ATLANTIC CITY - Before Susan Boyle, there was Paul Potts.
Once, before the Scottish songstress' famed rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" was still just that, her dream, Potts was the success story of the same U.K. reality TV show, "Britain's Got Talent."
And his arc to stardom was proclaimed similarly - another beloved, cuddly dweeb with a big voice.
The reality was a little more polished - the 38-year-old had sung opera in an amateur way for much of his 30s. But Simon Cowell crowned him in 2007 as the zero-to-hero of the tenor set.
Before Potts knew it, he made "Oprah." His "BGT" audition ranked as fourth most-watched clip on YouTube until April 2009. (Hurricane Boyle then swept that record off the board.)
With all that exposure in his background, Potts stepped out onto stage at the Borgata on Friday knowing his audience recognized him. Younger and, next to many of his Mediterranean contemporaries, paler and less practiced-looking, he appeared with an open, cheery face.
But would they know his music? One wrinkle in the reality-TV-screen-to-stage progression depends on Cowell acolytes grasping Puccini as easily as pop.
Unlike Boyle, who trots out show tunes and ballads, Potts sings opera - and in Italian.
But in the spotlight of the front row, a clutch of fans appeared gray-haired, amped-up and knowledgeable. "Gooooo Paul!," belted a senior female fan, as Potts completed his opener, "Il Prima Volta" ("The First Time I Ever Saw You").
The crowd's instant-translation function stayed in full effect, as he next launched into an all-Italian version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory."
Sipping from a white-china mug that he revealed contained not water but tea, Potts offset his fancy lyrics with his trademark everyman self-deprecation. Leading into an aria from "La Boheme" - "Che Gelida Manina," where a man describes his beloved's eyes as thieves that steal "the treasure from my chest - Potts admitted the poetry left him in the dust.
"If they could write chat-up lines like that, I bet those writers never were in need of a girlfriend," he cracked.
And if Potts' immensely warm voice rolled out the heavy-hitting arias - such as "E Lucevan Le Stelle," featured on his second album, "Passione" - his stage chat paid constant deference to the seemingly transformative magic of winning a competition. Apparently, those lucky few musicians blessed with winning vocal cords travel in packs; Potts even introduced a surprise supporting guest, Neil E. Boyd, winner of "America's Got Talent."
That Boyd could get a star's standing ovation for his version of "God Bless the U.S.A." showed the night's audience members weren't simply opera purists.
"It's amazing that music, based just on 12 different notes, can affect so many people across every continent," Potts mused.
That's the payoff, rewarding or terrifying, of winning the fame game - after the fairy tale, the work begins to maintain the magic.
Luckily for Potts, his career may be two years ahead of Boyle's, but on an even footing. The Scottish spinster's narrow miss for the "BGT" title this year likely will not rule out a high-profile future - but the loss sent her spinning hysterically into rehab.
Potts' calmer public reception, meanwhile, has left him free to stretch out his career. From the look on his face under the hot stage lights, the act of touring as an unlikely ambassador for opera looks like Potts' recurring dream come true.
E-mail Juliet Fletcher: