Michael Fabiano: On Beethoven and Beyond

Jason Victor Serinus on May 2, 2013
Michael Fabiano
Michael Fabiano

At age 28, six years after his thrilling delivery wowed the judges at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, tenor Michael Fabiano has become a hot bicoastal phenom. Northern California, which already enjoyed his “sensational singing” in San Francisco Opera’s 2011 performance of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and at Stern Grove last summer, is poised to welcome him back no less than four times: at the San Francisco Symphony May 4, 5, and 9 in Beethoven’s six-song collectionAn die ferne Geliebte, and May 10 and 11 in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; in recital at the Mondavi Center in Davis on May 23; and at the San Francisco Opera Oct. 25 in a special performance of the Verdi Requiem. Add in his return to the Met as Cassio in Otello and Alfred in Die Fledermaus, a host of other performances in the Big Apple, and a Shostakovich world premiere at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and only the far-more-established soprano Patricia Racette can lay claim to such frequent bicoastal cachet.

Nor is the rest of the country and world wanting from Fabiano’s gifts. To his forthcoming Alfredo in Santa Fe Opera’s La traviata we must add a history of performances in New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Dresden, Paris, London, Milan. As much as Fabiano’s star is still on the ascent, it’s fair to say that it already occupies a prominent place in the firmament.

While hanging in a remarkably quiet Seattle coffeehouse, far from his home in Philadelphia, the Hoboken, N.J., native had a few things to say about his forthcoming appearances and the importance of arts education.

When did the big break happen for you?

I don’t know that there’s been a big break, or one big defining moment. It’s been more progression and growth, with time. The starting point was when I won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2007, and it’s just moved on from there.

You’re performing Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte with Michael Tilson Thomas, and then substituting for David Lomelí in recital with John Churchwell at the Mondavi Center. Some singers believe there’s no reason why someone who is good at singing opera can’t also sing art song as well.

I agree with that.

In theory, sure. But the reality is that the number of first-class opera singers who have also achieved greatness in art song is not that high. Did you primarily start as an opera singer? What kind of adjustments have you had to make for art song?

When I started studying with [renowned tenor] George Shirley in Michigan, when I was 18, many of my first assignments were operatic arias, because that’s mainly what he was known for. I remember a lot of my fellow students, even faculty members, saying that I was pushing myself by doing too much too soon. George’s theory, however, was that my voice was built in a way that could serve operatic repertoire well, and that I had to work in that framework.

George believed that if the voice is like a wild horse, you let the voice be wild, and then you tame it, rather than creating something out of nothing. In the process, as a music undergraduate, I had to study art song and oratorio, but operatic literature was my focus. George felt I had to build an operatic foundation from a technical standpoint.

In the last year, I’ve developed more of a taste for recital literature than I had before. It’s exciting for me to be able to be presented in recital now, because it’s a totally different type of performance. There’s nothing to support me but the piano, and it’s exciting!

Who have been your models for art song on record? Have you stuck to high voice, or have you also listened to baritones?

One thing that George Shirley taught me from the very beginning, and that I’ve appreciated for a very long time, is not to listen to too many recordings. I appreciate them, but I don’t listen very much. I don’t want to copy; I want to put my own stamp on the music that I’m creating.

The reality is that the number of first-class opera singers who have also achieved greatness in art song is not that high. One of the things that I really enjoy when I learn new music is that I explore it on my own, without trying to re-create what someone else has done. I try to emulate the markings as best I can, with a nod to what the historical perspective of the music is. I have listened to Mr. [Ben] Heppner and Mr. [Fritz] Wunderlich sing An die ferne Geliebte, but only once. They have different styles, of course, with Wunderlich employing lots of rubato, Heppner less so.

One of the things I asked art song authority Steven Blier in my interview for SFCV concerned preparing for a lieder recital by listening to old recordings. His response was: “Some people tell me that their voice teachers tell them not to listen to recordings. I say, ‘Oh, really? Do they also tell you not to read books?’ How are we supposed to learn style if we’ve never heard it?”

I think the parallel is different. Reading a book to gain knowledge and information is different than listening to a singer perform the exact same music you’re going to sing. If students get into the trap of listening to someone over and over again, on “repeat,” they will begin to emulate exactly what that singer has done on the recording.

But he’s probably referring to a novelist’s not reading other novels before they embark on writing their own.

Let me stress: I do listen to singers. I’m not a puritan. I have many beautiful singers, and I have singers who are my heroes whom I do listen to, but often in repertory that I don’t sing yet. It’s not like I live in a bubble. But I try when I’m studying to remove myself from constantly listening to the same person, or two people, over and over again for inspiration; instead, I try to find inspiration from the music.

What are the challenges you’re finding in An die ferne Geliebte and Missa Solemnis?

I’ve been studying An die ferne Geliebte for a full year, and it’s still a challenge. It’s the first German work, besides the few Strauss songs, I’ve really worked hard on.

One of the things that I really enjoy when I learn new music is that I explore it on my own, without trying to re-create what someone else has done. It’s one of the first attempts at lieder. For me, it’s a very difficult piece textually and conceptually; it’s not difficult vocally. The personality of the character I’m embodying in An die ferne Geliebte is not someone I really relate to, and it’s difficult to find a connection, The character is very pensive about life, about lusting and living for someone else. He waits for someone else, and gets upset about that all the time. I’m more a direct kind of person. I miss someone and that’s it. I love somebody, I hate somebody, in very broad strokes. So re-creating this very different character is difficult.

It’s also a big scene. It’s not a few songs; it’s a scena [an extended dramatic solo in opera], in so many words. So that’s tough. And singing in German is a harder challenge for me than singing in French or Italian. … German is the only language I’m singing that I do not speak. I’ve been trying to get it in my tongue and in my mouth, and make sure I understand everything very beautifully.

When I asked Dolora Zajick about her forthcoming appearance in the Verdi Requiem with soloists she didn’t know, she said the only problem might be if her fellow singers succumbed to the temptation to boom out rather than trying to work in consort.

I agree with her. The Verdi Requiem demands good corps, and the Missa Solemnis does even more. There are tons of fugues, with passages that are basically the same for every singer, except they arrive one bar before or later than the other. Each singer has to be a good musician.  

Since you’re not that far away from your high school days, I’m wondering how your peers in school felt about your involvement in music.

I have very, very strong opinions about education in public schools and music, and my experience in comparison with others’. It’s one of my favorite topics.

I went to a liberal, liturgical high school where there was a lot of liturgical and pop choir. I was never cast as a lead in a musical; instead, I was always made fun of as the kid with a lot of vibrato in his voice. As a result, in high school, I got involved in debate and mock trial, and was very successful in that and other forensics activity instead of music. It helped my communication and speaking skills, and my ability to think quickly on command.

I remember when I was asked to sing O Holy Night at Mass on Christmas Eve, and everyone asked why I hadn’t sung more. My answer was that no had asked me to sing more. Even though I asked to, I wasn’t invited that often. I knew that I had music in me, but I didn’t know it would happen until I got to the University of Michigan to study music.

My grandmother, after being a pianist, taught music to high school and middle school students for 30 years in the public schools, through the mid-’80s. She got out when the state boards told her exactly what her curriculum had to be in the classroom. It included no classical music, and none of the musical theater staples, including Rodgers and Hammerstein — nothing! She said, “I can’t teach children the basics of music and music theory without educating them about Mozart and Beethoven, and why these composers are so integral into the popular music and jazz that we listen to! I need to teach that we have jazz improvisation and harmonies because of people like Liszt, who was a master improviser, in addition to being a great composer.”

There are so many children who, if given the opportunity to study music, paint, dance, or be creative, will have the incentive to stay in school. Take that incentive away from kids … and they will end up on the streets.

She was basically harangued, and told she had to teach only popular music to young adults. She really enjoyed teaching music to children, but that was when she left. It was right after I was born.

Oh God, it was that bad way back then?

Yes. And now it’s really down the toilet. It even crosses party lines. You have a Democrat in Minnesota and a Republican in Kansas that are eliminating arts programs across the board from public education systems. It breaks my heart, because there are so many children who, if given the opportunity to study music, paint, dance, or be creative, will have the incentive to stay in school. Take that incentive away from kids, especially those who live in abject poverty, and they will not graduate. They will end up on the streets.

Our leaders aren’t thinking about this in very simple ways. Art is an instrument of incentive. It’s not just something for creation, or another angle for students to study, but it’s a benchmark incentive for our kids to stay in school. The fact that our leaders are not looking at it like that is abhorrent. They should be held to account for it.

What’s great about Venezuela’s El Sistema is that they give the children an instrument, and the children treat it as if it were their own child. They learn personal responsibility from a very young age. That sense of personal responsibility, and a lack of entitlement, gives kids a wonderful secondary education about being responsible students, doing their homework, and establishing goals. If we set up our educational system in America like that, the kids wouldn’t just swipe into class in the morning and then leave. We would rejuvenate young adults on a consequential level in a matter of minutes.

We live in an era when creativity is king. If we’re creative with our resources, then we’ll be able to make a shift. But people are living in a last-millennium mentality about how talent should be cultivated. Talent can be found in people who are on the streets creating crime. We might be able to fix that by adjusting very quickly to their needs.