Washington Concert Opera is about to bring Giuseppe Verdi’s rarely produced Il Corsaro to the Lisner Auditorium March 9th. It’s the two-hundredth birthday of composer Verdi, and there is much to celebrate, perhaps most especially, contemporary singers’ dedication to carry forward through the glorious human voice the rich gifts of traditional opera.
I had the opportunity to speak with tenor Michael Fabiano, winner of the 2014 Beverly Sills Award, who is coming to DC to play Corrado. I found Michael on one of his rare days off, sitting on his couch at home in Philadelphia.
How do you organize your calendar and the shape of your waking hours?
Michael: That’s a good place to begin, because as my career advances, I have found that I have needed a lot more people to keep my ship moving forward. To organize my calendar everything starts and begins with my manager. Currently, I have three people who make everything work – a manager, a publicist, and an assistant. My manager is responsible for my engagements and that aspect of my calendar goes all the way to 2018. My publicist handles all aspects of communication, and my assistant handles my daily aggregate of everything else – preparing music and so on. It’s a puzzle with big moving pieces. Sometimes some of the pieces change so it’s a constant reassembling. I’m fortunate to have three people around me who act as my proxies.
I can imagine most of your time is divided amongst traveling and performing at the major opera houses and concert halls around the world including The Met, San Francisco Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Semperoper Dresden, La Scala, and Teatro di San Carlo. Since you won the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, how much down-on-your-couch time do you actually have?
Michael: (Laughs) Well, not much. I just finished my taxes so I can tell you exactly. I had 305 days on the road last year. That’s a sixth of the year at home. But usually I get ten days to recoup every six-eight weeks. It’s the life of a musician rarely to be in your own bed. So home is my vacation.
With that rigorous a schedule, do you always have to be working on your instrument?
Michael: I’m always keeping my voice in shape. I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. I don’t spend time in loud environments. I have to lead a priest-like life to protect my instrument. In my case, physicality is important. Some operas demand me taking my shirt off. So, for my career, I go to the gym five days a week. But that’s not for everyone in the opera world, as you know. Not everyone has or can make exercise a priority. I believe when singers’ voices are so terrific the public will accept their bodies in whatever shape or size. The public for opera wants first the voice. If you don’t have beautiful music, it’s not opera.
So now you sail into Washington to sing in Verdi’s Il Corsaro. How would you describe this little-known opera, especially, what relevance does it have to today?
Michael: It’s a great adventure story with pirates on the high seas. On a deeper level, it’s also about an international conflict situation between Muslims and non-Muslims that we can relate to today. Look at the conflict in Russia and Ukraine with different ethnic groups and religions. This story pits the Turks against the Corsairs.
My character instructs my soldiers to fight, and while they are successful I am sentenced to life in prison – it’s like a Guantánamo Bay or Americans captured and forced to live in prison in North Korea with the grim specter of death hanging over them.
How should young people especially prepare for and approach concert opera, a form that Washington Concert Opera specializes in?
Michael: Concert opera is a totally different vehicle than standard opera because here the music speaks solely by and for itself. There are no distractions, and an audience can focus on the power of the human voice. Sometimes presenters today put on productions where there has to be a lot of program notes telling you why people are dressed in a certain period, or a new location and a new approach, far from the original. But in concert opera, audiences have an opportunity to experience the essence of opera – to appreciate the sound of the human voice and the fabric of orchestra. It’s also an opportunity to hear an extremely rare opera at a fraction of the cost.
by Guiseppe Verde
One night only – March 9, 2014 at 6pm
Washington Concert Opera at
George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium
730 21st Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
Tickets: $40 – $110
Details and Tickets
Michael: Everything – the story and the relationships – has to be communicated through the voice. But I love this. I’ve been studying Il Corsaro for months. The rehearsal process is truncated, yes. A staged opera might have two-to-seven weeks but here there is only one rehearsal with everyone. You must be very prepared, and the rehearsal is very focused.
One rehearsal only! Did you have conversations by phone about the Il Corsaro?
Michael: No, I prepare the music with my coach and my teacher. I will land in Washington on Monday, and we all come together to rehearse the piece. But remember, classical musicians are extremely well prepared, and the score is a highly detailed map prepared by the composer. That’s our job as singers. There will be music stands, and singers usually have scores in hand. There might be some simple rearranging of characters for certain scenes.
It sounds very challenging. What advice do you give to young artists preparing for this life?
Michael: I am very straightforward with young persons who say they want to become singers. The American mentality is that everyone should have everything right now. But in the opera world, no one is going to hold their hands or push them forward. The people who rise to the top are the ones who work very hard, are extremely productive, and don’t stop a day in their life. They must pledge allegiance to the voice and the craft of music-making.
So few people now have the opportunity to experience opera live. How do you encourage or develop young people to share this passion you have?
Michael: I was so lucky, I know. I grew up studying piano, loving Rachmaninoff, Dvorak, Berlioz, and Beethoven. I was an oddball, probably, and I think that there are a lot of young people out there who might be like me, even being ridiculed in school. I am passionate to promote arts education for children and not just to stop the bullying. I think it’s a right to give children the opportunity to dance and sing.
Have you been involved directly in offering music education and reaching out to young people with opera?
Michael: I have started a program to skype with students from different schools all over the country. A lot of kids love to talk to artists. I learned they were very excited by the HD at the Met. They loved seeing opera up close. The backstage intermission features are just as important as the performances for many of these kids. Lots of young people want to know about the props and wig designers. I have also done opera where students come to dress rehearsals and I work to encourage more production houses to offer these.
Kids need role models, but we also need new tools to reach them such as social media. The arts have to become very self-sufficient and reach out in more progressive ways. And we need a lot of lobbying from artists. The facts all show that children will stay in school if they can do art. But we have to use unconventional means to get more kids introduced to classical music. Great things are happening such as at the Berlin Philharmonic. It now provides audiences with a digital concert hall and everyone can watch it live or streaming. If you are watching something that magnificent, you will want to be a part of it and touch it, and to value and support it.
It sounds as if in your own “life on the high seas” you are fighting battles for opera as a form. Is this a war?
Michael: I think this is a war for the relevancy of all art. Can you conceive of a day where music might cease to exist? For me, music is not just a nice entertainment, but we depend on music for our existence and self-worth. I challenge my colleagues and my friends to take up the fight.