Opera’s Next Superstar

In December 2014, tenor Michael Fabiano appeared in his first starring role at New York’s Metropolitan Opera when he took the stage in La Bohème as Rodolfo, filling in on short notice for an ailing Ramón Vargas. According to The New York Times review the next day, “by the end of the second act, the buzz was that this was the debut of the decade.”

Though it wasn’t technically his debut-Fabiano (BA ’05) had sung at the Met in 2007 as a winner of the Met National Council competition and in featured parts over the ensuing years-the review said his performance “felt like the advent of opera’s next superstar.”

A few months later, Fabiano repeated the feat-this time with just seven hours to prepare-when the Met asked him to step in as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. He had just returned from Paris and his only plan for the weekend was to rest up in preparation for his next overseas trip, which was fast approaching.

“I was jet-lagged, but the body is an interesting thing-if you tell your mind that you’ve got to do something, and you will yourself to it, there’s a good chance that your body will follow. I willed myself to do it and it was fine.”

Actually, it was better than fine: the performance was another triumph, and Fabiano got great media coverage about his second stint as the Met’s last-minute replacement who brought down the house.

Though remarkable, these were just two of Fabiano’s many stellar performances over the last few years. They came on the heels of his receiving both the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and the 2014 Beverly Sills Artist Award, making him the first person to win both in the same year. He’s now added to that list of honors, winning Australia’s prestigious Helpmann Award for “Best Male Performance in an Opera.” Not surprisingly, his schedule is already mapped out for the next several years, beginning in 2016 with roles in La Bohème in Zurich, Eugene Onegin in London, Rigoletto in Zurich and Paris, Don Carlo in San Francisco, and I due Foscari in Madrid.

Yet the extraordinary success Fabiano is now enjoying wasn’t remotely on his radar when he arrived at Michigan. A New Jersey native from a musical family, he said that singing was “never the focal point” before college-it was probably fourth or fifth among his many interests, which included tennis, baseball, and debate. He enrolled at SMTD with the idea of pursuing some kind of “business track” that he could combine with his interest in music.

Fortunately, Fabiano’s voice instructor was George Shirley, the legendary professor and recent recipient of the National Medal of Arts, who recognized the young singer’s “wonderful vocal potential.” Fabiano’s aunt-who studied with Shirley years earlier and went on to enjoy a successful opera career-had recommended her nephew to her former teacher.

“I knew of George Shirley’s pedigree, but I didn’t know what he’d give to me as a teacher,” said Fabiano. “He gave it to me, and how. I’m very grateful to him. Sometimes the smallest anecdote or the smallest story can open an entire world of ideas. That’s what makes a great teacher: someone who’s able to draw on experience and great ideas and inspire a young person.”

Fabiano credits Shirley with teaching far more than technique. “Singing well, learning how to use the voice, is really not even 50 percent of the equation,” he said. “It’s really a game of how well can one survive the mental challenges of a year, a day, a week, a month. Because even if your voice is great, if there’s extreme duress-problems in your family, a hostile conductor, director, colleague, or a really bad work environment-a good voice doesn’t matter if you can’t mentally separate the problems that you’re facing. George Shirley was instrumental in preparing me, psychologically, for the career.”

Shirley recalls Fabiano as an exceptional student. “He finished his undergraduate degree in just three years and was one of the youngest people to be accepted in the Vocal Arts Academy,” he said. “He was just much more determined and focused, with singing and with other areas of life.”

Fabiano is grateful for the gift of his voice, but he believes that success is only achieved when three elements are present: talent, intellect, and drive. It’s an equation he uses to guide his career and is at the center of his “brand,” which, he says, every singer needs to develop.

“We are not in a world anymore where opera singers can just be a figment of the public’s imagination,” said Fabiano. “They have to be intelligent people who know how to operate their own business, how to delegate affairs to people around them, how to, essentially, be chairmen of their own board.”

Fabiano has a team-publicist, manager, assistants-but he runs the “business.” This is what has made him a quintessential 21st-century artist, one whom the Telegraph (UK) described as “a new breed of opera star.” He has embraced technology and is fully engaged with social media; he also maintains a blog on his excellent website, which is regularly updated with news, reviews, videos, recordings, and photos.

Fabiano also understands that the survival of opera, and classical music in general, is dependent on continuing to develop future audiences for it, so he does all he can to contribute to that effort, including holding Google chats with schoolchildren and making in-person visits to schools.

“I feel a compelling responsibility to give back in order to keep the art form building, growing, and alive,” he said.

Fabiano also gives back by teaching. He recently returned to U-M to lead a master class, coaching six young tenors in front of a packed audience. Like Shirley, he’s eager to share both technique and what he’s learned as a professional, and he passes on much of what his former teacher taught him.

“Professor Shirley really hammered home to me that it was essential that I always be prepared for every job I did-way in advance. Prepare a role a year in advance, two years. Don’t do things at the last minute, on the fly, because showing up for a performance unprepared will definitely, necessarily lead to mental anguish and chaos, and it’s just not worth it.” He adds that it also, inevitably, leads to a deficit of respect for the singer. “Lack of respect builds up, and the chances of getting rehired go down.”

Fabiano also strongly suggests, as Shirley did, that young singers enter as many competitions as possible; he believes it’s the best way to learn how to audition successfully.

“You will never achieve greatness if you don’t have experience and repetition in this business,” he said.  “It’s one thing to sing in your studio class, or in front of your peers, and do a great job. It’s another to stand in front of people you don’t know who are judging you. A lot of teachers don’t push their students hard enough to go out there at a young age, and they should. That’s the name of the game.”

Shirley is honored that Fabiano is carrying on the lessons he taught this star pupil, and says that watching Fabiano’s career unfold has been a thrill. “It’s one of the things that makes teaching so exciting and gratifying,” Shirley said. “To see him take the ball and get a touchdown-repeatedly!”


By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.