American tenor Michael Fabiano will make an important role debut and house debut on 22 March when he sings Calaf in Turandot at the Rome Opera.
“I've been preparing it for years,” he told me. “Many upcoming roles in my armoury I have been actively studying for up to five years. Calaf was planned for subsequent seasons; it just came a little early.” He is replacing Bryan Hymel who was announced in the role last year but can no longer take part.
In an interview in 2017, The New York Times quoted Fabiano as saying, “Safe never wins.” However, five years of study gives him an ample safety net. He comes across as being very conscientious and hardworking. During his preparation for Turandot he has worked with conductor Eugene Kohn, voice teacher Eytan Pessen, conductor and pianist Kamal Kahn, and tenor Neil Shicoff. In Rome, he will be singing under the baton of Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv. I asked him whether he'd also listened to other tenors singing the role?
“As to recordings, it's a complex observation. As a student, nearly 20 years ago, I listened to the [Franco] Corelli studio and live performances. But in these last years, I decided to make sure I had my ear tuned to many voices. [Giacomo] Lauri-Volpi for me is another hero and [Aureliano] Pertile is my idol though unfortunately I haven't heard a full Turandot performance of his, only clips of arias.”
And more recent singers?
“Martinucci and Pavarotti were extremely impressive in their own ways. The role has been well sung by many great tenors.”
Pavarotti's 1972 recording of ‘Nessun dorma' turned the aria into a global hit after the BBC used it as the theme for its coverage of the 1990 football World Cup in Italy. Even in Italy there are people who believe that the aria is called ‘Vincerò' after stadiums of football fans have yelled out that final word. For the tenor it is one of ‘those' notes – it's a B4, or ‘high B', not a C – which the audience eagerly waits for.
“One note does not make a show. I think of famous baseball players who have ‘great games'. A great game is two singles, a strikeout, and a double – not four home runs. If I constantly aimed for home runs, I'd probably miss three or four times. Getting runs in and doing my job, in the long run wins the game. And it's analogous to an aria: do my job and sing well, regardless of the quality of every little note, and I end up in a good place.”
And to do that?
“Practice, practice, practice.”
How do you see Calaf as a character?
“I compare him to a dethroned leader ousted by a coup d'état in his own country; a man who was deposed by maybe a military junta and fighting for relevance again.”
And Turandot is his trophy?
“Turandot, the character, is his way back into power and authority and is more a symbol than a person for me. Winning Turandot signals to the world that he's an authority, allied with a vast country, and returns to power.”
Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and activist – he has been a lifelong opponent of the Chinese government – will direct, and design the sets, costumes and projections. It will be his first theatre project, though interestingly he was an extra in Zeffirelli's Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera when he was a child. Fabiano has yet to start rehearsing with him: “Obviously, being that I've never actuated the opera,” he says, “my interpretation is subject to change, especially with inspiring directors. But looking from the outside, this is how I see him.”
Fabiano's stage debut in 2007 was in a Verdi role, as Alfredo in La traviata, which is an opera that has figured frequently in his schedule, and Rodolfo in Puccini's La bohème followed soon after. However, Verdi has been predominant until now with Rigoletto, Don Carlo, I due Foscari, Luisa Miller, Il corsaro, Otello (as Cassio), Stiffelio, I Lombardi alla prima crociata, Giovanna d'Arco, Un ballo in maschera, and the Requiem under his belt, and with Nabucco coming up in Madrid in July. However, with his role debut as Cavaradossi in Tosca in Paris last year, and now Calaf, I asked him about the vocal challenges of the repertoire.
“The challenges are different – in Verdi, especially earlier works, the pattern of music is present throughout… patterns of text and musical structures that are recreated. The structure is easier to learn but harder to sing very well – the more repetitive nature of the music may seem easy but finding something inside the repetition is where a true musician is made.”
And in Puccini?
“In Puccini, it's rare that we see repetition of music. Often we have repeated text: Calaf's ‘O divina bellezza! O meraviglia! O sogno, O divina…' etc. Text-based repetition is different from music-based repetition – the burden is different in those cases. It's less vocal and more interpretive. Sure, Verdi does it too – think of the two stanze of the cabalette in Traviata, Rigoletto, Trovatore – but I look at the long lines of his cavatine that have different text but roughly the same music, verse to verse.”
What about differences in orchestration?
“The orchestral layering is different. Puccini is like a diesel car: it starts up slower in orchestra heft (I'm thinking of Bohème… Tosca…) but as the opera moves through, its texture grows vast, loud, and often doubles the vocal line. In Turandot, this happens in Calaf's first five words but quickly abates and he ends up having many lyrical moments throughout Act One. Verdi is a constant burn or more like a CVT engine (continuously variable transmission) where it revs and runs at a relatively continuous heat scene to scene, with appropriate climaxes and dips when the next moment begins.”
So your vocal approach needs to be different?
“In reference to Turandot, Bohème, Tosca, and so on, the challenge is in the preparation before the stage of setting up the voice for the evening and not working too hard, too early.”
When an 18-year-old Michael Fabiano arrived at the University of Michigan he was to study economics, Spanish as well as music, and was toying with the idea of a business career. His music teacher was George Shirley, the first African American tenor to be cast in a leading role at the Met in New York, where he sang for eleven seasons, and an important voice in opera both on and off the stage.
“He is my inspiration,” says Fabiano. “In his words: when one has a God-given gift, they have a moral responsibility to share the gift and not sharing is selfish. He was extremely strong about this when I was young. I acknowledge I have a gift and I do my best to share it.”
Shirley's influence led Fabiano to concentrate on music and so when he graduated it was from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance. Shirley told him to respect his voice and not to force it in the wrong direction. Later, this led to him leaving the role of Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto as his voice became heavier, and now to his tackling of some of the big-sing Puccini roles.
However, Fabiano's interest in business never left him and he's a partner in a company called Resonance.
“It's a mobile app and technology company. We help artists find last-minute work in various venues, and help institutions, like the Met, organize events and functions with ease. We crafted a CRM* system that simplifies booking, organization, payment, and communications for the artistic world, and it takes form as both a mobile app and a system for large organizations.
Is this just for opera?
“We apply our technology to any scenario, so for instance we work with art galleries making it faster and easier to link artists with clients and galleries with artists to get projects completed without lots of back and forth, and we make sure the transaction is done seamlessly.
“It's been a project I've been working on for almost a decade and it's my second attempt, with a terrific team.”
He's also been enterprising with the foundation of ArtSmart in 2016 with singer John Viscardi.
“My organisation provides children with free one-on-one music lessons around the USA in nine cities, year-round. We strive to help kids get across the red line and graduate high school, in communities where graduation rates are low, and poverty is high.”
How does music help?
“Music solves emotional distress and helps kids learn to prioritise and set goals, which in turn helps them apply their learned skills to their other classwork. My goal is to reduce poverty and homelessness, and right now, I'm doing it through aggressive musical education in communities with limited resources. We will be expanding soon to start adding post primary school training and other artistic avenues, like visual arts and speech and debate, but for the rest of the year, we teach singing, piano, and instrumental lessons.
“We will have provided 25,000 free lessons this year by April.”
In Fabiano's free time he loves flying light aircraft. He says that he's been in love with planes for as long as he can remember, working to get his pilot's license in his early thirties, and he enjoys the sense of freedom it gives him. Interestingly, however, the paramount factor of his enjoyment is not the thrill of speed in contrast with the grounded poses of an opera singer, as he links his two passions in a surprising way.
“I know when I'm flying around the world throughout the year it's me and the plane and nothing else. That sense of oneness is what I need as a singer too. It's me and my voice – flying has deeply informed me of how to be a better and more complete singer.”
Michael Fabiano will be singing Calaf in Turandot from 22 – 30 March 2022 at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome.
* CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management, a technology used to manage interactions with customers and potential customers
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.