When 6'5", 280-pound Timothy Jenkins lumbered onstage for a regional Metropolitan Opera competition in New Orleans three years ago, the Met's assistant manager, Joan Ingpen, was impressed by more than his Pavarottian size. What she recognized was a potential heldentenor, the German term for the robust, glass-shattering tenor ideally suited to heroic Wagnerian roles—a breed of singer so rare that this century has produced only a handful, including the late Lauritz Melchior and Jon Vickers, now 55. Moments after Jenkins' performance, Ingpen collared the startled novice and whisked him off to New York and a Met contract. "I was stunned," recalls Jenkins, 30. Since heldentenors typically don't peak until their mid-40s, the Met's strategy has been to cultivate Jenkins' voice slowly by having him sing modest tenor roles. He faces his most crucial test next April singing the title role in Wagner's Parsifal.

Born in Oklahoma City, Jenkins began voice lessons at 15. By 1977, when he received a B.A. in music from North Texas State in Denton, Jenkins had performed six roles with the Fort Worth Opera. Prior to his Met audition, Jenkins was a teaching fellow at his alma mater and a part-time clerk at a store in Denton. "It's unreal," marvels Jenkins' father, Dale, a onetime amateur violinist who now works for IBM in Amarillo, Texas. "We never expected him to go straight to the Met."

Jenkins lives with his wife, Shawn, 30, and their son, 4-year-old Scott, on Manhattan's West Side, where he spends his free time strumming his guitar and listening to Gordon Lightfoot ballads. Jenkins practices his operatic repertoire no more than two hours a day to avoid damaging his voice. For the same reason, he has already turned down offers from impresarios around the world. Opera critic Speight Jenkins (no relation) thinks Timothy is making the right decision: "A young Wagnerian tenor should mature properly. Jenkins is the most hopeful candidate I have heard, anywhere."