For the last decade, Michael Fabiano has emerged as one of the greatest tenors on the planet, performing at the major opera houses around the globe in a myriad of repertoire. Along the way, he’s won many prestigious awards and continually showcased an ability to push the boundaries of his artistic abilities.
But in that same period that Fabiano has risen to the peaks of the opera world, he also experienced a major disappointment in his life.
“I effectively did not succeed at business at my first go,” he told OperaWire in a recent interview. “And it was a really hard knock for me for about six to eight months. It knocked the wind out of my sails.”
By his counts, around seven years ago, Fabiano had attempted a tech company with the goal of helping fellow artists, of all kinds, find supplemental income so that they could better support themselves in their own artistic endeavors.
“When I was young, 21, 22, the way I supported myself was posting ads on billboards in schools and other places for weddings and other events, such as Baseball games,” he explained. “I was able to support myself singing hundreds of weddings and funerals for many years. But it was a lot of work just to advertise and find the gigs and sometimes they only plaid $30 or $50. But I did it. And this is how I paid for audition tours, rent. It took a lot of busy work.
“So I decided to create something that made life easier than what I experienced. We wanted to create the easiest way for artists to get work without having issues with the middleman. I wasn’t seeking to replace the current agency system, but creating something concurrent.
He had a team of 11 people actively working on creating the platform and the mobile application went through a number of versions and was ready to launch.
But then the engineers working on the project asked to renegotiate contracts and suddenly the tenor found himself in a very difficult financial circumstance.
“I had just started to learn how to raise money from investors. It was a new world for me creating pitch decks and other documents for raising money. I had to jump into the fire and learn,” he noted before explaining that he had not accrued sufficient capital to suddenly restructure the entire operation. And without an engineering team on day one, Fabiano felt it was “too dangerous.”
“So instead of risking it, I decided to ice it for a while.”
The reality hit hard for the tenor and the next few months were spent analyzing where things had gone wrong and re-evaluating why he had undertaken the task to begin with.
“Lessons learned from failures are the best medicine for success,” he noted.
As he went through the aftermath of the project’s fallout, he realized that what he really wanted was to “give everyone a better shot at getting paid and having higher dignity in life. I always felt that when artists pursue what they studied in life, they affirm their own value and studies.”
That’s when ArtSmart came to life.
From the Ashes
Alongside co-founder John Viscardi, Fabiano founded an organization that not only helps singers find supplemental opportunities related to their craft, but actually envelopes something even greater than what he had originally conceived with his original plan.
ArtSmart launched in 2016 at the Newark East Side High School and had young artists provide weekly lessons to students, which would culminate with a year-end concert. “For many of our students, this is their first opportunity of its kind,” notes the official website.
“So it became a two-sided paradigm where we are helping young artists like I was 10 years ago have more money in their pocket and feel better about their hard work, and we are also serving a sector of young teenagers and children and helping them have a greater opportunity at success at school and graduation,” Fabiano enthused.
Since then, the organization has grown, servicing an estimated 7,000 lessons throughout the 2018-19 school year for 180 students. Fabiano also explained that artists are paid competitively and that there is now a regional leader in every city where the organization operates, thus offering an added layer of fixed income for the person in that position.
Fabiano noted that the goals are to expand to 10,000 students on a weekly basis over the next five years. He added that there is also a desire to expand to instrumental education, including piano lessons within the next 18 to 36 months.
“It’s organizationally heavy and if we can get to that number in five years, we’re going to be creating a whole new generation of artistic citizens,” Fabiano emphasized. “People that care deeply about the arts, some of which will become great artists themselves and many of which will have a deep passion for the arts and will go to college appreciating the studies they have.”
But as is the case with any growth, there are a number of challenges that the tenor cautioned about, principally the bureaucracy in schools.
“The red tape in public school systems is horrendous,” he said frankly. “I am a Federalist and believe in decentralizing power, States having their own authority, and school districts having their own power. But at the same time, it means that it is logistically far more burdensome for us on the legal end because it means that we have to create different agreements that fit in with the rules of every school district.”
This requires all hands on deck with Fabiano himself constantly reviewing contracts and other essential documentation.
Another Venture, Of the Artistic Kind
For almost as long as ArtSmart has been in existence, Fabiano’s thoughts also started shifting toward pushing his opera career into a new phase.
The tenor had received a number of offers from many record labels looking to sign him, but he wasn’t quite sure about the direction he wanted to move until Pentatone came and made him an offer he could not refuse.
Fabiano initially didn’t consider the company, but they floored him with how vested they were in a high-quality product.
“[Recording an album is] a zero-sum game in regards to financial gain, so that part of it is a wash for me,” he explained. “What’s more important is putting something down for posterity and making sure it’s of the highest quality. Pentatone guaranteed a high-quality orchestra and production.”
And deliver on that promise they did, booking Fabiano with the London Philharmonic and maestro Enrique Mazzola.
But they also offered himself something else. In a world where most artists are pushed into risk-free first albums that rely heavily on the “classic hits,” Fabiano was given freedom to craft his album.
So starting in mid-2017, he was already on his way toward developing his “Verdi-Donizetti” album.
Working alongside his numerous teachers Neil Shicoff, Jack LiVingi, and Julia Faulkner, as well as other team members, Fabiano initially crafted a list of 20 tracks that suited his vision for an album that encapsulated the operas of Verdi and Donizetti. The criteria was simple. Select arias from operas by those two composers that he had either already sung or had planned in the near future.
“If you asked me to do ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ tomorrow, I would do it. ‘Ernani?’ I can do it no problem,” he added. “I didn’t put ‘Trovatore’ on here because I wouldn’t do that opera tomorrow.”
The only exception to the rule was the aria “Qual sangue sparse” from “La Forza del Destino.” This aria appeared in the 1862 version of the opera but was later cut and is never performed in the latter 1869 version of the opera.
“I wanted to showcase a few things that were unique and still in style,” Fabiano added.
In that original conception, the album was evenly split in terms of representation for the composers. However, eventually, it was whittled down to 11 tracks, eight by Verdi and three by Donizetti. The album was recorded in August of 2018.
Fabiano is confident that this album is a strong testament to his artistic growth.
“I want [listeners] to know that I have a great appreciation for Verdi and Donizetti. I studied Donizetti since the age of 18 and I know 10-12 of his scores by heart and I know half of the Verdi canon by heart. I just know the works, not just as a singer, but in a musicological way because I love it,” he added. “This music has value that it can go the distant and even the less standard pieces ought to be heard.”
The tenor is already actively preparing his next album (and the ensuing one as well), though he would not reveal details at this time. He is planning the next steps for ArtSmart. And he is booked for productions at the Metropolitan Opera, Teatro Real de Madrid, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Opéra National de Paris, among other theaters throughout the 2019-20 season. Not to mention that he is an active pilot (pictured).
How does he have time to engage in such a wide array of activities? He can’t live without it.
“I find it more stimulating to do more things than less. I do not like being idle. Idle is hell on earth. Being able to do a number of things and think critically all day long is actually a relief for me. It is also a joy. Studying. Flying planes, learning new music, and growing this organization with my co-founder makes my day.”