Swinging with the karaoke microphone, Lucas Meachem belted out an "I Believe I Can Fly" that would instantly put to shame any unsuspecting amateur who stumbled into the cozy New York bar.
His voice packing an R&B brassiness yet refined with an unforced vibrato, Meachem is no dabbler in bar singing. He is one of opera's rising stars, recently completing a stint as a male lead in "La Boheme" at New York's Metropolitan Opera -- and karaoke was key to his success.
Raised in rural North Carolina, Meachem got his big break in 2006 when he visited Paris for the first time as part of a fellowship and decided to make his move as opera glitterati went out drinking.
Meachem got on the karaoke machine and sang "I Believe I Can Fly," R. Kelly's ballad of discovering personal strength, and so impressed mezzo-soprano Susan Graham that she recommended him for a part at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
But karaoke runs deeper for Meachem. The skill needed to master it -- imitating another's voice -- is how he entered opera.
One of four children supported by a schoolteacher mother, Meachem grew up with little exposure to opera, but would mimic songs on the radio by Top 40 artists from Michael Jackson to Aerosmith's Steven Tyler -- whose screeching climax on "Dream On" is another of Meachem's karaoke tricks.
One Christmas his mother gifted him a tape of the Three Tenors -- the legendary trio of Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.
"It was next to godliness to me that these people could make this sound with the unamplified human voice," he told AFP at the Upper West Side bar where he showed off his karaoke prowess.
"All of a sudden there was this type of singing that I could not replicate," he said. "After hearing that, it changed my life forever."
"Sorry, Steven Tyler, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson -- rest in peace -- but you couldn't pique my interest in the same way, because I could already do that."
- Straddling two worlds -
Meachem -- who has the strapping frame of a college athlete yet with piercing blue eyes and a natural affability -- voiced pride in his North Carolina roots but joked that he came from "the sticks."
He acknowledged that starring at the Met, the most prestigious US opera house, gave him limited cachet with childhood friends.
"I could go home and say, 'I'm singing at the Met and in Vienna and London and San Francisco and Chicago and then I say that I sang the national anthem at the Rangers game in New York and they say, 'The Rangers game -- that's something else!'"
With his insight into two worlds, the 39-year-old has taken to writing strikingly forthright essays aimed at aspiring singers.
Devoid of any diva-like pretension, The Baritone Blog offers everything from advice on taxes (make sure you pay them!) to his thoughts on feeling out of place as an opera singer when he won a Grammy last year.
Elsewhere on the blog, in what could have been a scene from "Les Miserables," he admitted stuffing his coat with food to survive when he was a student. He also resorted to calling up food companies to compliment them on their products, leading them to send him packages of samples that would hold him over.
He said his experiences helped in "La Boheme" as he played Marcello, the struggling painter living among Paris bohemians.
"Somebody who can't pay the bills -- been there before. Somebody that can't pay his utility bill, so it's cold in the house, and he can't afford firewood -- been there, too," Meachem said.
"There's a lot of life imitating art in that opera for me personally."
- Advice from love to singing -
Meachem also offers artistic guidance to new singers on The Baritone Blog. The most common mistake, he said, is not to sing in a forward position as opera, much unlike karaoke, involves no microphone.
His insights on his blog also revolve around making love last -- he is visibly smitten with his wife Irina, a pianist and opera coach from Minnesota -- and his decision to adopt a vegan diet, both out of compassion for animals and to lose weight.
"I saw the trend in opera shift toward a trimmer singer," he said.
As for the future, Meachem sees himself assuming a mentoring role, remembering how much help he received as a young singer -- and how many questions he had.
"Now that I am at the top, I want to pass that knowledge on to the next generation," he said. "I want to give back in some way that's tangible to them."