Although flying private planes is one of his favorite pastimes, world-renowned opera sensation Michael Fabiano isn’t the type of pilot who coasts. Yes, the tenor is constantly moving, but his actions are plotted, thoughtful, powerful, and passionate. Like the productions he stars in, every move he makes is perfectly orchestrated. It’s all in his quest to be the best opera singer on the planet. “I have to be critical about where I place myself over these next years,” Fabiano told Haute Living recently in a telephone conversation. “There are certain operas that I won’t sing because they’re not challenging to me, or the environment’s not challenging. It’s important for me to be in certain places these days.” San Francisco falls into that category—a place where it’s essential for Fabiano to be and he performed an impressive lead role in Manon at the San Francisco Opera last year. There’s something about the city that makes Fabiano feel extremely comfortable. “When I’m in San Francisco, I relax, and I calm down,” he explains. “A city that can give me that ability to relax and calm down is a city where I want to live.” His appreciation for the Bay Area is so strong that he and his fiancé, Bryan McCalister, have packed up their lives in New York and are heading West. Of the move, Fabiano says, “I hope that I will have the ability to contribute in a much greater way to the city itself culturally, maybe politically, and lend my hand to San Francisco. I care about the city very much.”
Fabiano’s first order of business as a San Franciscan will be to check in on the status of his non-profit, ArtSmart. Fabiano and his friends and fellow musicians, Brian Levor and John Viscardi, founded ArtSmart in September 2016. With the tagline “building a better world through music,” ArtSmart is an organization that provides complimentary professionally taught one-on-one voice lessons to junior high and high school age students. “Many artists in the United States were graduating with Master’s and Doctoral degrees without work, and who needed an opportunity or pathway to employment,” Fabiano says. “And we thought, how do we give these people employment? And the answer was, we pair them with kids that need music lessons in school.”
Fabiano and his team identified dozens of school districts that had limited musical arts resources. They selected a school in Newark, New Jersey, East Side High School, where one choir teacher served 100 of the 2800 students. “We put music teachers [ArtSmart refers to them as mentors] in the school that taught them one-on-one vocal lessons every single week. So not choir class, not group lessons,” Fabiano says, his voice serious, but filled with zeal. “We are the only organization in the United States that provides consistent weekly one-on-one free voice lessons for children.” Although the first-year pilot program was small—it consisted of 12 students—it was successful. Those enrolled in ArtSmart saw an increase of grade point average and a decrease in disciplinary actions. No kids dropped out of the program.
With a triumphant curriculum in hand, Fabiano, Levor, and Viscardi faced a new challenge. How could they reach more students and still provide a free service? “A one-on-one music lesson can be expensive. And we pay our artists well,” Fabiano says. “So the paradigm we had to evaluate at the end of a year was, okay. We’re doing something great, and we’re helping 12 kids. How do we scale this? If we scaled it hugely, it could end up becoming very expensive.” Despite not knowing the answers to these significant questions, in its second year, ArtSmart launched in two more schools, Philadelphia’s Franklin Learning Center and San Francisco’s James Lick Middle School.
Fabiano is particularly fond of the work done at James Lick, a middle school that had no music program whatsoever. “I’m very proud to say that they had never been able to get a child accepted into the Ruth Asawa School for the Arts and have gotten four this year.” He notes that although they might not have much, the students are kind, grateful and “the nicest kids on the planet.” The 2018-19 school year will be ArtSmart’s third year and its expanding four-fold. “We’re hiring three times as many new teachers, and we’re gonna be serving roughly 250 children, up from 42.” ArtSmart will work with ten schools instead of three, and although the majority of vocal classes will be one-on-one, the team is testing out a program where each mentor oversees a small group of five children. It’s a longer session, and the students will not be singing in a choral ensemble. “They’re still going to be singing one-on-one with the teacher and for each other,” Fabiano explains. “We have them identify a problem in society, use their critical thinking skills as a group of five people, create music, select music, prepare music, and present it individually.”
The school districts have taken note of ArtSmart’s value and are providing the resources—access to pianos and music rooms—necessary for its programs to thrive. Although Fabiano is actively fundraising for the organization on top of his hectic opera schedule, he takes the time to work with the students, check in on the mentors, and teach master classes. “These kids have a lot in them that needs to be seen,” Fabiano says. “I intend to prove, over the next three years, that with our program, we do more than give music lessons. We help kids get into college. We help kids have a shot at life. We’re not counselors, but we are empathic people that think it’s important to be on the kid’s team. Having that one-on-one relationship with a mentor, a safe moment, is something extraordinary.”
ArtSmart not only allows students a secure place to be themselves, it also teaches the kids about growing up. To be admitted into the program, each student must audition. Auditioning teaches independence, autonomy, and accountability. It forces the young students to speak for themselves and face judgment from their peers and mentors. It also allows Fabiano and his team to discover untapped raw talent. “There have been a few moments where we were completely balling in the back of the room listening to a child sing,” Fabiano reminisces. “Saying holy crap, here are some kids that are unreal. We must help them. Of course, they get in.”
He’s so enthusiastic for ArtSmart that on his recent birthday Fabiano spent the day auditioning 120 kids for next fall’s program. Local students who wish to see their new mentor in action can catch a glimpse of Fabiano’s prowess at Festival Napa Valley. He’s performing a selection of tunes from West Side Story on July 28 in Yountville. After that Fabiano’s busy performance schedule takes him to Chicago, New York, London, Berlin, and Madrid. Luckily, his home base is now San Francisco. Could he show up as a surprise performer at the War Memorial Opera House? Possibly.