‘Faust’ star sings new tune: music in public schools

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Houston Chronicle – Michael Fabiano, one of the most sought-after stars in opera, embodies a Hollywoodesque charisma.

The 32-year-old tenor has a piercing gaze and keen fashion sense, and he speaks in strong, declarative sentences, pounding the table in front of him and asking if he can shed his blazer when the discussion gets heated.

His career is well documented – featuring acclaimed performances with the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera and Milan, Italy’s La Scala – as well
as the energy he plans to bring to Houston as he stars  alongside soprano Ana María Martínez. But instead of chatting about himself, the singer talks about something else he’s passionate about – the failings of public education.
Photo: Dave Rossman, Freelance

 As a co-founder of the new nonprofit ArtSmart, Fabiano is helping inner-city schools with low graduation rates and little music in their curriculum. He’s frustrated with how the American education system is failing its kids, particularly those with potential in music but no opportunity. So he decided to match high school students with recent music graduates – top-rung musicians who are in debt and without an established career – for free weekly lessons.
ArtSmart’s pilot program launched in September at East Side High School in Newark, N.J. Fabiano talked about what this initiative means to him, as well as a smattering of other subjects, including being bullied, the merits of an individualized public education system and how flying planes helped him better understand singing.

Q: You grew up partially in Newark, where ArtSmart launched. What was school like for you?

A: I was fortunate. I had good teachers. I definitely was bullied when I was younger.

Q: Why?

A: I was overweight. Being a heavy kid young was tough. That was omnipresent. When I got to college, I just decided, no more, I don’t want to be heavy anymore. I lost 90 pounds, and that was it.

Q: How did you do that?

A: Changing my diet, no more drinking, lots of running. It took maybe nine months. That was it.

Q: In New Jersey, do you remember being inspired by any of the teachers?

A: To be clear, I lived in New Jersey until I was 11. Then I moved to Minneapolis. We lived there for eight years. Then I went to the University of Michigan, and I went to school for my post-undergrad in Philadelphia.

Q: I guess I’m wondering, with ArtSmart, if you bring any familiarity to the Newark public school system.

A:
My inspiration for ArtSmart doesn’t come from my early years. It comes from the outreach I’ve done into schools now and identifying the problems that I see for cultural and musical studies now for children. I saw this great need for children to be able to have mentors.I’m fortunate because when I was young, I had people to look up to, who were inspiring to me. Teachers, different people. I did debate in high school, and the (Minnesota) Sen. Amy Klobuchar gave a number of classes. She was inspiring. The act of inspiring youth is a way to help them move through the system better.We did a lot of surveys and discovered that the more often a child is inspired by a mentor or teacher, the greater chance they’ll graduate and get into some kind of school after high school.
Q: This taps into the larger picture of schools, say, in the past 10 years, cutting their arts and music programs everywhere.
A: By the way, it cuts left and right. I’m seeing states run by Democratic and Republican governors doing it. There’s evidence music and science, music and math work in tandem. The more we can prove it, the more we can make a case nationally.Q: People talk about our public system failing a lot of these kids in terms of music education.A: This is where we come into the debate of federal standards and one size fits all. One size doesn’t fit all. I’m sorry. Different communities have different needs. A great society is one that adapts to the individual needs of the community. In Newark, there’s a gap in music education that’s not filled. There are lots of kids not graduating from these schools, but the kids that have the chance of graduating but might not, are interested in music.
Q: I remember reporting in Indiana last year, when the legislature was considering a curriculum bill that would essentially allow a student to go from kindergarten through 12 without a single class in art.

A: It’s a disgrace. We have tons of kids who can be wonderful mechanics, carpenters, musicians and can end up in some trade school and have a job or career at 19. Why are we not doing that?

High school should not just be about passing tests. That’s lame. There are so many kids that fall by the wayside because we are not adapting individual and specific needs of communities and, more narrowly, each child.

Q: How did you find the talent and experience for something so different from singing?

A: I’m very gregarious. I like to be involved in lots of things, and each area drives another area of life. I’m a pilot because it’s always been a life dream. That gave me clarity and freedom in my head, which impacts my singing. When I’m flying a plane, I’m completely free, looking down at the Earth. Everything’s small. It’s a new perspective, so it impacted my perspective as a singer. And my singing impacted working in education. It’s all interconnected.

Q: So how do you connect your work on stage with everything else, like working in education?

A: It’s the 10th year of my career as an opera singer. It’s been an evolution. I’ve moved from being a natural performer to one who is aware of my responsibility. That awareness has impacted the reasons why I’ve created ArtSmart. I’ve realized the great responsibility I have to my society. As a young person with energy, I have to give back.

Houston Chronicle

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Interview: Michael Fabiano on Faust

Limelight Magazine's Editor, Clive Paget, heads backstage to meet American tenor Michael Fabiano ahead of his appearance in David McVicar's production of Gounod's Faust, for Opera Australia.

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