Steinway for Voice: Opera singer Michael Fabiano wanted a piano worthy of Verdi
That’s exactly how long it took Michael Fabiano to recognize he’d found the Steinway with the sound and action that he desired. In his sonic imaginings, the American tenor wanted a piano that could “simulate what I hear in the Verdian orchestra.” In other words: a loud, sonorous brass and big percussion. When trying out possible pianos, Fabiano explains, he always launched into the same Verdi selections: the beginning of Elisabeth’s scene in Don Carlo and the end of Rigoletto — the tragic cadence when a horrified Rigoletto cries out “La maledizione!” (“The curse!”) after learning his own daughter has been murdered.
If Fabiano wanted a dramatic sound, he found it in the Steinway B he acquired in 2012. Eight seconds and seven years later, the thirty-five-year-old Fabiano is now one of the most sought-after tenors in the world. In 2014 he won the Beverly Sills Artist Award and the Richard Tucker Award, the first singer to win both awards in the same year. High-level recognition quickly followed. In 2015 he was once again in the spotlight when he was called upon to replace a sick colleague to perform Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera with only seven hours’ notice between the call and the stage. The newspapers relished the heroics of such a feat, which further cemented his global reputation as a maestro, especially of the great Italian repertoire.
Fabiano is back at the Met this season, performing Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon opposite soprano Lisette Oropesa in the title role. He also stars in the title role in Don Carlo at the Opéra Bastille and the Royal Opera, as Hoffmann in a new production of Les contes d’Hoffmann at the Opéra Bastille, and as Alfredo in La traviata at the Teatro Real. Other season highlights include singing Don José in Carmen next March at the Staatsoper in Berlin, with Anita Rachvelishvili in the starring role and Daniel Barenboim conducting.
Given his jet-setting lifestyle, nothing says home to Fabiano like his Steinway grand. He misses it when he is away. “Every time I come home, the first thing I do is take my shoes off and sit down at the piano and play something for five minutes, whatever it is. Usually it’s something operatic and loud, I admit now — usually something that’s been in my head,” he says. “It’s the anchor of the house. It’s the heart of the house.”
Fabiano recently moved into a new house in Weehawken, New Jersey, with his husband, Bryan McCalister. They were married at a glamorous wedding ceremony at the Met Opera in 2018, well documented in a feature in The New York Times and featuring a world-class roster of talented musical friends. The couple had been living together in McCalister’s New York apartment, where McCalister had his own Steinway — a rare A3, which Steinway built for a limited time from 1915 through 1945. It wasn’t exactly a Steinway smackdown, but limited space meant that Fabiano’s instrument went into storage. But here, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Fabiano’s instrument takes pride of place in the bay window of the front room, and it’s McCalister’s Steinway that has gone into storage.
There’s a score open on Fabiano’s Steinway. It’s the piano reduction of an early Verdi opera, La battaglia di Legnano (1849), notable for its stirring, patriotic choruses. It’s an opera he may sing, Fabiano explains. He was up studying the music the night before until two a.m. “I need to decide if I like it enough,” he says. “It’s a great opera for historical purposes, but it’s not one of Verdi’s most remarkable works.” That said, Fabiano has proved successful in recent years with a number of early Verdi operas, including Il corsaro, I Lombardi, and Luisa Miller, to name a few. In April 2019, Fabiano released an album of arias that he says demonstrates the strong ties between late Donizetti and early/middle Verdi.
To hear Fabiano talk is to understand something essential: an opera singer relates to the piano in a very different way from that of a pianist. Fabiano has a wall full of music scores — including a Verdi shelf that is missing only four of the composer’s twenty-five operas, he notes — and none of it is piano music. From Fabiano’s point of view, the piano is the orchestra. It’s an act of preparation, a way for him to solve knotty harmonic problems, before the main event in the opera house, when the orchestra is pumping away in the pit.
“So, my process is this,” he says. “When I study a role, I analyze just the music. What is the music doing? Why is it going in a certain direction? What are the harmonies? What’s the vocal line versus what’s going on in the piano vocal score?” Typically, Fabiano will annotate his piano score with certain harmonies and flourishes that are only in the full score, such as a clarinet or a flute line. “The point for me is that I need to hear where the music’s going, and you don’t often hear where the music’s going with just the vocal line. You need the orchestra, and thus you need the piano,” he says. Later on, he explains, this process continues with a coach or a répétiteur, freeing up the singer to focus on his technique and be in the moment. “A great pianist can make an orchestra sound stupid,” he adds. “There are certain pianists that can play in such a virtuosic way that you don’t necessarily even need to hear the orchestra.”
Fabiano was born in Montclair, New Jersey, but grew up in Minnesota surrounded by family members devout in their love for classical music. His parents both studied music at college, his grandmother was a concert pianist, and his great-aunt was a winner of a Met competition in the 1940s. The family had a Mason & Hamlin upright. Fabiano started learning the instrument at the age of three. “I studied the piano with a very tough Russian lady for nine years as a piano student. She was hard on me to study, to practice every single week with rigor. I had to keep a journal of every single minute that I practiced… and that bled into my other studies,” he says. “I got organized because of my piano teacher.” As a teen, Fabiano played a lot of Rachmaninoff, Khachaturian, and Chopin, but even then had no inkling that he would become an opera singer. It wasn’t until he attended the University of Michigan to study business that he started taking voice lessons with George Shirley, an acclaimed tenor turned teacher. For Fabiano, it was a revelation. His voice, not the piano, would be his instrument, opera his passion. After four years of further study at the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Philadelphia, his talent soon made an impression. Determination, charisma, and most of all the sound of his voice — “a throwback to an earlier age of Italian singing,” according to Anne Midgette in The Washington Post — made him a bankable opera star.
Listening to Fabiano run through the piano reduction for Manon is to be aware that this is a man who relishes a big sound at the keyboard. He may not be inclined to play a Chopin nocturne anymore, but he is able to deliver some muscular passages from Massenet or Verdi with conviction, and shake the chandeliers — though this is a modern house with wooden floors and clean lines. The sound of the Steinway throughout this new space, with its hardwood floor, is resonant and powerful. Fabiano strikes the bass notes with abandon to prove, in his words, that this piano can “really get into the seventh gear.”
Fabiano’s emphasis on the piano’s technical capability hints at his other great passions: driving and flying. This year he acquired the 2019 BMW M3, a luxury performance sports car that actually has a six-speed manual transmission. Fabiano admits he misses his car just as much as he misses his piano when he is touring. He also holds a private pilot’s license, which he earned a few years ago. For Fabiano, there’s a psychological relationship between flying and singing. After his maiden solo flight, he had an insight: “It’s so thrilling to be free in the sky. Apply that principle to being on the stage, being free on the stage and just performing, rather than letting the mind be besieged by angst.”
That conflation of singing with gravity-defying freedom is an important one for Fabiano, but he’s also at pains to emphasize the significance of what he does for a living. He draws a distinction between joy and fun. “It’s a joy for me to get onstage and present in front of people, because I know singing great music brings happiness to so many. Music being delivered doesn’t necessarily translate into ‘fun’ for me. It’s a joy. Fun for me is flying an airplane. Fun for me is going to a baseball game. Fun for me is going on a long run. A joy is something visceral — making an existential and a concrete change in people’s lives,” he says.
In 2015 Fabiano co-founded ArtSmart, an organization that provides free one-on-one music lessons to children in underserved communities. Now in its fourth year, ArtSmart teaches twenty thousand lessons a year in six cities: New York, Newark, Jersey City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. Fabiano came up with the idea for the organization because he perceived a crisis in arts education in American schools. He had also made another key observation: that there were many graduates with music degrees (especially pianists) who, having spent countless hours refining their craft, ended up in careers that had nothing to do with the arts. A light went on. His thought was to “connect recent grads with master’s degrees from esteemed universities who are talented, who are hungry, who desire to work, with needy teens that lack complete and total access to art but who may have talent.”
“We find that the one-on-one mentorship relationship between a young adult with a teenager has a profound impact on educative success,” he explains. “When there’s someone that’s working every single week with constancy, just as a student works with a piano teacher, they have a profound change over time if they are focused. And so, in vocal lessons we have really seen that there is a profound change in the lives of these kids.”
Returning to the Steinway in his living room, Fabiano launches into a familiar theme from La traviata that he knows by heart: the famous “Amami, Alfredo” scene from Act II. “There are things that I know how to play because I’ve done them so much, not because I’ve read it,” he says. His playing is unabashed, Romantic, mostly fortissimo. His clear affection for this eighty-eight-key orchestra is tied up with his success as a singer. “I happen to be a respectable musician as an opera singer largely because I Iearned how to play the piano.”
How so? It has conditioned his musical approach. “I think like a pianist when I sing,” he says. “The pianist has to be thinking ahead. Sure, they have to passionately show what they’re playing in the moment, but if they’re reading, they’re constantly having to be ahead. With me, technically, I should be right on the mark in every second, but my nature is always to know ‘Where am I going? What’s coming in the next three bars?’ ”
I think like a pianist when i sing... my nature is always to know ‘Where am I going? What’s coming in the next three bars?’Michael Fabiano