Michael Fabiano is returning to the Royal Opera House this month to star as the Duke of Mantua in Sir David McVicar’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. In addition to being an acclaimed tenor, he’s the founder of ArtSmart, a non-profit organisation that provides free voice lessons to pupils at underprivileged schools.
When did you first discover opera?
I discovered it really when I got to university. One way was in working with a voice teacher named George Shirley who was very dear to me. He was the first African-American tenor to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.
He compelled me to believe that what I had was worth going for it. When I kind of didn’t believe him, he said, “Your voice isn’t yours; your voice is everybody’s and you have an obligation to share your instrument.”
The second way was that I watched a DVD of Mefistofele by Bointo and just realised that I had a deep passion for opera itself – what it can do to the psyche and how it can compel people.
What made you decide to study vocal performance at the University of Michigan?
I studied because when I made my application to colleges, I applied to a number of very fine universities and I was waitlisted at a lot of them. Part of my application was that I’d sent a cassette tape of me singing two songs.
When I got into Michigan, they told me that part of the deal was that I study music. At the time I wasn’t thrilled about it, but the reality is that I was given a kind of golden pathway that I didn’t see in that moment.
You made your stage debut in Austria in 2007. What was it like performing abroad for the first time?
Exciting and very notable, because I got to work with a good conductor and with a nice orchestra and a nice stage. It kind of set up the base standard for what it was like to work abroad for me. I got the idea of what an international career would be like.
You’ve now performed in operas around the world, on many continents. Any highlights?
London, San Francisco, New York, Madrid. First of all, London and San Francisco are both very dear cities to me. Personally, I love them; I love the climate in both cities, which might sound odd. But I don’t have a problem with cool weather and fog.
I have a fascination with this city that I’m in right now, London, for its history and the really big care for the arts. I love that San Francisco is by the water and a very cool city. It’s very well connected to basically our new world, our tech world. I studied Spanish for a long time, so I love being in Spain. I love New York, because my family is there nearby and because the Met and the city have done me very well and I’m very grateful for that.
Do you find the reception to opera different in different countries?
Yes, but it also depends on what production is put on stage in front of people as well. If presenters put a great work on stage and do it justice, the public will respond well . If presenters choose to put a work that’s exploratory or different or avant-garde and takes the story and the music out of the realm of reality or out of the realm of having people able to connect to it, then the public responds colder and they should.
It begs the question: when we go to opera, are we going to have an intellectual experience or a sonorous experience? I would argue that we go to opera because we want to hear great music. We want to see it performed beautifully and we want to leave the theatre feeling like we’re better because of the music that we’ve heard and because of what we’ve witnessed.
In my experience, when I’ve been in productions where that’s not the focus, where the focus becomes some sort of concept that might not have to do with the story or requires an extreme amount of explanation in advance of the show, then we’re not doing a service to the public.
We always have to remember that this art form is not for us artists; it’s for everybody. That’s very dear to me. An example is when presenters and directors have to write 20 pages of dramaturgical notes to justify why they spent millions of dollars on a production when many people might not care. For me, that’s a waste of time and money and a very abject affront to the public. We, as artists who sing, have to link our arms and say no to this sort of nonsense.
With the huge caveat that if a presenter or producer comes up with the concept of an opera that is highly intelligent and still advances the story and allows the music to come off the page as it should, then we should go for it. I’m not necessarily against modern interpretations of opera, putting them in today’s time, so long as they advance the story and let the public leave feeling better rather than worse.
There are directors out there who know that they have state sponsorship and the resources to produce whatever they want and they’re not accountable to the dollar. In America, there’s a big difference, which is that our opera companies are almost completely privately funded – so directors have a greater burden to deliver something the public will want to buy over and over again. I think that should be the case always, public or private.
Opera is not something that’s an exploratory form, if we’re talking about composers like Puccini or Verde or Mozart. You don’t go to a museum and look at a Picasso and then throw green paint on it and then say, “Well it’s still a Picasso, we’re just trying to enjoy it differently”. You just go and enjoy the Picasso.
We have to do better as a society in training a generation of younger people to appreciate what exists, which is great art and great music, so that when they go to the theatre, they care and they know enough. My big fear is that that’s being more and more lost on this continent and on my continent.
You’re very dedicated to music education for children. Can you tell us a bit about ArtSmart?
It’s a non-profit organisation that provides free voice lessons to children in underserved communities around many cities, and we’re growing it exponentially next year. One of the points is to amplify a child’s exposure to great music and for them to have a greater understanding of it.
In schools, public or private, if the focus on culture diminishes, outside organisations have to do the leg work. As an artist who cares about culture and art, I feel obliged to give back and to try to breed another generation of people who care, otherwise we will have a diminishing art form before our eyes.
What are your hopes for ArtSmart within the next five years?
We hope to be able to expand the organisation to target many different types of constituencies. Right now, we provide one-on-one voice lessons from a mentor to a student every week with some very specific goals for the end of the year in terms of performance and curriculum.
What we intend to do in the next year is scale the programme so that we can have more students participating and working still directly with teachers, but maybe not one on one. So they’ll be instances of four students working on an ensemble on a specific project or goal with a teacher. Or we’ll have choral groups or instrumental groups that will work with a number of mentors, both individually and in a group, but also with goals.
Something that’s very important that we’re going to continue to curate is a goal-oriented organisation, not just a process-oriented organisation, which I find a lot of other arts organisations to be. Kids need to know not just what the journey is but the finish line. We want to breed a competitive spirit, because that’s what the world is – in order to get a job, you have to be accountable for your actions.
If the schools are not going to give kids that counsel, we’re going to help them. Our organisation is building programming that allows our ensembles and our kids to be awarded scholarships based on their contributions in the classroom, on singing performances and competitions that they’ll be doing uniformly. Next year we intend to be operating 10-12 schools, up from three this year.
We want to leverage technology that we’re building to have kids check in when they’ve accomplish assignments and when teachers see that they’ve done what they need to do. They’ll get awarded points and all their students in the programme will see who’s doing well and who’s not, to know where they have to go and where the line of achievement is.
I really believe that a competitive spirit is necessary in a free market, in a democratic, meritocratic world, which is what we live in. If we don’t teach kids now, they’ll end up not understanding why they don’t get a job, not even necessarily even in music.
I want to be clear: we are training as many kids as we can to be great musicians with the expectation that some will not be musicians, but will be connoisseurs of great music and great art. And that will also be a really great thing for the world. We’re building a new generation so we’ll have people who are interested in being in the back end of things, maybe working backstage or being in administration or being patrons, just people who care deeply about the form itself.
I know in five years, we’ll be operating dozens of schools in the United States and potentially in Europe with many different types of programmes that offer kids the opportunities to achieve goals, compete, and earn scholarships to university.
Speaking of new technology, you’ve performed in several productions that have been filmed. How do you feel about the filming of operas to be shown in cinemas and sold on DVD?
I feel good about it, with some caveats. I think it’s extremely good to be able reach different constituencies through the medium of technology, which is what opera does when we put it on an HD broadcast. We’re able to bring the art form outside of the 4,000 seats of the Metropolitan Opera or the 2,000-plus seats in the Royal Opera House, which is great.
That means we’re able to grab the attention of people who otherwise might not ever have come. The key is not just getting them that one time but grabbing them to come a second or third or fourth and then make a voyage to the Metropolitan Opera or the Royal Opera House and actually sit in the stalls. Then even another step is to follow up with them enough so that they become patrons and engaged in the art form.
That’s the hope; just having technology that allows us to put art on movie screens is not sufficient. The key is how we follow up with the people who participate and how we get them engaged. I’m interested in making sure this art form is still one that we look at in a hundred years as being a definitive model for all the other types of music that exist today.
The second part is that the way sound is projected in the theatre is completely different to how it’s projected and maybe compromised in a movie theatre, with how it’s compressed. There’s nothing more wonderful than experiencing the live human voice without amplification. The way an unamplified voice hits the bones is unique and hits a nerve that’s not the same as when it’s amplified or put through stereo speakers, because it’s raw.
I give private events and recitals to groups of people under 100 where I stand in a small room. I always witness shock from a lot of patrons, because hearing the voice that close and its impact without any assistance is overwhelming. It’s not even the words that matter; what matters is the wavelengths of the instrument, of the sound. There’s brain science about how sound hits the body, hits the mind, and what it does to give you goosebumps. There’s a reason why the unamplified voice is so important to what we do.
I think HD television performances are a grand way to expand the base of our field and necessary. It’s just not the experience that you get in the theatre. If we over-focus on that and under-focus on making the product that hits people in the bones in the actual stalls of the theatre, we’re going to devalue our product as opera singers.
In September, you opened the Royal Opera House’s first new production for 40 years of Puccini’s La Bohème. What was that like?
Exciting! To be part of a production like that where other people of great experience have preceded me was an honour. I knew what my responsibilities were to deliver the music to a high level. It was a bit sobering knowing how many people had done this opera to great acclaim and success in previous productions. It made me realise that I’m very fortunate to be where I am.
Tell us about your character and the Royal Opera House production of Verdi’sRigoletto
The thing that’s interesting about the Duke of Mantua is that he’s a man with some great tunes and he has a love for all women in a way. He’s a sort of Don Giovanni, except he’s not necessarily evil like Don Giovanni is; there’s no murder.
This production that I’m in has been here for 16 or 17 years. It’s the David McVicarproduction, which is a quite dark view of what Mantua would have been. It shows what the impacts of a feudal system are, where at the top of the system there’s some patriarch and everyone below is in servitude.
It also shows the deep objectification of women which existed in that period, and I think it’s historically fair to portray. Though it’s unsettling also to be the Duke and to have to embody a character who is egregious towards women – and men, by the way. I have to say I’m pretty nasty to everybody on stage as the head of this feudal system!
I’ve concluded that it’s very important to show the humanity of the Duke, which often gets obfuscated because we just look at him as a guy who just wants to screw a lot of girls. I want to prove why I sing the big aria, “Parmi veder le lagrime”, in the second act, when I sing about why it’s terrible that I lost the one person who I might have loved (Gilda, who I meet in the first act).
The insight in that aria I think can be proved in how the Duke makes a critique on his own system that he’s forced to be in – and I’m at the top, but if I don’t stay at the top, I get eaten alive. If any person in my system sensed weakness they would of course kill me and someone else would take over. At the moment that I have the ability to show that the system I’m in is dirty and terrible, I will do it – but I won’t tell you where that’s going to be…
Especially right now, when assault is coming to the fore, it’s important to address even in our own art form that women and men in society are of equal importance. The Duke has some care that there’s a bit of force, because of his stature that he has to be who he is, even though he might not be willing to be – and the proof is when he analyses that he does love Gilda and that he actually does have love inside of him. At least, I’m going to go for that.
Are there any misconceptions about opera that you’d like to see fixed?
Of course. I think there’s an elitist complex with opera that exists with people who don’t know what it is. We hear that word bantered around a lot: “opera is elitist”. I think there’s some fairness in discussing it. Because people who show up to the opera house often are well dressed, the theatres are often very ornate and beautiful, there’s a 40- to 90-piece orchestra in the pit. There are things that are assumed to be “other” or above others.
The way to address it is to, first, provide education to people that don’t have it. Second, make it very clear that the art form is for everybody. That’s by creating pricing models that allow people access to the art form.
Third, making partnerships with technology companies and organisations. In the theatre, if people can’t necessarily afford a £100 ticket but can afford a £20 ticket, we might be able to put a virtual reality set on their eyes so they can feel like they’re sitting in the stalls and still be live in the experience. Because that’s one of the concerns – if somebody is paying £20, they’re going to be sitting pretty far back.
The fourth thing is the marketing models that we use today, where you buy a ticket and get to sit in the seat that you buy, I think are passé. We have airlines with frequent flyer programmes where if you fly 25,000 miles, you get a free ticket or some sort of status. If you come to the opera house and we have some new young patrons that see five operas in a year at £25 a ticket, we should say to them, “Thank you so much for your patronage; we’re going to upgrade your seat tonight to the orchestra because we’re so grateful to you.”
I think offering schemes like that to people who might not have the resources will allow those people to go into their own orbits and networks and say that the opera is a field that gives back.
Also, I’ve worked in the San Francisco opera quite a lot and have invited a number of technology-minded folks to my performances. Feedback I’ve often got from younger people, age 25 to 35, is that they don’t feel they’re engaged enough in a live performance. These are people who often go to festivals and different events with live music where they’re able to drink and talk with their friends.
It’s a hard conundrum, because we don’t want to get to a place where we make opera the exact same thing as going to an outdoor festival, but we also want to adopt younger people. Ways to do that would be to create areas in the theatre where people can have a glass of wine while they’re watching the performance. Or maybe there are 400 seats where when you buy them, you know that you’re able to use Twitter or Facebook.
I think there are ways to engage audiences differently than we are now, and we shouldn’t just bury our heads in the sand and say that we hope it’ll get better.
You spend a lot of time interacting with fans on social media. Is that important to you?
Hugely, I find engagement with the public allows people to feel a deeper connection to the artist.
It’s essential that I talk to my fans and my friends online and let them know what’s going on. Because we’re all people, we all have blood and bones. There’s a lot that can be shared.
There are many experiences from my fans that actually can teach me how to be a better artist too. I don’t know if I could have created ArtSmart if I didn’t have that.
Any advice for aspiring opera performers?
Don’t wait in line in life. There seems to be this belief that there’s a process. You go to conservatory or college, maybe get a master’s degree, and then end up in one or more young artist programmes and kind of get stuck. And you wait for your teacher to tell you when you should sing what.
I didn’t do that. I mean I was very lucky to work with George Shirley, who gave me a lot of freedom as a young singer to sing lots of different music. I didn’t wait for people to tell me what to do or to hold my hand.
I think a lot of Millennials are waiting for their hands to be held. They want to be told that they’re good. But not everything’s good and not everything’s going to be OK. I’ve had terrible experiences, disasters onstage, huge loss in my family, episodes of peaks and valleys in my career. But I’ve withstood all that because I know that I have to keep going.
One of the reasons why my career kicked in when I was 22 is that I jumped into the fire and did my best not to get burned. There are many moments where I went for it and it didn’t happen, but I kept going. One example is that I went on a massive audition tour in my early twenties and got no job after 20 to 25 auditions. On one of my last auditions, I sang terribly, I had a cold, I had such bad form and was so upset about how things were going.
But ultimately, I got the biggest job I coveted from the entire tour because the people watching me liked what I had to offer. They liked how I dressed or my personality – my voice may not have been the best that day. But they bought what I had to sell. The reality is that we don’t ever know what the person sitting behind the desk wants in that moment. So you always have to be on and you always have to go.
There are lots of artist that work their asses off, to be very clear, even more than me. But I fear that in our world today, we’re waiting to be appreciated and loved and that’s not relevant to having success and being able to give back. What’s relevant is going and not stopping and not holding back.