Michael Fabiano Michael Fabiano. Photo: Arielle Doneson

Michael Fabiano: Traditional Tenor for the Modern Age
He's been called 'the hardest-working opera singer in show business' – opera's answer to James Brown spoke to The American's Michael Burland in Zurich as he prepared for his for his Royal Opera House début

First things first, Michael, our expat readers would love to know, where do you hail from originally?

North Jersey. We lived all over the north part of the state until I was 11. Then my father was transferred to the state of Minnesota – he was a turnaround specialist, bringing companies back from the brink of going out of business. We lived in Minneapolis from when I was 11 to 18. It was a real culture shock, diametrically different, culturally, to the New York/New Jersey/ Pennsylvania area. I had some wonderful times growing up there, but the kids would always make horrific fun of my accent – they talked 'like this, you bet, goshdarn it' and I never assimilated the accent. Funnily enough my brother who's 29 still lives there today, he was 8 when we got there and he never left – he got it in his blood, he's got the accent for sure. But it never stuck to me.

Then I went to the University of Michigan which was square between the two, and it was a clash of accents. Unlike Minnesota, in Michigan there was an immigration of Italians, so we could always find really good pizza – that's something New Jersey people always look for, real New York style goombah pizza, you gotta have it!

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo in La Boheme Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo in San Francisco Opera's La Boheme. Photo: Cory Weaver>

With a name like Fabiano, I was guessing you were from Italian stock.

We have strong ties to the south of Italy, still. My aunt, Laurie Fabiano, wrote a book called Elizabeth Street, about the migration of my family to the States in the early part of last century. It's fictional but it tracks every person in my family through the '60s. There's a strong strain of Italian-ness in my family – my father is 100 percent from the south of Italy, two different areas, and my mother is from all over, different countries all over Europe – Irish, German, English, Dutch… I'm a real mutt – that's the American way! Most people I know are from multiple places. I have lots of Irish-Italian mixed friends – can you imagine? – but they're both Catholic, so perhaps not very different.

And both highly strung?

Of course! Just like my father and mother.

Both very musical peoples too. Where does your music come from?

It stretches right back. My grandmother on my father's side was a concert pianist and my father sang. On my mother's side, both her parents were singers. No-one pursued it professionally until my aunt on my mother's side, but a very strong creative vein has always been there, both sides of the family. On my father's side, one of my aunts is a wonderful sculptor and became the creative director of multiple foundations – she was one of the founders of the Robin Hood Foundation in New York City.

That explains your attraction to music, but why opera?

I've always loved classical music more than the average young person, I would say. That's not bad or good, it's just what it was. I can't explain it. It was just one of those 'a-ha' moments when I realized I could make a career in music rather than being a businessman, although that's something I would have been happy to do.

We may be the only magazine in the UK where this is an important question – you're also passionate about baseball and you're a certified baseball umpire. Why umpire not player?

That's a great question. When I was young I was a very heavy kid. I loved playing baseball but I was never that good. Other kids used to massacre me when I would strike out, or not be able to run around the bases, and I hated that. When I was around 14 I figured that I could be a part of the game by umpiring it – and by the way, those kids who treated me like dirt, they better watch out!

Payback time?!

Mmm, yeah – in a light way! It's more that I didn’t want to lose the game from my life, I loved it so much. I'm also a rules kinda guy. Statistics, data… I love it about music, politics, history, I love it about anything whenever there's information, rules that must be followed, rules that can be broken – how, when and why. I learned the rulebook extremely quickly and progressed as a very young umpire – I made some errors early on – who doesn't? – but I ended up umpiring kids older than me, young adults really. And because I was a heavy person and had such a strong voice at a young age no-one ever flinched. I looked imposing enough, and I knew the rules cold. I loved it and I did it well into when I began my career as an opera singer. I'd love to do it again, but I'm rusty, I'd have to sit with the book again, take a refresh course with one of the leagues… it would take a lot of time.

You don't look like that 'heavy kid' now – you look pretty fit. [See photos for proof, readers! – ed]

I told you about my a-ha moment. My second one came when I was 20, going into my third year in university. I was walking up the stairs in my parents' house and when I got to the top I was out of breath. I walked into the bathroom and stepped on the scale and I was 275 pounds. I'd never thought I was that heavy. I thought I was 220, 230, but I was really large, I'd gained weight at college. I took the decision to lose weight, not just for my health but to be credible as a performer I couldn’t be a large person – it doesn’t sell. There are a few instances when a great talent rises above the weight, but the chances are low.

How did you achieve the transformation?

With me it was fast, not a slow burn. I went on a pretty intense diet, just eating very well, with almost no carbohydrates – almost none, I didn't go completely Atkins – and I stopped drinking. I started walking every day, four or five miles, and I became a runner. Nine months later it was completely gone.

Do you use the same skills when you're learning a big role in opera?

Yeah, I think they're interdisciplinary skills. I debated at school too. For an opera singer its not just learning a tune. For us there are rules on every measure of music that we sing – go faster, go slower, sing louder, sing quieter, then often there are things in parentheses that give alternatives. My mission is to know the entire blueprint of what we're performing so when work with my colleagues and they share something with me of what they know, or what they're doing, I can refer first to the blueprint and second to what I feel. If I haven't studied the blueprint, the music, well enough, then I can't bring enough to the table as an artist.

For example I'm in Zurich as we speak, doing a new production of La Bohème, with a new team, it's never been done. I know every single measure of La Bohème. When someone suggests something to me that's counter to the music – a gesture or a movement, something that goes squarely against what's written in the score – I can say, this is what's written in the score, here's what I believe I'm saying and thinking, so compel me why I should do something that's against what's written in the score, then I can find a reason to do it. If I didn’t have that knowledge I'd just be another pawn on the chessboard – and I'm never going to be a pawn on the chessboard!

Sometimes theater directors change Shakespeare plays, seemingly for the sake of it – setting them in unlikely time periods or deleting chunks of text. Is opera sometimes like that?

You're hitting the nail on the head. My philosophy is, if you have a Monet, you don't throw green paint on it just because you're trying to be creative, it's no longer a Monet. You love the Monet and that's it. Opera is a growing artform, it's continually evolving, we have new composers, but you don't take the masterpieces of the past and rip them apart. Let's stick to what the music tells us, because the music is the reason it's lasted for a hundred and fifty years not some small, new creative idea.

Michael Fabiano Photo: Arielle Doneson

Do you see yourself as part of a long tradition?

Yes, I do. But it's good to be a traditionalist that's open to change.

As long as there's a good reason to change?

Bingo! Exactly right – and that's a comment for everything, not just for singing. In our politics, the way we perceive other cultures, we should acknowledge that we have traditions, a history that explains why we're here, but we live in modern times. We have to be able to change, as long as we acknowledge the past. Change is OK, but we don't want to lose our roots – in policy-making as well as opera.

Sometimes people are 'either/or'. Either 'we have to do it exactly this way because that's the way it was in 1855', or 'no, the world is melting pot and everything is changing'. It's not that simple. In any form of culture you can boil it down to one thing: adhere to tradition, be receptive to change.

I don't ever want the tradition of good, full-throated opera singing to leave. It’s different to most other forms of music – we sing without amplification in the theater. I've trained myself to project over an orchestra of 100 instruments into a theater of 4,000 seat, with ease and without complaint. I never want to get to a place where we say, yeah, that happened one time but we don't do that any more. I don't want my industry to adopt a different form of production of sound.

There are developments in opera where we're trying to get more visual, more on TV, and some singers are adapting their voices to work with microphones to sound good on television, compressing their voice in a certain way. But that means we're destroying the musical form in the process of creating a visual production. In my opinion the greatest producers emerging over the next ten years are the ones able to create a great visual product with the quality of the voices just as they are on the stage. We don't have the best answer to that yet.

It's a fight I have all the time – I have started having performances on TV and I have questions about how my voice is transmitted via microphone to TV and radio versus how I sound live. There's often a difference, which means people are getting a different experience. I never want to change the way that we sing, or get rid of the grand style of opera to adapt to a modern sensibility, but we need to access more people through this great, grand sense of music using modern technology – getting children 'through the door' in a different way. We need to lobby aggressively for private equity and government funding, depending on where we are.

I believe opera is artist-based: without an artist, and the music, you don't have an artform. There seems to be a current belief that we're in a new world and it's a visual artform, and if you don't have a great picture you don't have the artform. I don't really see that. Without great music, you may have a great show (which is extremely important) but you don't have opera.

At Michigan you were taught by George Shirley, the first African-American tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera. What did he bring to your singing?

Actually, it's not just about the singing, he's given me a lot of my belief system, what we've been talking about. He's a traditionalist, but as an African-American man he says 'Times change, we have to modernize' …hello! And he taught me a lot about being a gentleman on stage, having compassion for people, how to handle situations and be diplomatic. He's not my teacher today, but I still call him my Professor. I treat my business as a singer as if I was a company, and George is on the board – I have five or six advisers and if I have a big decision I call them all and get a temperature gauge from them. If they all agree, or disagree, that's great. If there's dissension I pick my own way. For anyone in life, it's important to have key figures with different views around you who can support your vision. It takes a little of the emotional weight off my shoulders, and adds a extra little color to my vision of what I'm trying to build for the next ten, twenty, thirty, years.

Their advice must be pretty good: after graduating in 2005 you made your concert début at Carnegie Hall in 2006, your stage début at Klagenfurt Stadttheater in 2007, then La Scala, Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, the English National Opera, Dresden Semperoper, Vancouver Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opéra de Limoges, Paris Opera, Glyndebourne Festival, the list goes on. Do you have favorite opera house or city?

Michael Fabiano, Renee Fleming in Lucrezia Borgia Michael Fabiano and Renee Fleming in Lucrezia Borgia. Photo by Cory Weaver, Courtesy San Francisco Opera

It's tough, I have four cities that are dear to my heart. I love singing at the Met in New York, 1 because I have family that lives in New York City and New Jersey so I'm at home – I'm a vagabond usually. San Francisco gave me one of my two great career breaks, which Renée Fleming was instrumental in – she was extremely supportive to me when I was very young, which I'm eternally grateful for. Then London is my home away from home – if I ever live somewhere abroad it would have to be in London. I'm making my Royal Opera House début soon but I've worked quite a while in England already. I love being in the UK, there's something about the tradition of the country – hah!, I'm going back to that word. I love the people, they believe in it and honor it. The fourth city, for me, is Paris, professionally and personally, I have great friends there. I'm terrified by the chaos that happened there recently, I was on the phone with a myriad of people there right away, but it's not just Paris – my best friend is from Beirut and there was a horrible incident there two days earlier.

So where is home for this vagabond?

Well, a lot of my family, my parents and grandmother moved to Florida and I have a residence there, in the Fort Myers area.

When you're on the road do you take anything with you to remind you of home?

Great question, yes, I take my pillow. In Europe, especially Germany and Switzerland, they have those big square unsupportive pillows. I bring my own, it's important to sleep well – as long as my neck is supported I'm OK.

You sing in so many languages – did you speak any before your career?

Only Spanish. Again, rules! I loved Spanish because there are rules for everything – how to conjugate verbs, adjectives and adverbs, rules, rules, rules. The trouble is I never lived in a Spanish-speaking place, so I learned the format but I never learned the language in my soul and didn't become fluent. It's frustrating. When I got to college it was all French and Italian, for my style of singing, and some Russian. I feel like I jumped track from Spanish to Italian. I speak Italian with good fluidity, ease and comprehension but sometimes imperfect grammar and French moderately well. I haven't lived in a country that's not my own language for a long period.

Jumping back to Russian, you're coming to London to perform in Eugene Onegin. What is special about it?

It's Tchaikovsky's great work, for vocal music. It's the one most often performed around the world, it has huge cachet in Russia and all over. It was written for younger singers, even though it's big music. It has young characters. It's like a playground for young singers to use their voices. I used to think it was this huge mountain, but doing it now I can kinda see why he did what he did in it. It's revelatory, and a great honor.

Will you get the chance to get out and see London?

Oh yeah, I've spent so much time there, I've vacationed in London. Being in London for me is paradise, truly. I love London, I can't say it more strongly. It's my favorite city outside of America.

Finally, what's the best thing about being Michael Fabiano?

I get to explore my own individualism. I have the opportunity as a musician to go my own way, and to figure out life by working with and learning from others. I believe strongly in individualism, and were I to work behind a desk or in a factory I don't know if I'd have that opportunity, and I've very, very grateful for that.

Michael Fabiano makes his Royal Opera début as Lenski in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin on December 19, 22, 30, 2015 and January 2, 4, 7, 2016. Click here for tickets. Read Michael's blog at michaelfabianotenor.com

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