The following interview took place on the “ranch” of the Santa Fe Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is deeply appreciated.
[Below: Tenor Michael Fabiano; edited image, based on a Ariel Doneson photograph, courtesy of Michael Fabiano.]
Wm: Most of the opera artists whom I’ve interviewed were engaged or influenced in childhood or adolescence by some kind of vocal performance, be it gospel, choir, rock bands or high school musicals, but you were raised by a family that was immersed in opera and classical music. What were your early experiences with vocal music?
MF: A lot of my family members studied opera. A great aunt, an aunt, and both my father and mother studied opera. However, only my aunt, soprano Judith Burbank, performed it professionally. I knew about the rigors of an operatic career. It’s trying to be on the road all the time.
Wm: You have been quoted as saying that opera was not an interest as a teenager and in college you expected to pursue a professional career. According to some of your biographies, you pursued a business administration degree at University of Michigan, where you said you started taking voice lessons from the famous teacher, George Shirley.
But there are some pieces missing in that story. You left University of Michigan with a degree in vocal performance. Beyond the lessons with Shirley were there other formative experiences there?
MF: The stories that I was studying business administration are just not true. In fact, when I applied to the University of Michigan I sent a voice tape as part of the admissions process, and I ended up in the music school right away.
It was only in college that I thought of opera as a career instead of an avocation. George Shirley, the former Metropoltian Opera star from whom I took lessons at the University of Michigan was my first inspiration. His confidence in the possibilities of my having a career was a big factor. Although I did, in fact, study economics, and considered the idea of a double major of music and economics, I did not pursue the idea for a prolonged period of time. I graduated with a voice degree.
Wm: Then when DID you become interested in opera as an art form? When did you decide that you have an operatic voice? How DID you come to attention of George Shirley?
MF: My first formative experience with opera was watching the DVD of the San Francisco Opera performance of Boito’s “Mefistofele” with Samuel Ramey. I was transfixed by Boito’s music and by the Faust role. After that I immersed myself into every one of Verdi’s operas. I loved Romantic music, and especially Puccini’s operas, both then and now. Over time I have developed a taste for singing the Verdi and Donizetti operas.
I had seen my Aunt Judith singing in an Opera Theater America production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” in New Jersey, when she was in her mid-50s. She is a vocal instructor at a small college. She knew my voice and of my interest in vocal lessons. She knew George Shirley and recommended me to him.
Wm: You became a student of the prestigious Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA). What were the steps that led you from University of Michigan to the AVA? What experiences there had the most impact on your life and your career?
MF: AVA is a rigorous school.They push the limits of the singers who go there. They make it incredibly tough. I performed 14 leading roles there, all of them in my standard repertory. I’m eternally grateful.
It has a great track record. A dymamic group of people that have gone there. Joyce di Donato was a student there. There are eight of this year’s Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singers who went there.
[Below: Violetta (Brenda Rae, right) expresses her love to Alfredo (Michael Fabiano, left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
AVA’s Bill Schuman has been one of my main mentors for the past eight yearrs. Laurent Philippe is my vocal coach, as is Danielle Orlando. It’s a magnificent place for students who can schedule coaching hours each day in a variety of vocal and performance skills.
I believe that there should be more schools like AVA, in which voice students could study every day with a vocal coach. In the University systems you may not get even a coaching session a week. For a long career a vocal student needs a considerable amount of personal one on one time with a vocal coach.
Wm: Several of the tenors who have graduated from AVA in recent years have established their careers in the lyric tenor repertory. Obviously, this is a result of assessing the appropriate roles for each individual’s vocal weight. But it also seems that concentrating a career on what I call the “Alfredo Kraus roles” might well increase vocal longevity.
MF: I know there are places that try to encourage tenors to stay in the lyric repertory, but AVA is not such place. We’ve had students with very large voices at AVA and they are encouraged to develop repertory that suits their voices. If you look at some of the recent AVA tenors, Stephen Costello has a light lyric voice, mine is a lyric voice, but Stuart Neill sings the dramatic tenor roles of Canio in Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” and Calaf in Puccini’s “Turandot”.
I haven’t been in school for the past four years. The last year I was there we did Massenet’s “Don Quichotte”, Puccini’s “Le Villi”, Tchaikovsky’s “Eugen Onegin”, Respighi’s “La Fiamma” and Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”.
What’s really important is that, unlike many schools, AVA does try to assist and help grow all types of voices. They are not narrow in their scope. I disagree with the policy that young people should be discouraged from singing heavier vocal music. I believe that young people should open their voices.
[Below: Cassio (Michael Fabiano, center, in white uniform) is goaded into drunkenness by Iago (Lucio Gallo, standing) in the Andrei Serban production of Verdi’s “Otello”; edited image of a production photograph for the Opera National de Paris.]
Wm: I suppose that no interview goes by without a reference to Susan Froemke’s documentary “The Audition” that made media stars of you and Alek Shrader. Do you feel that “The Audition” gave you a head start in your career? If so, what doors did it open to you?
MF: I think the film was interesting. I think it did a lot for the New York Metropolitan Opera. And I think it pulled the curtain and showed the rigors of this business and how tough it is and how much work that it requires to advance in an operatic career. There is a range of emotions that an opera singer experiences.
Wm: The film was edited to show you as a extremely intense, even self-centered contestant. But I also interviewed another contestant in the film, Ryan McKinny (in an interview to be posted later), who said he believes that every artist who succeeds is just as driven and intense as you were shown to be. Do you think the film portrayed you unfairly?
MF: Not really. Some people are scared of extreme strength. They sbould like it. It takes a clear mind and heart and drive to have success in this field. I’m not wanting someone else to drive me.
Some people really go for the competitions and will “fight to the death” for the prize and the recognition. This could be the most competitive business there is besides politics.
I compete with myself. When I see others doing something wonderful with their voices, I try to replicate what those wonderful people do. I want to show the public that I have something that they can believe in. That is my definition of competition.
Some people want an opera singer to be an artiste. That’s not who I am. I’m blessed that I live in the USA, and that we have the utmost freedom to pursue our dreams. I might not have the chances here that I might have elsewhere, but I am going to work every day to achieve my goals.
Wm: Of course, a film about an operatic vocal competition gives no indication of what it’s like to actually perform in opera.
MF: Opera is a team activity. It has to be. It is not ruled by one person. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in strong leadership. What I found over the past few years is that the best productions I have done were those where there was really warm contact between myself and my colleagues – when we’ve been able to transcend our personal boundaries to produce a work to which the public responds.
For me, its important to communicate something bigger than myself to the public. I try to do it.
I don’t want just to make music, I want to communicate music. I want the public to live and breathe with me as a singer. Even though they might not be performers themselves, I want them to live in the moment with the music I’m singing. I want to direct my energy to break as many boundaries as I can between myself and my audience.
I consider myself very blessed that I do what I do. Even so some days are intolerably difficult, I don’t care. I so love to sing that I could skip to work.
Wm: You have already performed at several of the world’s major opera houses, with international stars and important stage directors as your colleagues. What has been the most satisfying experiences of your career so far?
MF: Working with Renee Fleming. She has been a magnificent mentor, who has given me wonderful advice. Performing next to her at the San Francisco Opera in Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” was a great honor. Those performances at the San Francisco Opera put a big stamp of approval on my career.
[Below: Lucrezia Borgia (Renee Fleming, above) tries to save the life of her son, Gennaro (Michael Fabiano, below) that she had unintentionally poisoned; resize image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]
Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, is another important influence on my career. Under him I performed Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”. I also performed Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, with James Judd and the Vienna Symphony, which is the non-operatic piece I would most want to sing again. Both were experiences to remember.
Wm: Although I believe it is usually tacky for production designers and stage directors to change the sexual orientation of an operatic character from what was intended by the composer and librettist, the one example I have seen so far that actually clarifies the plot, is John Pascoe’s production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”, in which Gennaro, Maffio Orsini and their friends are all portrayed as gay. What is it like working with Pascoe? Which stage directors do you regard as memorable?
[Below: Michael Fabiano as Gennaro in John Pascoe’s production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”; resized image of a Cory Weaver photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]
MF: It was a great experience working with Pascoe. I thought his idea of Gennaro and his companions as gay actually worked.
I always enter the rehearsal process with an open mind, and, as long as the production adheres to the spirit of the text and the opera, I have no problem. But there is a lot of regie-theatre that I would reach an impasse with, if the director asked to do something I feel should not be done.
Wm: This is your first season in a lead role with the Santa Fe Opera. What do you find interesting or different about Santa Fe as from other engagements?
MF: The only other time I was here was as a Santa Fe Opera Apprentice when I was 21. That summer was a transformative time for me, personal and careerwise. I came to know a number of people that I had not met before. I watched great singers onstage and could see up close what really fantastic work they did.
I went from Santa Fe to Philadelphia’s AVA. It was an exceptional summer. This is paradise here. Working in this theater is a dream. The administration is easy-going, the orchestra is great, the productions are forward-looking and cool. I am so pleased to be finally invited back after an eight year absence. It is incredibly exciting to come here.
Wm: You are working directly with production designer and stage director Laurent Pelly in the first revival of this production of Verdi’s “La Traviata”. What is that experience like?
MF: It’s magnificent. Pelly, of course, is one of the great directors of our day, and a very kind man, with clear ideas about what he wants. It’s nice to work with a directorial team that is both kind and strong.
[Below: A jealous Alfredo (Michael Fabiano, left) confronts Violetta (Brenda Rae, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
As you know he had created this production for Santa Fe Opera five years ago, but he wanted to re-direct the show in ways he felt best used Brenda Rae the Violetta and myself. He ended up creating an entirely new second act.
Wm: As a long-time subscriber to the San Francisco Opera, I have had the opportunity to see performances with the 27 year old Jose Carreras, the 29 -year old Placido Domingo and the 32 year old Luciano Pavarotti and watched each of their careers grow into heavier roles.
Noting that a tenor’s voice will indicate what roles are right for him, do you at the present time envision a career in which you do these roles for a decade or two then take on heavier weight roles at a later date; or are you planning to stay, as Alfredo Kraus did, in the lyric repertory?
MF: I like Verdi and I will sing a lot of the big bel canto roles as well as Verdi. There is a lot of Verdi scheduled for my immediate future.
[Below: Michael Fabiano as the Duke of Mantiua in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; resized image of a Richard Zandarski photograph for the Florida Grand Opera.]
I know that you can’t move a ship going north in seconds to go directly east. To convince everyone that these are the roles in which I should be cast will take a number of successful performances, but I’m patient.
Wm: You do not plan to take on the Puccini and other verismo tenor roles anytime soon?
MF: I would not talk about verismo roles for young tenors with lyric weight voices, even some who are not that young. I think a young singer should sing as much bel canto and Verdi as possible, because the orchestration of these operas is leaner.
Puccini’s operas are wide and deeply orchestrated, and that is the case even in the late Verdi operas. Big bel canto and early and middle Verdi is where I will be most comfortable.
Wm: You are a passionate advocate of education about classical music, opera and the arts. What are you doing or hoping to do personally to advance that cause?
MF: I’ve started teaching SKYPE classes and courses about asking and answering questions about music and the arts. I’m also doing outreach with kids. It’s very important that children be immersed in the arts.
Not all kids have the same right-brained skills. Many children that are forced to study English, math and science.But if they have an impetus to be in school like dancing or singing, it might help all their school work.
[Below: Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo; resized image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
If we get kids in music, they will do a better job of doing math. The graduation rates of kids with no arts classes are lower than those with a complete education. To governors of both political parties, I say that children should be given the best opportunities. There are longer term consequences when we shortchange education in the arts.
Wm: How would you bring about the change you advocate?
MF: Kids deserve the chance to have art in their life. It’s a great experience for them. To have this happen, I believe that it ‘s incumbent on all young artists to work with the youth of America, focusing on those under the age of 25.
We should be presenting operatic performances that encapsulate what the piece is and not present something that makes no sense. I believe that kids are going to be interested in the opera stories, but my big point is that they need to be immersed now.
We as a country should work to create a new pathway for kids. We have to reevaluate how we spend resources on educational programs. We should allow parents to get a voucher into a parochial school or charter school that offers the arts. But, however it’s done, the principle should be that all young persons should have access to the fine arts.
Wm: Over the past few years, there have been hopeful signs that American opera composers will be offering works to the public that will find their way into the standard performance repertory. Would you like to work with a composer to create a new opera for yourself?
MF: I’m waiting patiently – very patiently – for that moment. I wouldn’t suggest to the composer how to compose the music. We live in a free country. They can write whatever they want to write. But I agree that there have been some great new works. I saw Heggie’s “Moby Dick” in Dallas and was very impressed.
Wm: How do you keep up emotionally with the pace that you are on?
MF: The demands of an opera performer’s career can be very high and returning home alone can be lonely. My saving grace over the past two or three years is that I have a vocal coach who has committed his life to my career. I call him my chief of staff. Having a person on whom I can rely is emotionally comforting. He assists me in many ways.
He has been my coach at AVA and now travels with me. It’s very important for me to have found an artistic partner that can really sacrifice his life for me. He makes this concession to my career, although he likes to stay in the shadows.
Wm: Thank you Michael.
MF: Thank you.
For my reviews of Michael Fabiano performances, see: Brenda Rae, Michael Fabiano Impress in Pelly’s Party-Time “Traviata” – Santa Fe Opera, July 29, 2013, and also,