Johnathan Lee Iverson wanted to be an opera singer.
Instead, for 15 years, he has used his singing to direct what's known as the Greatest Show on Earth -- the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It returns to the Consol Energy Center Wednesday through next Sunday in "Dragons," a show to celebrate the Year of the Dragon.
Mr. Iverson was only 22 and had just graduated in May 1998 from University of Hartford's Hartt School with a degree in voice performance when he was hired to be ringmaster -- the youngest ever and the first African-American in the role.
In "Dragons," the performers bring together dragon lore and their regular circus feats. The performers do such talent acts as trapeze stunts, motorcycle high-wire rides, kung fu and "hair hang" acts; there also are people bringing action from such performing animals as lions, tigers, Asian elephants and rescue dogs, as well as Cossack riders displaying their strength and dexterity on thoroughbred horses.
Mr. Iverson sings throughout the show, all original numbers. "It's a lot," he said. "We do over 400 shows a year." Now 37, he said that when he sees old friends from his years in college "they're astonished that I'm still singing."
He does it with pleasure.
"There's nothing like a traditional circus," he said. "Once the sawdust gets in your blood you find there's no life like it. ... It's almost what you want the world to be. You're watching the biggest miracles."
And the people performing those "miracles" come from all over the world but become "each other's neighbors. ... We look out for each other," Mr. Iverson said.
He married one of those neighbors, a dance captain. Priscilla Iverson is now the association production manager of the circus, and she and Mr. Iverson have two children, 8-year-old Matthew Felipe and 4-year-old Lila Simone. When the circus is "on vacation, we're usually in Brazil," Mrs. Iverson's home nation, he said.
Mr. Iverson said he has been to Pittsburgh many times, the first time when he was a child singing with the Boys Choir of Harlem. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and as a member of the choir for seven years became lead tenor.
"I fainted there when I was a kid," he said of the trip he made here at age 13.
"It was hot under the lights. ... I hadn't built up the stamina," and so he fainted in what he called a "beautiful theater," though he didn't remember the name.
The choir opened many doors. He sang at the intermission for Luciano Pavarotti's Concert in Central Park, performed in a live show on Broadway and won second place in the Lena Horne Vocal Jazz Scholarship.
He made such an impression during his first year as the circus ringmaster that Barbara Walters named him one of the 10 most fascinating people in 1999.
This week's main show runs a little more than two hours, with a preshow that will include family interactive activities such as learning juggling and balancing acts, getting performer autographs, animal tricks and clown antics.