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Final Note Magazine: Fighting Elitism with Michael Fabiano

Final Note Magazine

Approaching his career with a clear mind and laser focus are the building blocks of Fabiano’s success early in life.
There’s no evidence of overnight stardom or a fast track path, the eminent tenor started young and with an early realisation that perfection is unattainable, he has become one of the great stars in the world of opera.

Fabiano speaks to Final Note Magazine about his three-step approach to a new role, elitism in classical music and his strategy on social media.

WHEN YOU’VE BEEN CONTRACTED TO A ROLE, HOW DO YOU BEGIN TO PREPARE?
95% of the time when I get a contract, it’s at least a year in advance and I generally need that time to complete my three steps. First is to read the source material so I can understand the psyche and personality of the character. Secondly, in a skeletal sense, I break down the music and I just learn it half voiced. When I know the music and can sing it from cover to cover without taking a break, I then take a deep dive in and work it into my voice.

My big rule is that I avoid learning a role in a few months, I broke it once with Mefistofele at the Metropolitan Opera. The title changed from I Lombardi to Mefistofele,and there was no way around it. It was a harder curve and I wouldn’t encourage it. But if I can do my three things in order, then I can execute learning a role really well.

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT REVIEWS?
They’re not important to me, I don’t read them as I don’t believe they decide a trajectory of a career. The public tells you all you need to know. Reviews are an individual’s distinct taste. They should not weigh heavily on the mind of any artist. The goal for an artist is to serve the public and in doing so they serve the music.

In saying that, everyone has an off night, I certainly have. I’m fallible and reviewers have caught me, hit me hard and they’ve been right.

IN THE REHEARSAL ROOM, WHERE DO YOU FIND THE BALANCE BETWEEN YOUR OWN IDEAS AND THE INTENTION OF THE DIRECTOR?
Your responsibility as an artist in a rehearsal room is to have an open mind. Your prime job is to deliver the music and the text to the best of your ability. You cannot do that if you are struggling with the director’s intentions or vision.

I’m speaking here from experience, there was a moment in my career many years ago during a production of La bohème and I didn’t agree with anything that was happening. My performance suffered because I was frustrated and distracted – I forgot my responsibility as an artist. Opera is sung music, so if you’re not performing to your best ability because you’re unhappy, it’s you who’ll get it in the face. It was a big mistake that I made and it held me back. So my advice now would be, if you can’t get over the issues with the production – leave.

In contrast, I worked with Dmitri Tcherniakov at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on a production of Carmen. Tcherniakov is renowned for creating a radical spin on a piece, but his spins always work. What’s so spectacular about him is that he’s so invested in the singing, he knows the music very well. Because of that I was open and it was probably the best performance of my life – I believed in the concept and most importantly I believed in him.

ACHIEVING ALL THAT YOU HAVE AT 34 IS PHENOMENAL, HOW HAVE YOU MANAGED TO REACH THIS POINT SO EARLY IN LIFE?
I began my career 13 years ago and I made my debut at Teatro alla Scala at 11 years ago. Time flies and age is relative. Mostly it’s due to my laser focus on what I need to do, along with an early realisation that perfection is unattainable. I’m not perfect, there’s so much I don’t do well and these are the things I work the hardest on. I maintain what I do well and every time there’s a step back, I take two steps forward.

The greatest two enemies of excellence are perfection and good. We have to constantly walk on the tightrope of excellence, aiming to avoid good and stay clear of perfection. The journey towards perfection can blow up in your face and then you end up as good, which is not enough. Perfection is unattainable, but excellence is always within reach if hard work ensues.

WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU CAN GIVE ARTISTS AT THE VERY BEGINNING OF THEIR CAREER?
Get to work. You need to be able to pay for flights, clothing for auditions and performance outfits. When I was 18, I worked constantly. I went on craigslist and I hunted out every funeral and wedding job I could, I did over a thousand in 3 years making $50-75 each. I also umpired baseball games and got $75 a game. I made it work and I was stressed because I was working all the time to survive, but I was able to travel and dress suitably.

You have to work and earn while you’re pursuing your career because you need the money. My father ran into some hard times when I was a teenager and it woke me up about money. If I didn’t go and get it myself, it wasn’t going to come to me.

WHAT’S BEEN YOUR SCARIEST MOMENT ON STAGE?
What’s funny is that the scariest moment is not a bad moment. A bad moment would have been being booed at Teatro di San Carlo in Naples when I was 26. That was tough to recover from, it’s one of those things that people tell you to brush off, but when you’re standing on stage watching the house boo you, it’s a very different experience. Scary moments, on the other hand, have led to the biggest successes.

YOU ARE THE CHAIRMAN OF ARTSMART, TELL US ABOUT THIS COMPANY.
In the United States, 98% of graduates with Masters and Doctorate degrees in vocal performance or music education don’t end up in careers in music, that’s a staggering number. These people are extremely talented, and for whatever reason, they didn’t make it. Artists that have studied music for a decade and don’t end up in a music career, can lose a lot of dignity.

We decided to create an organization that employed graduates of great universities and gave them another shot by paying them a good wage and promote them in my professional circles.

We also hired these people to teach children in distress who do not have arts education. There are millions of children in the US that lack access to arts education and after one year we had a profound impact. This coming year we will have provided 40,000 free voice lessons to children all over the US. Some people misunderstand our goals and they think we’re trying to create virtuosos when we’re not. We’re trying to build great citizens of art and if by chance some of our kids have some superstar potential, then yes, we will do our best to cultivate it.

We do weekly grassroots work directly with students with the aim of safeguarding this industry. By creating connoisseurs and culture lovers we’re building a generation who will care deeply about opera and will buy into it, so the artform can stay alive. We also collaborate with many teachers in the areas of science, English and mathematics to see if we can find any crossover in the subjects they’re teaching with art. We want our students to see art as multidisciplinary and be aware of the crossover in their daily lives.

YOU RECENTLY MARRIED YOUR PARTNER, BRYAN MCCALISTER, IN A VERY PUBLIC WAY AT THE METROPOLITAN OPERA, AND IN DOING SO YOU BOTH HAVE DONE A HUGE AMOUNT FOR GAY ARTISTS IN THE CLASSICAL MUSIC SCENE.
The thing is that there are lots of gay people in the arts, however, there are not many gay leading artists. I can’t think of more than five openly gay leading stars who cross the oceans and have careers on both continents. That’s not a slight against the industry, it’s just a reality. I wanted to get the message out there to any closeted artist that the world is ok and it’s fine. Everyone should feel comfortable to be who they are these days and so many are not.

People often ask why did I not disclose my sexuality until I got engaged. I wasn’t hiding, which is a huge misconception. The reason was that I had nobody in my life for a long time. Being gay doesn’t define my career or who I am, it just happened to be who I was born as. I love a man, big deal.

I think there are artistic leaders of organisations who are gay themselves, but have difficulty hiring gay artists. That’s a big problem and the reason why there are very few leading gay artists with starlet careers. We need to ask these leaders, why aren’t they hiring them? Unfortunately, at a younger age in my life, teachers and other professionals advocated that I stay in the closet because they thought I wouldn’t get hired. That was really tricky for me because I’m a very open person.

In Ireland, they elected a gay conservative Taoiseach in what was a predominantly Catholic country, this just shows how the world can evolve. Because of people like Leo Varadkar, it’s no longer relevant if someone is gay, we’re more concerned about his policies and whether he’s doing a good job.

WITH CLOSE TO 150,000 FOLLOWERS ON SOCIAL MEDIA, TALK TO US ABOUT YOUR ONLINE STRATEGY.
I have a hierarchy of social media platforms. Different platforms have different uses and needs for information, and the platform that is by far the most useful and important to me is Instagram. You can tell stories through pictures and write text. I divide it into three types of media; videos of me, photos of my life experience and then something in the lens of what I enjoy; be it food, architecture or whatever gives a window into my life.

Second is Twitter, which is good for information, it’s useful when I want to let people know when I’m performing, what I’m doing, polling and asking questions, getting opinions etc. Twitter is a news source and so that’s what I use it for.

I have to admit I use Facebook less and less. I think it’s a dying platform that’s been clogged with opinionated garbage and hyper-commercialism. It’s difficult to break through that fog and get your message across.

WHAT IS YOUR OPINION ON ELITISM WITHIN THE CLASSICAL MUSIC WORLD?
Mainstream media is a little to blame here. They constantly portray opera as inaccessible to anyone but the rich, while depicting very large people on stage with rattling voices that aren’t appealing.

What people forget is that it’s more expensive to go see a sports game or Broadway show than buy a ticket for the Metropolitan Opera. Also, we wouldn’t have Rodgers and Hammerstein if we didn’t have Mozart and all the other great composers of classical music. We all got our musical language from classical music and if we lose the connections to our past and history, we lose the context of what we listen to today.

We also have a personal responsibility as artists to be accessible to our public. Anna Netrebko is an incredible example of an artist who demystified the artform. I credit her with that and she did it through social media. I look to her as an inspiration as someone who has taken away the veil – she does it her own way with her own identity.

YOU’RE CURRENTLY IN THE MIDDLE OF REHEARSALS FOR FAUST AT THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE, WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO IN THIS PRODUCTION?
I’ve sung Faust many times, this is my sixth production and it’s one of my favourite operas to sing. Largely because he’s a developed character who goes through a myriad of emotional stages throughout the evening. He’s a man of faith, I’m a Catholic so I get it. There’s a lot to the story that I get about a man being very conflicted about life in general and this is the core of the character.

Faust has a huge emotional arc, he begins as a man who is ready to kill himself and then journeys into states of elation and happiness. He then realises that elation and happiness has a huge cost. David McVicar is phenomenal and he always does a great job of defining the characters in the operas that he creates, he has very specific motivations.

It’s a demanding role that’s a hard sing, but it’s worth it. It’s also my first time working with Dan Ettinger and I can’t wait.

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