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Fort Myers Florida Weekly

Soul-searing

MICHAEL FABIANO had been singing all over the world without a break for roughly 36 months — San Francisco, New York, Paris, Milan, London, and in early March, Berlin, where he had just begun the role of Don Jose, in Bizet’s “Carmen” — when the opera world went dark.

So he packed himself and his world-famous tenor voice into the cockpit of his Cirrus SR22 airplane, with a 310 horsepower Continental piston engine up front and a top speed of about 235 mph, and flew in to Southwest Florida and relative isolation from his work and his home on the west side of the Hudson River near New York City.

There, he has appeared regularly since 2015 in starring tenor roles at one of the world’s greatest venues for acting and singing, the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.

“Now?” he said last week, speaking from the relative isolation of his mother’s condominium in Bonita Springs one day after his participation in the Metropolitan’s unique gala broadcast: 40 of the world’s finest vocal artists appeared one at a time, singing live from their homes.

“Now I’m doing other projects.”

A lot of other projects.

“I’m flying every day, working on getting my instrument license and my commercial license — it’s a challenge and I like challenges. I don’t believe people should be in one vertical track or career their entire life. I’m interested in technology, aviation, current events, history, finance. I’ve run a company and I’m starting a new one.

“And I’m always doing intellectual study even if I’m not singing. But I do my best every day singing, which is like weight training — you gotta sing at least 15 minutes a day. You don’t even have do high notes every day. But you have to sing.”

Few in the world can sing like Mr. Fabiano, opera critics and admirers acknowledge.

“What he’s doing — a very minute percentage of people who pursue opera ever get this far in a career,” explained Steffanie Pearce, whose own international career eventually led her to a post-performance life on Florida’s southwest coast. She founded and manages the regional Gulfshore Opera, where Mr. Fabiano’s parents, Anthony and Carole, sit as a trustee and board member, respectively.

“I think the biggest reason he’s gone so far is not pedigree or connections. It’s the quality and strength of his voice. His voice is in a category of the truly international-class singer,” Ms. Pearce added.

“Why do some singers sing at the Met or in San Francisco or Milan, and some not? Because there’s a resonance factor. His voice is like a Stradivarius violin. The resonance quality is what gives it the ability to fill a great big theater, whether or not he’s singing softly or loudly. He can fill the back of the hall. And he has chiaroscuro” — an art term describing powerful contrasts of both dark and light shades and colors, adding startling richness to a composition.

“I first came across Mr. Fabiano a dozen or so years ago in a documentary from the Met called “The Audition,” about young competing singers,” recalled Charles Williams, an opera lover who retired last year as an official and administrator at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach.

“He was wonderful but I didn’t think anything of it. And then in 2011, I’d flown to San Francisco to hear ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ with the soprano Renee Fleming — and she was spectacular, I knew what I was getting and she delivered it. But the surprise was Genaro, sung by Michael Fabiano. It was not just the voice but, ‘Look at the way this young man commands the stage!’”

Ever since, he’s followed Mr. Fabiano in other performances, like Dr. Ivan Seligman, a Neapolitan and opera lover who has attended every performance at the Gulfshore Opera since its inception.

“Michael has headlined gala concerts in support of Gulfshore Opera. His beautiful tenor’s voice and warm personality have endeared him to many, from his performances at the First Presbyterian Church in Bonita Springs and at Hayes Hall at Artis-Naples, to venues across the U.S. and Europe,” he said.

As for the Saturday-afternoon gala, Dr. Seligman put voice to what a million viewers may have thought, urging them all to help support the art in a time of silenced artists and opera companies. “That was pure auditory ambrosia to opera lovers,” he said.

In the beginning

After growing up in a family of classically trained singers and musicians in Montclair, N.J., and from the age of 10 in suburban Minneapolis, Mr. Fabiano graduated from a Catholic high school and then from the University of Michigan in 2005.

He was a child who loved baseball and the Detroit Tigers, and even worked as a baseball umpire from his mid-teens to his early-career days at 24, “and no one ever thought I’d be an opera singer,” he recalled.

But he also excelled as a pianist (he bought a Steinway in 2012) and grew up surrounded by classical music and opera.

His aim, however, was to be a businessman like his father, he said, who owned a company that did defense contracting work. But Mr. Fabiano’s application to the University of Michigan, where he hoped to go to business school, was rejected.

With the encouragement of his aunt, however — an opera singer who had lived in Heidelberg, Germany — and his parents, he recorded five songs and mailed a CD to the music school at the university of Michigan.

“There was no live audition, no interview, and I almost ripped up the acceptance letter,” recalled Mrs. Fabiano.

“I thought it was one of those ridiculous ads, but I put it on the island in the kitchen. He came home and opened it and started laughing. ‘Mommy, I got in,’ he said. “I have to be a voice major.’”

It was that or nothing, at the university.

There, he studied with George Shirley, the first African-American tenor to perform at the Met in the 1960s, a man who grew up in Detroit singing in his parents’ church choirs when the segregated public school system nevertheless had a fine music education curriculum, he said.

Mr. Shirley was drafted into the Army in the mid-1950s while working as a young public school teacher, becoming the first African American in the Army choir. Then remarkably he managed to find an extraordinary international career as an opera tenor, before returning to teaching much later, eventually as a voice professor and Mr. Fabiano’s mentor at U. Michigan, and now a lifelong friend.

“He was very bright, finishing in three years rather than four,” recalled Professor Shirley.

“He was also rather shy, but had this wonderful potential, this extraordinary voice — and he was a hard worker.”

Well, not at first, according to Mr. Fabiano.

In a conversation with friends about mentors who changed their lives posted in a Facebook video recently, he recalled it this way.

“George Shirley …gave me only a B for my first semester, which meant I did not qualify for a merit scholarship.”

He knew he could sing as well or better than anybody else who got an “A,” so he went in to ask the professor why. Professor Shirley told him.

“‘You have a talent, but you’re not living up to your potential. I don’t see you in the library enough. I don’t see you in the practice room enough. Get in that damn library. Get in that damn practice room.’”

He did.

And one day, recalls his mother, “he came home from college and said, ‘Mommy and Daddy, I want to be an opera singer.’ His father (also a tenor and music lover) looked at him for a minute then handed him something. ‘Here’s your tin cup,’ he said to Michael.”

But his parents believed in each of their sons and supported them — Michael and his younger brother Danny, now a professional bass fisherman in Minnesota who is both very much like Mr. Fabiano in his drive and focus, and very much unlike him in his vocation, the family says.

“And now,” says Professor Shirley, “Michael has become much more forthright and assertive. I have great respect for him as a person and an artist.”

Brave, in a new world

After graduating, Mr. Fabiano attended the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia for the most promising opera singers, most of them older than him. Soon he began to find prominent roles, pushing himself “to the limit,” as several critics have said about his drive and talent — couching, perhaps, a hint of disapproval at his audacity in taking on demanding, voice-challenging roles usually reserved for older tenors.

He lives that way, too, apparently, a point made by a New York Times reporter who found himself terrified as a passenger by Mr. Fabiano’s aggressive driving style in a BMW. He told the reporter he didn’t believe in defensive driving and he didn’t believe in defensive, albeit slow and cautious, careers.

But his risk-taking is never foolish. If something happens to his single-engine Cirrus SR22 in flight, for example, it has a whole-plane ballistic parachute recovery system that comes as standard equipment, the only one in the industry, according to Cirrus. It will bring plane, pilot and passengers safely to earth. If something happens to opera, he has other options, other talents, too. And he will use them.

“A lot of people have talent,” he said in a phone conversation with Florida Weekly. “Some people don’t know they have talent, some people don’t care about talent but have it, and some work so hard they create a talent. People who make it in this world, though, are not only talented, they drive hard for it.”

Mr. Fabiano also believes something else Mr. Shirley taught him years ago: His talent and ability, his voice and charismatic stage presence, is not only his own. He has a responsibility to share it with others, while he can.

And he has, not only on stage but in an evident desire to do good, while doing well. He founded and is now a co-partner in the increasingly muscular nonprofit organization ArtSmart (www.ArtSmart.org), a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that helps talented youth in underprivileged communities, Mr. Fabiano says.

“I started ArtSmart because I realized there are many artists who don’t work right now, don’t have their talent affirmed. And there’s a cross-section of many students who don’t have arts in school.

“The worst thing America has done is curtail arts education for kids, cut down their ability to be well-rounded and aware. I thought, ‘There are artists that lack employment… let’s see what we can create. That’s what we’ve done in around 30 schools across the country (and in six cities starting with Philadelphia).”

As many as 25,000 kids so far, but it should be every child in the country, added Professor Shirley.

“So many programs in public schools have been eliminated. When 9/11 struck, I saw members of Congress standing on the steps of the Capitol, singing. I wanted to go ask those who had voted against the National Endowment for the Arts and arts funding for schools, why? What does it mean to your soul to sing? If you can understand that, what is the power of music, you can understand the power of music education in the lives of children.”

And opera in particular, a combination of the arts of both music and stage, not to mention storytelling history, was once and should be gain, for everybody, for “the salt of the earth” as well as sophisticates, both men insist.

In 2014, Mr. Fabiano became the only tenor ever to win in the same year both the Richard Tucker Award for young artists finding fame, and the Beverly Sills Artist Award for young artists who have performed in solo roles at the Met, in one year.

And in 2015 he suddenly earned international acclaim when a singer fell ill on the day of a major performance at the Met.

The house called Mr. Fabiano seven hours before the curtain rose and he was asked to step on stage as Edgardo in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” by Donzetti, a performance he had never witnessed.

He took the call, traveled to New York from out-of-town prepping as he went, and blew the roof off the house.

Those were heady days, days which saw his star-studded 2018 wedding at the Metropolitan to Bryan McCalister, described as a branding consultant and a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s board of trustees. He prefers not to discuss his personal life, however.

Unfortunately, his seemingly meteoric rise in the opera world slid to a sudden stop, along with the careers of everybody else, earlier this year.

He is now 36 years old and discovering that some opera companies pay their bills to singers, and some don’t; he wouldn’t name the laggards.

The gala

Since March when the doors closed, the Met has lost roughly $60 million, its officials say, which is why Mr. Fabiano found himself standing voluntarily in a small study in his mother’s home on a late-April Saturday afternoon aiming his voice, one of the rarest on earth, live into 162 countries and to as many as a million opera fans.

He wore nothing more formal for the worldwide audience than an open-necked black shirt, buttoned down.

About 40 other singers, standing in their own studies, kitchens, living rooms, basements, or music rooms from the most distant corners of Europe to New Jersey, Virginia, Louisiana, Florida, New York City, Montreal and elsewhere, joined him live in the Metropolitan Opera At-Home Gala.

The used their smart phones, tablets and computers with technical help from the Met staff in New York. Some sang with recorded music, others with musicians accompanying them live on piano or violin at home — and in several cases they accompanied themselves on pianos.

Together they created a gala the likes of which nobody had ever seen before, punctuated by gentle pleas to help support the Met with donations for the free broadcast (those can be made still and anytime, at www.metopera.org).

Each performer offered three to five minutes of live singing to bring “the human voice (that) shall not be silenced” to the world.

“I thought it was a great moment that showed the world an arts culture that lives on,” said Mr. Fabiano, the next afternoon. “The flame of opera is burning bright, but we’re stuck at home. The message I have to the opera world is this: We do not fear restarting, and we look forward to it.”

The room in his mother’s home where Mr. Fabiano performed was relatively bare — not the room with the grand piano and view of mangrove wetlands and the Gulf, surrounded by windows. And not the room with Buster, the family pug who likes to sing with Mr. Fabiano. On this occasion Buster found himself exiled to the most distant room in the home, and locked away — perhaps the only opera lover on the planet who suffered such a tragic fate during the Met’s unprecedented gala.

Mr. Fabiano chose the room not because it was beautiful but because it had the best Wi-Fi signal near the router, and was therefore least likely to betray him by dropping the signal at a crucial moment.

On the wall behind him appeared two framed images: one of his grandfather, also a singer, and a vivid print of a work by the early 20th century Spanish surrealist, Joan Miró.

“I find this surreal — that he’s gone so far, that he’s so famous,” said his mother.

“I said I find it surreal, yes, but not at all surprising,” she added.

Dressed formally or informally, each singer introduced the next, wherever he or she happened to be in the world.

When opera singers refer to “the human voice,” they mean a musical instrument of incomparable delicacy, range and power.

For four hours, it was both profoundly intimate as a series of risk-taking personal moments for Mr. Fabiano and his peers, extraordinarily vibrant as a celebration of art right from the homes of the world’s greatest vocal artists, and profoundly sad.

They had all been forced into isolation. None of them had any sources of current opera income. And all of them were singing for free.

In fact, the many musicians of the Metropolitan’s orchestra and chorus, who had to be pre-recorded a few days earlier in their own homes playing to the recorded directing of Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin from his home in Montreal, have not been paid since March, although they retain their health insurance, reports said.

The Maestro stood in what appeared to be a white T-shirt in a book-lined room during the live presentation, hobknobbing with the Met’s director in New York and the gala host, Peter Gelb.

In Mr. Fabiano’s case, he sang for three or four minutes to an immediate audience of two smart phones: his, propped against books on its side videoing the singer from the sternum up in an open-necked black shirt, and the other, his mother’s smartphone, broadcasting the music to Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”

Lensky, a capable young poet, is about to be killed in the prime of life by his best friend, an intemperate and unpredictable hothead who has flirted seriously with the love of Lensky’s life, and accepted the challenge of a duel.

Opera is like that in its stories: It creates events that seem unlikely on the surface, to us. And yet those big-accident events draw out the most sentient, the most profound human feelings — feelings we continue to experience and often cannot understand.

Mr. Fabiano’s piece is tragic; Lensky senses he’s trapped by fate and will lose his life, the way some of his audience in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere may feel trapped and threatened by a virus they can see coming but can’t stop.

The first lines, translated into English, are as contemporary and relevant as anything in our experience. Added to the human voice of Michael Fabiano, they become soul-searing.

“Where have you gone, o golden days of my spring? What does the day coming have in store for me? It escapes my eyes, it is hidden! Shall I fall to the deadly arrow, or will it pass by? All for better, there is a predetermined time for life and for sleep. Blessed is a day of simple tasks and blessed is the day of troubles.” ¦

Fort Myers Florida Weekly

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