altered melodies. No Marvin Gaye at the NBA All-Star Game, no Jose Feliciano at the World Series.
“My job is to sing it the way it was written,” said the clasically trained troubadour who has a music degree from UNLV. “Don’t make it about you. Make it about respecting our country.”
His only concession to creative license is when T-Mobile fans cry out “Knights” as Johnson sings about giving proof that our flag was still there. He pauses for a beat and lets the 18,000-member chorus sing along.
Johnson said it is a honor to be mentioned along with Kate Smith and Rene Rancourt, who sings the national anthem before Boston Bruins games, and Jim Cornelison, who performs the honor at United Center in Chicago before the Blackhawks skate.
“It’s something that is almost surreal,” he said of becoming part of the Knights’ game-night tradition and a resounding footnote to all the team has accomplished during its debut season.
“To be singing in front of 18,000 people and knowing that people are watching nationwide and even up in Canada is really something else.”
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates The Venetian.