Michael Fabiano is everything Michigan Opera Theatre could possibly want as the headliner for its season-opening gala on Saturday.
He is the man of the moment in the opera world. He’s a dashing young tenor with international stature, appearing with major opera companies from Berlin to London and Paris to Milan. At the moment, he’s performing the role of des Grieux in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of “Manon,” which opened Sept. 24 and runs periodically through Oct. 26.
He even has a Michigan connection, having graduated from the University of Michigan in 2005.
But good luck trying to get him to talk about upcoming performances. He’ll talk, all right, but not so much about music. He’ll talk about tennis champions Roger Federer and Serena Williams. And the secrets of good business management. And the Detroit Tigers. And his Aunt Laurie, who is president of the Tory Burch Foundation, which advances women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship.
His greatest passion, it turns out, is an organization called ArtSmart (https://artsmart.org). Fabiano is co-founder and co-executive director of the group, which was founded in 2015 to provide “youth mentorship through the power of music in underserved communities across the United States.”
But his own music? His performances? It’s as if they’re afterthoughts.
George Shirley, Fabiano’s U-M voice teacher, laughs when he hears that.
“Michael is a person who is always filled with ideas,” says Shirley. “When he came to Ann Arbor, he was this young, shy young fellow with tremendous vocal potential.”
When he started to work, though, he was like a man possessed. He graduated in three years instead of four. Usually, young singers want to stretch it out as long as possible. Taking the time to train a voice properly and to let it mature can make or break a career. But Fabiano was a man in a rush. He still is.
“I certainly didn’t expect him to blossom as quickly as he did,” Shirley acknowledges. “Young singers don’t normally grow that quickly. But there are people who are born that way, people who start off on a fast track as soon as they are out of the womb. Michael is one of them. He is something of a polymath.”
Don’t think for a minute that Shirley views this as a shortcoming. He views Fabiano as the real deal. In 2014, Fabiano was the first singer to be awarded two of opera’s most prestigious prizes in the same year: the Richard Tucker Award, for an American singer on the verge of a major career, and the Beverly Sills Artist Award, for emerging singers who have appeared in solo roles at the Metropolitan Opera.
It’s just that Fabiano’s interests aren’t limited to music.
Read through his bio and you’ll find references to all manner of unexpected interests. He was a baseball umpire from the age of 14 to 24. He’s an avid pilot. And then there’s ArtSmart, which is already operating in six large cities and on target to offer music classes to 25,000 kids.
And there is sure to be more, he says. He’s just 35, he points out. He has time to explore many other things.
“I’m not a genius,” says Fabiano. “I’m just a guy who likes to do multiple things.”
He understands that his varying interests fly in the face of convention. Singers are often stereotyped as single-minded and ultra-focused.
“I am not the greatest tenor nor the greatest singer in the world,“ says Fabiano. “But as an abled opera singer who is having a successful career, I believe it is my responsibility to give back to the community that has supported me. I know there are colleagues who are shocked that I don’t live for my art. I love my art, but I don’t live for it. That’s not how I fly.”
Reviews occasionally suggest that while Fabiano’s technique may be nothing extraordinary, his stage presence is downright electrifying.
And though Fabiano might argue some of the specifics in those reviews, he wholeheartedly embraces that performance philosophy. He likens it to the experience he had watching a certain South Korean ice skater whom he didn’t identify.
“What I noticed is that when I’ve watched her skate, everything is technical and graceful,” he says. “But it’s not memorable. There are others who don’t have the technique and can’t land the triple axel, but they do something that compels you. At the end of the four minutes, that is something you will remember. It’s the same when I listen to singers. I am forgiving if they are imperfect as long as they leave me — and the rest of the audience — with something memorable.”
That attitude is a perfect reflection of the theme of this year’s 49th MOT Gala: Saluting the Extraordinary. In addition to Fabiano, the program will feature performances by soprano Leah Crocetto, tenor Rodrick Dixon, American Ballet Theatre dancers Léa Fleytoux and Jarod Curley, and the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra conducted by Steven Mercurio.
According to MOT president and CEO Wayne S. Brown, the evening will also pay tribute to Fabiano’s former teacher, George Shirley, and to MOT’s longtime board chair, R. Jamison Williams.
Fabiano isn’t willing to divulge the specifics of his program.
“But there might be one or two pieces I’ve never sung publicly before,” he says in a deliberately teasing manner. “There are a few things coming down the pike in my career that I might want to share. And this would be the first opportunity to share them. We’ll just have to wait and see.”