Michael Fabiano, an opera tenor with a voice that sizzles
By Anne Midgette,
The tenor Michael Fabiano looks a bit like the young Marlon Brando: the same narrow, smouldering eyes under dark brows and thinning hair; the same sense of coiled intensity in an athletic body, waiting to explode.
He burst onto the scene in 2007 when he was one of the six winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, one of the most prominent prizes in American opera. It happened to be the year that the Met commissioned a documentary film about the months-long competition: Director Susan Froemke’s “The Audition,” released two years ago, enabled a wider audience to get involved with the process, and remember the winners. In that film, Fabiano emerged as something of a bad guy — brash and frank about his eagerness to win.
I don’t think, though, that the film captured his cry of fierce, relieved exultation when his name was read out as the last of the six winners. He was 22 at the time.
Fabiano is now 29, and on track to be a Brando-size star in the opera world. It’s not just the looks; his sound is also a throwback to an earlier age of Italian singing — big and warm and full. Already, that sound has brought him, mainly in Italian roles, to major houses around the world: the Met, the San Francisco Opera, Milan’s La Scala. He’s appearing twice in Washington this season: in recital with Vocal Arts DC on Thursday and in a Washington Concert Opera production in March of Verdi’s early opera “Il Corsaro,” one of his first outings in a title role. Some will be watching to see if he repeats the sensational success he had a few months ago in a concert performance of another early Verdi opera, “I Lombardi,” with the Opera Orchestra of New York.
Gone is the unguarded wildness of “The Audition.” When Fabiano speaks to the news media now, it’s in the careful tones of an Oscar winner giving an acceptance speech. In a phone interview last week, speaking from a rehearsal studio at the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Philadelphia, he kept bending over backwards to make sure he didn’t say anything controversial or leave anybody out when mentioning people who have advised, helped and influenced him.
That list includes his first teacher, George Shirley; Bill Schuman, his principal teacher since his AVA days; his coaches, Laurent Philippe and Danielle Orlando, who will accompany him at his recital in Washington; and mentor-colleagues from Julia Faulkner to Renée Fleming. I’ve omitted a few names. He won’t be happy.
“To be a singer,” he says, “you need to be warmhearted, but have a cool head.”
But “cool” is not the first word that comes to mind when people talk about Fabiano. Not about his character. And especially not about his voice.
Darren Woods, the head of the Fort Worth Opera who switched to management after a 20-year career as a tenor, remembers when he first heard Fabiano sing during a rehearsal of a student production of “Eugene Onegin” at AVA. When Fabiano began to sing Lensky’s aria, “tears welled up in my eyes,” Woods says. “It was Italianate, a beautiful sound, warm, and had core and squillo [a quality of penetrating intensity much prized by voice aficionados]; it seemed to be everything I ever wanted.”
Woods promptly engaged Fabiano for “L’Elisir d’Amore” in Fort Worth, where he had a big success. “If I could have him every year,” Woods says, “if I could afford him now, I would.”
“When I hear Michael, I can tell [it’s him],” says Christofer Macatsoris, the famously knowledgable and tough music director at AVA. “There are tenors who have a beautiful quality, but they’re interchangeable. Michael has a distinctive quality.”
And Fleming, who has performed with Fabiano on several occasions, said, in an e-mail, “Michael Fabiano possesses the rare ‘star quality’ and charisma so needed in our field. . . . He is the complete package.”
For a wunderkind, Fabiano got a late start. Although he grew up in a musical family — an aunt, Judith Burbank, was a professional opera singer and still teaches voice — he did not seriously start thinking about voice until he entered the University of Michigan, with thoughts of a business degree, met George Shirley, a noted tenor turned teacher, and was, he says, bitten by the opera bug.
“I would spend countless hours in the library and on the racks literally taking scores off the shelf and studying them,” he says, adding, “Things I’ll never sing: soprano, mezzo roles. As much as I’m a tenor, I’m also a lover of my art; it’s my passion.”
That passion was evident quickly; he was still in the middle of his studies at AVA when he won the Met auditions. It also made itself felt in a headlong, coltish intensity.
The regular young-singer diet of Mozart and art song was not for Fabiano; he started right in with lighter Verdi roles and bel canto. He credits his teacher Schuman for steering clear of conventional wisdom in this regard. “I think Bill’s premise with young singers is that they should be treated like wild horses, allowed to run free,” he says.
But a result of the early exposure, Schuman says, is that many people heard and judged Fabiano before he was fully mature. “People are in such a hurry to have these kids grow up too fast,” Schuman said by phone last week from his New York studio. “Major voices take time.” When Fabiano appeared in San Francisco in Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia,” Schuman, who often travels to his major openings, was there — and was accosted by an acquaintance who was surprised to learn that Fabiano and Schuman were still working together. “ ‘He’s changed the way he’s singing completely!’ ” Schuman says the man told him. “ ‘He was screaming [at the Met finals]!’ I said, ‘He was 22 years old!’ ”
Fabiano, who works daily on his music, has divested some of that nervous energy in the years since. In recent video clips, he seems to have channeled it into a kind of Zen-like calm, with no tension visible anywhere in his face or neck. He has deliberately reached for new challenges, trying out big religious works, such as Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” or the German composer’s song cycle “An die Ferne Geliebte.”
And most recently, he has started offering recitals — often seen as a departure for an opera tenor, since in lieu of a full cast, costume and orchestra it requires standing on stage with only a pianist for company, singing art songs instead of opera arias.
“You have to be able to embody a different quality with every song,” says Fabiano, whose Washington recital program on Thursday includes at least a few unknown quantities: a set of early songs by the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, in what he believes to be their professional premiere. But opera, especially Verdi, remains where his heart is, and he may or may not dream — that caution again, though scarcely able to conceal his eagerness — of singing all of that composer’s roles.
The only time Fabiano drops his guard is when the conversation turns to another passion — baseball. For 10 years, starting at 14, Fabiano worked as a professional umpire. Heavyset as a child, but loving the game, he gravitated toward the job that involved learning the rules by heart. Between this attention to detail and the real-life drama that goes with the territory — an angry batter throwing a bat at his head, a drunk coach who had to be ejected from the game — it may have been excellent preparation for the exigencies of a life in opera.
“There are those moments in baseball games when there’s two strikes, two balls, two outs and Mariano Rivera on the mound,” he says, referring to the legendary Yankee closer who retired at the end of the just-past season. “Everyone is at the edge of their seats. Is he going to strike him out? And then he strikes him out, and everyone goes crazy. . . . Well, what happens when Luciano Pavarotti goes up for ‘la speranza,’ ” — and he sings the relevant phrases from “La Bohème,” to illustrate. “People are crazy to jump out of their seats.
“I wish people like me could speak about [the parallels] more,” he adds, with the endearing enthusiasm of the grown kid that, like so many other big emotions, lurks just beneath his surface. “I think we could draw bigger audiences.” And then Michael Fabiano goes off to practice.
with the pianist Danielle Orlando, is Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Terrace Theater. “Il Corsaro,” led by Antony Walker, is scheduled for March 9 at 6 p.m. at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.