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Tenor, Inc.

MICHAEL FABIANO may have the most exciting tenor voice in opera, and the careful calculation behind his career is paying off. This month, he stars in Rigoletto at the Paris Opera.
By Brian Kellow.
Photographed by Coral von Zumwalt at Inn at the Presidio.

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“I sing because I know that culture is necessary to keep society round.”
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As Edgardo in Lucia at the Met, 2015
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IF YOU CRAVE the ideal present-day embodiment of the Duke of Mantua or Rodolfo (either Bohème or Luisa Miller), no one reignites that golden-age magic the way Michael Fabiano does. There’s his magnificent, warm tone, the generous helping of squillo, and his visceral stage presence: his energy is so concentrated that he often leaves his colleagues miles behind. There’s also the thrilling inevitability of the way he sings, reminiscent of the young Luciano Pavarotti. His reviews are excellent. So why does he make so many people uneasy?

Perhaps it’s because the opera world today seems to breed a certain blandness. Many young singers push their niceness, their ordinariness, their desire to be liked and get along. Michael Fabiano is an emotional, deeply committed, bigger-than-life singer with an emotional, deeply committed, bigger-than-life personality. “I’m not a conformist,” he says. “Not at all.” Yet his fiery singing triggers a certain nervousness among opera insiders, who express concern that he brings too much intensity to his art. Fabiano is a carefully trained artist, but his brand of excitement, once a reasonable goal among Italianate tenors, seems an anomaly today.

T he thirty-one-year-old singer and I are discussing this peculiar trend on the front porch of his parents’ handsome, spacious house on the New Jersey shore. It’s a picture-perfect July day at the beach, and Fabiano has had a five-mile morning run before picking me up at the train station behind the wheel of his black BMW F80 M3. 

“We’re more of a collective society today,” says Fabiano. “People can do many things at once. They can rely on their phone and computer. So the sense of necessary hard work to achieve greatness just doesn’t exist anymore. People end up in this pack of ... just the same. I believe in stepping ahead constantly. And even when I step ahead, I think, ‘What are the next three steps I have to take to get even further ahead?’ 

“I sing because it’s catharsis, and I sing because I know that culture is necessary to keep society round. So when I achieve a goalpost in my mind or on paper, I create new ones. I think that’s learned, but it’s also inherited. I remember sitting with my father and planning out, what does the next five and ten years mean to me? How do I make it to having a career? I achieved a lot of those things earlier than I anticipated. You can imagine that my list of requirements continues to develop. The wheel moves. Sometimes there are threats that come in—a period when I’m not in my best form, or there’s a family problem. I have to isolate the threat and get it away.” (One threat he isolated was his weight; at twenty, he dropped eighty pounds in one year, and he has since kept to a strict fitness regime.) 

Fabiano spends as much time as possible at the Jersey shore, close to his parents, although he also has residences in Philadelphia and Florida. Fabiano’s connection to his family provides the core of his ferocious work ethic. A recurring theme in his conversation is the rise of his hardworking grandfather, who went from shining shoes to owning his own company, and the intense discipline passed down from generation to generation. Fabiano’s father has had a successful career as a turnaround specialist, coming into companies, determining what’s wrong and fixing it. Both his father and mother studied music, and his aunt was a fest singer in several German houses; his younger brother is a bass fisherman and designer of fishing products and apparel. “We’re a big, boisterous family,” he says. “No one is scared to voice an opinion. Who would want a family where everyone agreed all the time?”

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Photo by Coral von Zumwalt 

F abiano is thoughtful and specific in his answers to questions. He shies away from generalizations, and he speaks in meticulously crafted sentences, probably an echo of his years on his high-school debate team. “I like studying how people speak,” he says. “I watch a lot of interviews—actors, politicians—and I turn it off as soon as I see people not answering the question. Get to the point! Be efficient!” He reads a good deal of philosophy—John Rawls and John Locke are two favorites—and historical biography, particularly those by David McCullough. “I don’t read fiction at all,” he says. “Facts are important to me. Knowing what is, rather than what might be, is more important to me. If I know what is, I can make a calculation.”

Fabiano made his stage debut in 2007 as Alfredo in La Traviata at the Stadttheater Klagenfurt, and he has built his career carefully, making an impression in one role after another, working his way up to plum roles in the best international houses. This season’s highlights include opening San Francisco Opera’s season as Rodolfo in Luisa Miller; a rapturously received Lenski in Eugene Onegin for the Royal Opera, Covent Garden; and the Duke in Rigoletto at the Paris Opéra, opposite Olga Peretyatko. Next month, he returns to San Francisco Opera in the title role of Don Carlo, opposite Ana María Martínez, led by Nicola Luisotti. 

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At the Met, Fabiano registered potently when he made his debut in 2010 as Raffaele in Stiffelio. He sang Alfred in Die Fledermaus in 2013 and 2014, but he did not score a prime role with the company for some time. In April 2013, there was a lot of golden-age-throwback talk in the air when he sang a marvelous Oronte in I Lombardi with Opera Orchestra of New York, and there was more of the same when he returned to the Met in December 2014, as Rodolfo in La Bohème, a role in which he showed a masterful control of dynamics, ending “Che gelida manina” with a thrilling, squillo-packed high C and becoming, overnight, the Rodolfo of our day. 

His next Met success came a few months later, as a last-minute substitute for Joseph Calleja as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor. “I had been home only a day and a half,” he recalls. “So I was jet-lagged. I got to the Met. I do well under the gun. I like hard challenges. I said, ‘Have a pianist in my room, a good pianist, and make sure they are there before every single scene to play the music for me, so I can get it in my brain again. And make sure I have a meal—potatoes and chicken—ready to go two to three hours before. Otherwise I’m not going to sing as well.’” As Edgardo, he again scored a triumph. Apart from being in vibrant voice, he showed that he knows how to listen as a stage actor; not a move he made in either Met role seemed untruthful. That same year, he earned both the Richard Tucker Award and the Met’s Beverly Sills Award.

He credits many teachers with helping him find his true voice, including George Shirley, his teacher at the University of Michigan, who helped him sing into the core of his instrument, and Bill Schuman, tenor vocal guru at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, where Fabiano’s fellow students included Bryan Hymel and Angela Meade. “I like having a wide slate of ideas from which to draw,” he says. “I believe in this marketplace of ideas. In music, there are always going to be competing ideals, competing values, and it’s my job to look at the whole spectrum and say, ‘I like this, I don’t like that.’ It’s almost like a line-item veto. I’m an ideas guy. I have trouble falling in line with one side. If you have an x, y and z chart of politics, you could never place me. I’d be all over the map.”

Fabiano no longer studies with Schuman, who dismissed him from his studio after they had worked together for nine years. “Bill believes that someone must adhere strictly to his doctrine of education and technique, and one mustn’t have any sense of insubordination to his idea of singing,” says Fabiano. “That notion of me challenging assumptions of his, and wanting to seek the counsel of others outside his own studio, I would say, hurt our relationship.” Schuman says, “Michael feels I chose another tenor over him. Not true. It’s hard when one wants to be the only one. I admired his talent, and I miss him.” Currently, Fabiano’s principal teacher is Julia Faulkner; they meet in Chicago, Philadelphia or wherever their schedules permit.

Danielle Orlando, on the coaching staff at the Academy of Vocal Arts, remembers Fabiano as a young student, coaching with AVA’s famously demanding music director, Christofer Macatsoris. “Over and over again, high notes, high notes,” says Orlando. “A few times I would cringe, thinking, ‘How many of those can you do?’ Michael has a lot of passion for work. He doesn’t invite affection—he provokes controversy.” 

Fabiano remains grateful to George Shirley for understanding that a voice such as his needs to be let out to run around and see what it can do. (In the studio, they started with “Questa o quella” and “Una furtiva lagrima.”) There seems to be more straitjacketing of singers and repertoire nowadays than ever before. The industry seems fearful of letting young artists take on dramatic roles too soon—or in some cases, ever. “A young tenor should be allowing his voice to run free,” says Fabiano. “He should be singing Daughter of the Regiment and Puritani and Rossini—you need to sing B-flats. Big mistake in academia [to prevent that].”

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As Rodolfo to Angela Gheorghiu’s Mimì in the Met’s Bohème, 2014
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

W ith respect to the persistent concerns over his singing, we come to the topic of The Audition, Susan Froemke’s documentary about the finals of the 2007 Met National Council Auditions. Onscreen, Fabiano seemed—understandably—tense, and hell-bent on winning. The Audition is one of two topics, along with his private life, that Fabiano has asked that we refrain from discussing, but he brings it up. “There’s a moment in the film where one of the judges says I’m either going to be great or dead in five years. That kind of story was recurrent. A lot of people said when I was young that the way I was singing would lead to disaster. I remember, even then, laughing at some of these comments. Young singers can’t be told to sing only Mozart. It should not be a methodology of teaching somebody how to sing. Open and sing, and see, do you really have the goods? Then create parameters.” 

After two and a half years of studying Don Carlo, Fabiano hopes that next month’s performances in San Francisco will lead to more. He considers Poliuto, at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 2015, the greatest challenge he’s had to date. “We did the original score, and virtually uncut. It sat on the high edge of my passaggio. Singing for me is all about percentages. When do I give eighty percent or sixty? Good I had multiple weeks to rehearse it.” And he can’t wait for his first Ballo. “It’s very parallel to Rigoletto,” he says. “There are fun moments, and the music doesn’t hem and haw. There’s some spice to the character. I do like to be funny and fun. I’m not all gray clouds—believe it or not.” spacer 

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