Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: Michael Fabiano

Too much, too soon is the greatest pitfall for the up-and-coming opera star, and it’s one that tenor Michael Fabiano is keen to avoid. Though this young American’s career is progressing in leaps and bounds, he has been wise enough to take things at his own pace, and to explore his vocal character and capabilities with care.

“I’d say right now I’m a lyric tenor, and I want to sing the core repertoire that’s healthy for me as a young guy,” he explains. “I would say, with a smile on my face, anything between 1825 and 1925 is perfect for me.” This month marks something of a milestone with his UK and role debut as the Duke of Mantua in the latest revival of Jonathan Miller’s evergreen production of Rigoletto at English National Opera. Although this will be the first time Fabiano sings the Duke professionally, it was a role that he studied intensely while a postgraduate student at Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia, and he is relishing the opportunity to put all he learnt into practice.

Miller’s production, which updates Verdi’s sixteenth-century Italian setting to New York’s mafia-run Little Italy district during the 1950s, might have been conceived with Fabiano in mind. This is not to suggest he is in any way shifty or lecherous, but having grown up in New Jersey in a family with Italian heritage (his great grandparents came from Southern Italy) he certainly looks the part: handsome, somewhat brooding, and striking today in a generously open-necked shirt. And he sounds it too: “Jonathan knows I’m from the New York area and he’s asked that a number of people in the show sing with an East Coast accent, so it’s perfect.”

Certainly, he’s full of enthusiasm about the production: “Jonathan says ‘if you can justify updating, you have to,’ and here you can justify it, everything makes total sense: there was a mafia culture then, there was a mafia culture in the 50s,” he says. “I come from a town where the mayor was taken away in shackles because of bribery, so it’s still so prevalent.”

When asked about research, Fabiano confirms he’s revisited the Godfather films and made some social observations of his own. “I wouldn’t say I’ve been around mafia people but I’ve been around the personality types, the guys that get whatever they want,” he explains, “and that’s the Duke, he sees one woman and says ‘I want you’ and goes to another woman and says ‘I want you’ it’s the same trick every timethe only time he ever breaks is when he finds out that Gilda has disappeared in Act Two. Some people say ‘oh, he loved her, he loved her’ but I don’t think he loved her, I think he’s just pissed off that she’s gone.”

Since winning first prize at the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Fabiano has performed at many important venues, including the Carnegie Hall and Teatro alla Scala, but his career has not been without its pressures. Soon after playing Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi at La Scala a newspaper interview reported that he was fiercely critical of his treatment by the company, and the story was subsequently scavenged by bloggers. He feels he was badly misinterpreted and offers me a weary clarification: “Let me say for the record that it was a learning experience for me every job I’ve done has been part of my learning curve and what was printed in that article wasn’t completely accurate.”

Having been stung by the press in the past he is understandably wary throughout the interview, and effusively complimentary about the ENO experience: his fellow cast members are all “talented, wonderful people”, the staff are “accommodating and gracious” and the theatre itself is “gorgeous, who wouldn’t want to sing on that stage?” It is Miller, however, who receives the greatest praise. “It’s been a joy to work with himeveryday he comes to rehearsals with interesting new ideas, but he gives us the freedom to explore, he’ll say ‘here are some things I want you to think about, here’s where you come in, now I want you to make art.'”

Although classical music and opera are in Fabiano’s blood his grandmother was a concert pianist, and his parents both trained as opera singers it comes as no surprise to learn that he studied business at the University of Michigan before swapping to study voice. Focussed, level-headed and self-assured (he was on the debating team at high school, and practiced as a baseball umpire) he has a very definite idea of how his career should pan out. “I have pretty clear thoughts about where I’d like to go as a singer and am fortunate to have the counsel of a number of advisers around me,” he says.

This new season sees new and exciting projects, including his Met debut as Rafaelle in Verdi’s Stiffelio alongside Jos Cura, but over the next few years Fabiano wants to concentrate on consolidating his repertoire. “That means Elixir of Love all the time, Rigoletto sometimes, La Traviata, Bohme sometimes, some of the nice Verdi for young tenors, and then maybe in a few years do some French roles.” He admits he has received a number of interesting offers over the last couple of years but is extremely careful about what he accepts. “It’s my responsibility to make my career last for 30 or 40 years rather than 10 or 8,” he says, “I’m not interested in being a flash in the pan.”

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