SF WEEKLY – Being a professional baseball umpire from the age 14 to 24 helped prepare tenor Michael Fabiano for his life as an opera singer.
Fabiano, who plays the title role in Verdi’s Don Carlo at the San Francisco Opera, says he loved baseball, but as an overweight kid, he didn’t excel at it. So he decided to be part of the sport from behind the plate. Fabiano said he also did mock trial and debate in high school, and his playing by the rules serves him as a singer where he looks at the scores and the markings and follows the music.
And there’s another thing he learned from being an umpire, not always the most beloved person in the game.
“It taught me to be cool-headed during the times where bad things happen – and they do in opera; I’ve been booed,” he says. “When I was an umpire, I had bats thrown at me and a drunk parent jump over the fence to chase me. Those things helped me keep my cool as an opera singer.”
He learned other things as well, like becoming very methodical about making calls and not rushing to judgment and correcting his mistakes.
Whatever he’s doing seems to be working out. He’s won just about every award the opera world has to give, including the Richard Tucker and the Beverly Sills Artist awards in 2014. In addition to the San Francisco Opera, he’s performed around the world at leading opera houses, such as the Metropolitan Opera, Teatro Real, Opéra National de Paris, and La Scala. Critics have gone nuts over the tenor, comparing him to Luciano Pavarotti. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about his “high-voltage blend of tonal beauty and fearless athleticism;” The Guardian said his tone was thrilling and “fearless in top notes, powerful in the middle and subtly expressive;” and The Financial Times called him “one of his generation’s foremost Verdians.”
Fabiano has loved the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi since college and looks forward to performing in Don Carlo, which is set during the Spanish Inquisition and, he says, “one of those histrionic great operas, not performed as much as La Traviata.” Fabiano says he is a sucker for big choral numbers, and in this role, he gets a few where the “chorus comes in in a grand way.” For Verdi, the text was as important as the music, Fabiano says, and you need to deliver that text with precision.
Fabiano, who recently took his love of precision and rules and hard work to the skies, getting his private pilot’s license, spent over two years preparing for his role of Don Carlo. But sometimes he welcomes the challenge of going on with less preparation, like when Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, asked him to come to New York one night to fill in for an ailing singer in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
At his home at Philadelphia at the time, Fabiano gave it some thought before saying yes – although he couldn’t deliberate long since the curtain was going up in about seven hours. Fabiano had just gotten back the night before from Paris where he appeared in Faust, so he was jet lagged and thinking about going to visit some family in New Jersey when his phone rang.
“I was leaving the gym and at about 12:55 p.m., I got a call first from my manager, then from Peter Gelb himself. I said I need 10 minutes to make a decision. I had sang Lucia before, but it hadn’t been for 18 months,” he says. Still, he decided he would do it and got on a train to New York immediately. “When I got there, I said, ‘Just make sure I have a good pianist,’ which the Met has an abundance of,’ and a good dinner.’ ”
Fabiano says the Met – as well as the San Francisco Opera House – feel like home.
“They’re very generous theaters that take care of their artists,” he says. “They both do a great job of nurturing artists.”