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New York Times

Michael Cooper

New York Times: An Operatic Love Story Starts Off on a Sour Note

It should have been the perfect overture: A passionate opera fan meets a star tenor at a glamorous cast party. But the curtain nearly fell before their love story even began.

New York Times

The tenor, Michael Fabiano, had just brought down the house at the Metropolitan Opera singing the male lead in Verdi’s “La Traviata” that night in February 2017. After changing out of his costume — and a dark wig that covered his cropped, nearly bald head — he went to the party, where he found himself chatting with Bryan L. McCalister, a young associate director on the Met’s board.

“I asked, ‘What did you think of the performance tonight?’” Mr. Fabiano, 34, recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, I guess it was O.K. It wasn’t that good. I was here when it was a new production, when Natalie Dessay and some other tenor sang.’ He didn’t even name the tenor!”

“And he just kept going!” Mr. Fabiano continued, shaking his head incredulously. “It didn’t stop. He kept talking about everything: the acting, the singing, you name it, he just kept going. And I just stood there, realizing that he had no idea who I was. None.”

That all changed when a Met official picked up a microphone and began thanking the cast, going from the smallest roles to the biggest. When he got to the “wonderful Alfredo, Michael Fabiano,” Mr. Fabiano gave what he described as “an exaggerated papal wave.”

Mr. McCalister, mortified, let out a gasp and turned a deep, deep red.

“I was like, ‘Oh no!”’ Mr. McCalister, 40, recalled. (In his defense, he explained, he had been a soprano fan who paid little attention to tenors: “If you ask me who sang Isolde, I’m like, Debbie Voigt! And if you ask who sang Tristan, I have no clue.”)

He tried to fix things by belatedly praising Mr. Fabiano’s performance, but the damage was done. “I said, ‘I’ll see you later,’ and I walked away,” Mr. Fabiano said.

That might have been that, had a deus ex machina not intervened in the form of Ann Ziff, the chairwoman of the Met board. She invited them both to her table at dinner.

“We ended up talking the rest of the night, and by the end of the night I had asked him out,” Mr. Fabiano said.

They had their first date a few nights later at Morimoto. “We fired on all cylinders,” Mr. McCalister said. “It was not something I’d ever experienced before.”

Soon they were spending almost all of their time together.

“With an opera singer, you either do or you don’t,” explained Mr. Fabiano, who sings at leading opera houses all over the world and travels for most of the year. “You can’t drag it out, and space it out, and go on dates here and there. Because I’m on the road so much.”

A few weeks after they met, Mr. McCalister flew to Saba, in the Caribbean, to go diving, and visited the duty-free shop. “I sized my engagement finger, and took a picture of it and wrote the number ‘9’ on it with a little arrow and texted it to him,” Mr. McCalister said. “I knew. I knew.”

But there was a cloud on the horizon. Mr. Fabiano’s New York engagement was nearing an end, and he would soon have to resume the peripatetic life of an opera singer, spending up to 10 months a year traveling, with engagements booked years in advance. His next stop was Aix-en-Provence, France, where he was singing Don José in a new production of Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Mr. Fabiano proposed the night before he left for Aix, that May. Mr. McCaister flew to Aix a few weeks later to spend Memorial Day weekend with Mr. Fabiano, who was staying in a Provençal home of a patron of the festival, complete with a lavender field, and grew despondent at the thought of returning to New York.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to leave,’” Mr. McCalister said. “Michael said: ‘You don’t have to.’”

So Mr. McCalister, who is developing an image consulting company and works as the global brand ambassador for Pologeorgis, a luxury outerwear company, flew back to New York, put his affairs in order, and then joined Mr. Fabiano on the road.

It was a whirlwind. After “Carmen” in Aix, Mr. Fabiano opened the season of the Royal Opera House in London that September with a new production of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” then flew to the San Francisco Opera for Massenet’s “Manon,” then back to London for Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” before going to Venice for several New Year’s concerts. Mr. McCalister said that life with a traveling singer had been an education in many things, including “95 ways to cure a cold.”

That summer Mr. Fabiano announced his love, and then his engagement, on social media.

It surprised some fans, he said, who had not realized he was gay.

“My colleagues, the people that I work with, my friends, my family, I’m out to everybody,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was hiding. But I never felt the need to make some pronouncement about it, because it doesn’t define who I am. My work defines who I am, my service defines who I am. The pronouncement that was important was that I was marrying someone wonderful. And it happens to be a man.”

Since then, he said, he and Mr. McCalister had been embraced and thanked by many for their openness. Because even in 2018 in the world of opera, when so many leading singers, conductors, composers, directors and critics are gay, some stars are not out. Mr. Fabiano said that as a young singer he had been warned to never discuss his sexuality, and told that it would hurt his chances of becoming a serious opera singer. He said he was glad to leave that advice behind.

When it came time to plan the wedding, there was one obvious place for the ceremony: the Metropolitan Opera.

Figaro has been married 493 times on the stage of the Met, according to the company’s archives. Marriages of the more legally binding variety are far rarer at the opera house.

Over the years it has seen the weddings of tenors, sopranos, basses, stage directors, dancers and choristers. Deborah Allton-Maher, a former Met dancer who works at the American Guild of Musical Artists, a union, married her husband, Rob Maher, a Met chorister, on the Met stage in 2006 during a rehearsal break — on a set from “La Traviata.” (What is it about “La Traviata”?) Donald Palumbo, the Met’s chorus master, married John Hauser, who led its rehearsal department, in his office backstage during a break in rehearsals for “The Merry Widow.”

The McCalister-Fabiano wedding on Oct. 28 was a grand opera production, complete with a chorus, an opera singer, a brass ensemble and two bands. Several generations of opera singers were among the guests, including the tenor Neil Shicoff, the soprano Aprile Millo, who were mainstays of the Met in the past, and the young sopranos Nadine Sierra and Joyce El-Khoury.

The wedding moved its way up through the opera house level by level. The ceremony was held on the Grand Tier, lunch at the Dress Circle, and cake was served in the Family Circle, all in view of the Met’s arched windows, Sputnik chandeliers, and the Lincoln Center fountain outside. In lieu of gifts, the couple asked guests to contribute to ArtSmart, a nonprofit organization that Mr. Fabiano co-founded. It provides voice lessons to underserved youth.

“I cannot help but think of the many marriages that have taken place on the stage here,” said Joseph Della Fave, Mr. Fabiano’s uncle who was ordained by the Universal Life Church to officiate. “And I hope that your marriage is nothing like any of them.” He cited operas with ill-fated marriages.

He spoke of the couple’s future together, in operatic terms: “Will you hit the high notes, and recover when you don’t? Will you be willing to transpose the score when your voices change? Will you have the fortitude and commitment to make it through a duller second act?”

During their vows, Mr. McCalister told Mr. Fabiano, who flies planes in his spare time, that “I love your sense of adventure and willingness to take calculated risks” and promised him head rubs “for now, after each performance, and then still when we venture to new mountains and greater heights.”

And Mr. Fabiano spoke about a final act. “Please promise me,” he said to Mr. McCalister, “that you will live at least one hour after me, because I don’t want to be on this earth without you.

The McCalister-Fabiano wedding on Oct. 28 was a grand opera production, complete with a chorus, an opera singer, a brass ensemble and two bands.

Michael Cooper

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