In 2014, tenor Michael Fabiano won both the Richard Tucker Award and the Beverly Sills Award, the latter presented by the Metropolitan Opera. It was the first time an opera singer had won both honors in the same year. Since then he has appeared at major opera houses throughout the world – The Met, Paris Opera, La Scala, English National Opera, San Francisco Opera, Canadian Opera, and Deutsche Opera Berlin. Fabiano opened London’s Royal Opera House’s season earlier this year as Rodolfo in the company first new production of La boheme in over forty years. This month, the thirty-three-year-old New Jersey native is starring in Manon at the San Francisco Opera. He returns to the Royal Opera House in December to portray the Duke in Rigoletto – a role that will serve as his debut at the Los Angeles Opera in May and June of 2018. Fabiano makes a return to the Metropolitan Opera as Rodolfo in La bohème in February and March of 2018 and as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor in April and May, a role he will reprise for Opera Australia next June and July. Indeed, it was at the Met that he appeared in a now legendary performance of Lucia di Lammermoor as Edgardo with only seven hours’ notice after scheduled tenor Joseph Calleja fell ill. Fabiano was then living in Philadelphia where he was busy photocopying his tax returns at a neighborhood office store when his agent called him. He hopped on a train to New York, had a cursory musical rehearsal and costume fitting, and ended the evening with a standing ovation from the Met audience.
I first became a fan of his last year here in San Francisco after seeing him as another Rodolfo in Luisa Miller and then as the star of the San Francisco Symphony’s evening billed as “An Italian Celebration.” I attended that concert thinking the evening, as billed, might be a bit cheesy but it was Fabiano’s performance that sent it soaring. When I asked him about the Manon and how its director and costume designer Vincent Boussard had conceptualized it – Fabiano and I had our conversation after a rehearsal in October – he told me it was “traditional with a modern twist.”
“That sounds like your own appeal as an opera star,” I told him.
He laughed and agreed with the description. And then we began talking about his debt of artistic gratitude to San Francisco Symphony’s maestro Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Opera’s maestro Nicola Luisotti.
MICHAEL FABIANO: I love MTT. He’s a very good friend of mine. Actually I have a deep affection for both Nicola [Luisotti], who is the conductor here at SF Opera, and MTT. They are both important musicians in my life.
KEVIN SESSUMS: Because they both affirmed you when you needed to be affirmed?
MF: It’s not just that. They both are divinely in love with music in different ways. They both have huge pathos for music. Other times I think other conductors are musically musicians, but they are not empathic about music. I find MTT to be empathic – and I find Nicola to be – in very different ways, but also similar ones in that they are each highly virtuosic. They both have had big musical impacts on me as a man.
KS: You said as a man but you didn’t say as an artist. Is there a difference?
MF: Yeah. Sure. I would say that six or seven years ago, before I knew either of them, I was more excited to be a musician. I was a young person. I don’t want to say I was a boy, but I was certainly younger. And I would say that I really came into my own as man – not just as an artist, but as a guy – by working with those two. There is now a maturity I have now from having worked with them that I didn’t have that they forced on me. Well, no, I don’t want to say forced out of oppression, but that they demanded me to have in contextualizing music in a way that I didn’t before and conceiving of music differently than I had. And I think that defines the difference between what a boy and a man is in this business.
KS: What I am hearing is that because they treated you like an artist, you then became a man.
MF: Yeah. Exactly – but in very different ways. They have very different styles in how to approach music. They are great leaders, but also great collaborators.
KS: When one reads about you one is struck by the importance you put on the need for collaboration.
MF: It’s huge.
KS: You like to be heard in more ways than just your singing voice.
MF: I’m not a pawn. I won’t be a pawn. I won’t allow it. If I am or I do, then I don’t do my best work.
KS: Is all that a more positive way of saying “I am a diva”?
MF: No way.
KS: I don’t have a bad connotation about the term “diva.” But one doesn’t think of men as “divas.”
MF: I don’t think we’re even in that era anymore. When I say I’m not a pawn, it’s not like I’m saying I walk over people. I’m just not that kind of docile person that when I am told to do X,Y, and Z that I’ll just do it and bow and leave. Camaraderie and respect is important. But the “diva” mentality is old and outdated.
KS: What I am hearing is that you are not just a pair of lungs, but you’re also a brain. Do you consider thinking a part of your job as an artist? You have mentioned the importance of being empathic to music, which is sort of the opposite of thinking and is all about instinct and emotional impulse. How do you balance those two things?
MF: I think that is what defines an artist: someone who can think and be emotional. You can’t be an artist if you can only do one of those two things.
KS: You can be a kind of artist.
MF: I don’t think you can be a total artist. There has to be an ability to be in sync with the other people with whom you work on an emotional level and sympathize with them. But then there is the other component of knowing the framework with which we work and knowing why the framework exists and how we get from A to Z.
KS: When I first starting going to the opera – and this still holds true to some extent for me – I found it transcendent even though I wasn’t really schooled in it. I compared it to having great sex with someone and then afterward realizing you didn’t know the person’s last name. I don’t know opera’s last name but God the sex is great I have with it.
MF: That’s quite anonymous. Never thought it in that way.
KS: But I think you have to be willing as an audience member not to be afraid of not knowing enough about it. Sometimes you just have to surrender to it.
MF: But you really don’t have to understand language or know a lot about the history to have an appreciation for it. There is just something sonorous about classical music that hits the bones when it is played because it is not amplified. It’s accessible.
KS: Did you go to opera and were you an opera fan yourself before you realized you had an operatic talent?
MF: No. I went to college thinking I was going to go to business school. I dabbled with studying music because I was very good with music theory in high school. But I took a few voice lessons and my first voice teacher, George Shirley, at the University of Michigan told me I had an immense talent and, because I had such a talent, that I had an obligation to cultivate and to curate it. How could I say no to that – or to him?
KS: Well, you could have. I have a feeling you’re not a guy who has a problem saying no.
MF: On balance, I say a lot more “no” than I say “yes.” As a musician, you have to or you’ll obliterate your gift. That is the first thing I try to teach younger artists now: learn how to say “no.”
KS: You have said you think of yourself as a businessman even before an artist. Does that make you hard to manage?
MF: No. I think that makes me easier to manage because you know that I am thinking in a longterm pathway. I am not just thinking as an artist who is hyper-impulsive – not to say that all artists are. Make sure that is clear. Some artists are extremely curated. Of course, I’m a businessman first. Of course, I have a strategic plan in mind because it gives me solidity of mind and hat sense of calm makes it easier for me to sing.
KS: When did you first realize you had your instrument and that you could sing the way you sing? I am always curious about that with opera stars – that moment when the realization occurs. One assumes you’re not singing opera instantaneously. So is it in the shower one day when it happens? When was it for you?
MF: People in the choir who heard me sing “O, Holy Night” at mass told me I had a voice. I always sort of discounted it. It was in college, as I said, that I really realized it.
KS: Did it scare you? When one has the talent you have then one has to own it and then protect it and … well … house it and care for it. It becomes almost this separate thing one protects even as one recognizes it as deeply a part of one’s body – and, okay, one’s soul.
MF: No, I wasn’t scared. I owned it right away. Once I realized I had it, I went for it. I didn’t hold back.
KS: In Manon, your role escapes into the religious life. You just mentioned mass. Did you ever think about entering the religious life as a priest?
MF: I thought about it. I went to Catholic high school and there was a moment back then, yes, when I thought I was going to be a priest.
KS: There is a kind of ascetic life to that vocation that does compare to being an artist.
MF: Absolutely. I always say I function as if I were a monk in so many ways. I don’t drink. Well, I seldom do. I don’t go out. I can’t. It’s not in service to my instrument.
KS: So this is a calling for you?
MF: Of course.
KS: Well, I don’t think an “of course” is a given. Not all artists look on their art as a calling. There are some artist who do go out and drink and party.
MF: Maybe they’re not artists.
KS: They are a different kind of artist.
MF: Okay. But I have a responsibility to my talent. So many people in the world should be able to experience great music. I am fortunate enough to have a voice and I will use it to the best of my ability until there is point where I don’t need to use it anymore.
KS: Even sitting here talking to you after you’ve been rehearsing all day is making me feel guilty. You should be saving your voice.
MF: No. No, no, no, no, no. I am not one of these singers who is “hush, hush, hush, hush: quiet.” To me it is okay that I’m using the voice as long as I’m not whispering. Whispering is the most dangerous to singers. I don’t whisper.
KS: You’re a Jersey boy. Were you a Springsteen fan growing up?
MF: No – even though he lives two towns over from where I grew up.
KS: What music did you grow up listening to? What shaped your musically?
MF: I had a hard time growing up. Other kids in elementary school and middle school and even the early parts of high school bullied me quite a lot.
KS: Because you were overweight.
MF: Yes. I was geek and a nerd. Not a great sportsman. The need to try to exist like the rest of my friends led me to listen to Nirvana and Green Day and those kinds of bands. This sounds ridiculous now. But my mother would catch me in my bedroom listening to Green Day and I’d be conducting the music in the mirror. I was ten, eleven, or twelve, standing there listening to Green Day with a pencil in my hand conducting its music. Then I discovered some musicals in high school. Then when I was eighteen I had mononucleosis. I was sick with mono for maybe three months that first year at Michigan. My mother came to help me with school. She slept on an air mattress, God bless her. She said at one point, “Let’s watch something.” And I was really sick at this point. I had lost about 40 pounds. She then put on a video of a production of Mefistofele from here at San Francisco Opera. It was from 1989. It starred Sam Ramey and Dennis O’Neill. It was the famous Robert Carson production. I remember sitting through it with my mother and just balling my eyes out and saying to myself, “Okay, this is what it is.” It was one of those ah-hah moments for me. I seldom talk about that experience with people. But nobody ever goes a step further to ask me about those moments. Thank you. When I finally met Robert Carson I told him he was one of the reasons why I am doing what I am doing today.
KS: So on a really basic level, opera was a way for you to heal. Your artistry began to heal you.
MF: Of course! Sure!
KS: Let’s get back to Robert Carson. I’m a theatre geek myself. I know what theatre directors do but, because conductors are so important to an opera’s production, how does that jibe with what a director does? What role does the director play and does it ever get in the way of the music?
MF: So I just worked with Richard Jones in London when I did La boheme. He’s done a lot of theatre – especially Shakespeare. For me, I love working with theatre directors because they are focused on lots of details and I’m a detail-oriented person. I love details. The director has the responsibility to enlighten the text and infuse it into my movement and my character – and then collaborate with the conductor to merge the music with whatever movement he’s trying to get out of me. Now in an opera setting, the conductors often think predominantly with the words not with the music, which is something that an outsider might not know. But most conductors go with the words – especially Italian and French conductors. First the words: prima la parole. It’s because the words dictate the arc of the music.
KS: I once thought that some artists were geniuses. But I’ve come to believe that genius is something separate that floats about in search of a vessel through which it can be channeled and those we consider geniuses are really conduits for something separate from themselves. There is a sacredness to being chosen as one of those vessels through which genius can flow. Is that too airy-fairy?
MF: Yes, that is a bit etherial for me.
KS: Well, you did say you wanted to be a priest. I ‘m trying to be spiritual here.
MF: I am a spiritual person. I am a believer.
KS: Do you believe your talent is God-given? That is what I was sort of saying, but with different words.
MF: I believe we’re all blessed by God in different ways. Some people realize the blessings and some don’t. Or some people reject them. I am very thankful for what I have. Sometimes I’m not thankful enough.
KS: One of the things that fascinates me about an opera star’s life is the constant travel. The constant forward motion. How are they able to have a private life? Do you have one?
MF: I have a fiance.
KS: Is it a woman or a man?
MF: A man. I have a wonderful fiance and a home in New York – which I am rarely at. But I’ve learned I have to make home wherever I am. So when I go somewhere for two or three months, I don’t live out of bags. I clean out my bags entirely and I take over whatever home I’m in. I have a few pictures with me that I bring. I set up a base camp. I am very fortunate that my fiance is often with me. Not all the time, but often. He’s in fashion and marketing and branding. A very talented man. That was one of the missing links for me for a long time – having a personal life. I am very lucky to have met Bryan because after I met him I was even more grateful for the talent that I have. I was able to feel a little more comfort in it than I had before.
KS: You were less alone in it?
KS: I don’t know you really, but I’m happy for you. I am happy for anyone’s happiness. I don’t begrudge anyone their happiness.
MF: Thank you. I’m very lucky to have who I have in my life. And I’m lucky to have a very warm and supportive family for what I do.
KS: Is it hard to be “out” in the opera world? Some people choose not to be.
MF: I have been open about who I am to my friends and my family for a very long time. Speaking about my sexuality in terms of my business didn’t define me – and it doesn’t define my career. It’s irrelevant to my career. When I’m on stage, I’m an opera singer. I’m a tenor. I do my job. I’m madly in love with Manon. I’m madly in love with Juliet. I’m madly in love with Lucia. Whoever it is. It’s irrelevant in my view. Now I happened to be engaged and this person named Bryan is one of the most significant people in my life. I love him deeply. Obviously, I’m proud to speak of my love and my life. Why ignore that? I didn’t have that before so I didn’t feel the need to express it.
KS: When I talk about this subject with people for these interviews, I am not talking in any way about what you do in your bedroom. That is none of my business. What you and I are talking about right now is about who your are in your kitchen and your dressing room and in the rehearsal hall. It is about who you are, not what you do.
MF: It’s not like it was 30 years ago when people had to hide or were “otherized” or cast out. The fear of being open shouldn’t exist for young people who are entering my business.
KS: Someone on my Facebook page asked me to ask you about being a gay Republican who supports Trump. Is that true?
MF: Not true. I don’t know where they would have heard that. I have many things to say about this. I care about politics. I am a politics junkie. I’m a stats junkie. I always have been. I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a Republican. I’m neither. I have a problem with both parties as they stand today. That’s what I’ll say on the record. We are at a time when we have so much discord in our country. Everyone is unwilling to speak with everybody else. I have members in my own damn family – I have right-wingers and left-wingers – who will not speak to each other. The should not be. We should be able to talk. We should be at a point in the concourse of our lives right now where dialogue about all matters should be okay. My biggest problem with politics, in general, is that we’re process-oriented, not ends-oriented. All of us want a better education system for our kids. All of us want people not to live in poverty. All of us want to have clean air and clean water. But the process of getting all those things is very different for people on the left than it is for people on the right.
KS: I don’t agree with you that all of us want the same thing.
MF: That’s fine. We can disagree. My point to you is that, in general, we all have the same ends in mind. I know that everyone wants to have healthcare. I think there should be a great healthcare solution for everybody in America. The process to get there is up for debate, right? I resent that people sometimes say this about me – this Republican statement you had on Facebook. I don’t often address it.
KS: That’s why I’m giving you a chance to do it. I’m kind of known for being political myself.
MF: I appreciate it.
KS: I’m a bit different than you about where I think we are right now in America. I think we are facing an American iteration of fascism. I think where we each stand right now in the context of that is very important.
MF: I totally agree with you.
KS: We look back in history and wonder why people allowed fascism to rise around them. But we don’t have to look back at history to understand it. We just have to look around us right now. Because what is scary to me is that I can insist that Trump is at the helm of a Fascist Regime and yet life goes on. You are in rehearsal for Manon. I am interviewing you for my new online magazine. You are in the glorious throes of love and are about to get married. I still go to the opera.
MF: The American right is not the American right of the 1980s and the 1990s. That’s why I say to my family and my friends: Where is the alternative? We don’t have an alternative right now. There is either the extreme right or the extreme left.
KS: Well, we’re way off talking about art now.
MF: You brought it up.
KS: I know. But I don’t agree again with what you just said. I think that is a bit of a false equivalency. I don’t think opposing the fascism that constitutes the right at the present moment is extreme. You can oppose it without being on the extreme left. I think, in fact, most of the opposition to it could be describe as the center politically.
MF: We can agree to disagree. I think there is even a split on the left where you have statist Democrats and then you have technocrats like Hillary Clinton that are, as you say, more of the center, and that is the resolution that the left has to make in these next years.
KS: I had a parallel media existence in New York with Trump in many ways for many years. I know who this vulgarian is. I would literally avert my gaze from him when I was in the same room with him because I found him so vulgar and distasteful. He was on so many levels an affront. I am deeply embarrassed that he’s our president. I just can’t understand how he was elected.
MF: I can understand how. It was what we were just talking about. People are unwilling to listen to each other and, as a result of that, the people in the middle of this country – from the middle of Pennsylvania to the middle of Nevada, north and south – because they felt ignored voted for him. The people on the coasts felt, like you, that he was repugnant and repulsive. Neither side listened to each other – and it happened.
KS: Again, I disagree. They didn’t vote for him just because they felt ignored. That is something I think we on the coasts now tell ourselves so we don’t have to face the fact that he rose to power on the “birther” racist trope, which then morphed into white nationalism and racial resentment. He ran a racist campaign. And the white people who didn’t vote for him feel better about being white when we tell ourselves that the white people who did vote for him voted for him because they felt ignored. We have to face that as a country: white people elected him after he demonized “the other” in every form. But thank you for listening to me and giving me the opportunity to listen to you. I think we did a good job of listening to each other.
MF: Yes. Thank you. We did.
KS: Yes. This was fun.