Interview: Michael Fabiano stars in ENO's new production of Lucrezia Borgia

'The music really is unique – it's foreboding of what Verdi did thirty years later. It doesn't look back at all.'

26 January 2011

The end of January brings an exciting new production to English National Opera: a staging of Donizetti's much underrated Lucrezia Borgia, directed by movie director Mike Figgis. The line-up is impressive for the production: former ENO Music Director Paul Daniel returns to conduct leading British dramatic soprano Claire Rutter (admired at ENO in recent years in roles such as Aida) in the title role.

Alongside her is the young up-and-coming American tenor Michael Fabiano who, still in his mid-twenties, is taking the opera world by storm. He made an impressive ENO debut last year as the Duke in Rigoletto and, when I catch up with him during rehearsals, is clearly relishing this Lucrezia in particular.

We begin by discussion the bel canto repertoire, which so many singers regard as healthy for their voices. 'When other young singers come to me for advice,' Fabiano tells me, 'the thing I always say to them is that one should sing Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini first. Not Mozart, not anything from that era. Because bel canto gives the singer the opportunity to open the voice. The music has the flexibility to allow you to go high and go low in a way that's comfortable to you, without the confines of the structures that someone like Mozart presents to you, and without the orchestral layering and depth that a Verdi or Puccini score has. You get the best of both worlds. You get a bit more of an intimate orchestration, but singers don't have to battle with the pit. You also get the chance to do some really beautiful, lush singing. For people my age especially, it's healthy because the voice has to move between registers often rather than staying static. It gives the singer the agility to allow them to keep the voice fresh.'

Fabiano has an equal passion for the librettos of the bel canto repertoire – often the aspect of these operas which is most attacked by their detractors. 'Think about who Lucrezia Borgia is based on in real life. Victor Hugo was a wonderful playwright and novelist who was also responsible for the story of Rigoletto, Le roi s'amuse. If you think about it, the story of Lucrezia Borgia took place in. She was Catalan, she wasn't Italian. She had been married several times; had several children who died in childbirth; her first child was taken away from her; she might have had an incestuous relationship with her father at some point.

'This opera, like many of the period, is based on existing literature and historical trends and things that actually did happen. Especially this opera, which in my humble estimation has been highly underperformed, probably because it's so difficult to cast. So companies have passed on it when it's actually really high quality. It's back on the move again, thankfully, and I think that after this ENO production has opened, it will be seen in lots of places. The music really is unique – it's foreboding of what Verdi did twenty or thirty years later. It doesn't look back at all.'

Just as he's a passionate advocate for this period of opera, so too is Fabiano articulate about his character, Gennaro. 'He's an innocent young man; he's an open book,' says the tenor. 'He wants to know information, and he's honest. If Lucrezia is the equivalent of Rigoletto, then Gennaro is almost the equivalent of Gilda. He is the individual who's hampered by bad circumstances, and he gets killed even though he shouldn't. In each case, a parent kills them by accident. What he wants to know is information about his family and upbringing. We see that developing throughout the opera after his realisation that Lucrezia is a Borgia, and later learns it's his mother when he's already been poisoned for the second time.

'In this production, we're adding the aria that Kraus did at Covent Garden in 1978. It gives Gennaro a little more colour because it allows him to tell the audience that he loves this woman, but doesn't quite know why. He doesn't know a thing about her and has been deceived by her. So he's in a constant state of confusion from the moment he gets tortured through to the end of the opera, until he realises who he's dealt with.

'This opera takes place over the course of a day. The director has been fiddling with the timespan – no one sets in stone what the distance of time is between the first, second and third acts. We're guessing that there's no more progress than twenty-four hours over the course of the opera, in terms of real time. So for an individual like me to go from believing I'm just an innocent guy and then discover I'm the son of Lucrezia Borgia within the space of a day is colossal, on top of having been poisoned to death and taken the antidote to save myself, before I'm poisoned again.'

ENO's new production, by Mike Figgis, is rumoured to feature some use of film as part of the staging, yet Fabiano assures me that it's essentially a very respectful production. 'Mike Figgis is a very influential man, and it's been a pleasure to get to work with him because I've never worked with a film director before. As an outsider to the opera world, he has a unique touch and a unique pool of ideas that he brings to the table for rehearsals for this production. However, he has chosen to keep the production in period, which is maybe not what you'd expect from most new opera directors, who tend to have extreme concepts and change the time and place. He's kept with tradition. His vision of the production when we are singing is in period. The thing that I appreciate about him is that he's very keen on having the singers focus on each other and really communicate between ourselves and the audience. It's great to work with a director who's worked with so many film actors because he's able to bring an entirely different perspective to something that we would not necessarily be exposed to. I really appreciate all of that.

'As for the production, it's not totally out of left field. He does something unique which you'll have to wait and see!'

Later in the run, one performance will be broadcast live in 3D by Sky Arts. Does this faze Fabiano at all? 'Well, I've been presented on film before, so that aspect of it isn't new to me,' he admits. 'Four years ago, I won the Metropolitan competition and it was shown on TV as The Audition. I didn't know when the competition started that it was being filmed for major documentaries, but they asked us if we were comfortable with extra cameras and lighting everywhere we went. They followed me into my apartment and filmed me cleaning my house and going to get a coffee! They wanted to get as much footage as possible. But I must say, it didn't bother me at all. I revel at the opportunity to be able to expose opera to the public en masse, especially in America, where it's less appreciated than it is here. It's a great vehicle to get access to what opera is all about, and why it's important. So I'm very grateful that Sky Arts is making this production available in movie theatres. I can say nothing but wonderful things about it.'

As a child, Fabiano grew up in an incredibly musical family. 'Both my father and my mother have degrees in vocal performance and opera. They both chose other career paths later on for various reasons. My Aunt Judith sang on contract all over Germany for several years. My Great Aunt Bea was a winner of the Metropolitan competition back in the 1940s. It was very different then – there were many winners, so I'm not sure if it means the same as it does now. But she had a career and subsequently went on to teach. And my grandmother was a concert pianist, and is still a wonderful pianist.'

Did he want to resist such an intense musical background, or did he revel in it? 'It's a wonderful question that nobody really ever asks!' he confesses. 'I didn't pursue it when I was young. I appreciated all the things that were highly intellectual. I was a debater, I was in 'mock trial' in high school. On top of that, I was a baseball umpire. And so I didn't have music in my life, except that I listened to it often. I was always ostracised as a kid, because when I sang in the choir in high school I always had a loud voice with a big vibrato. I'm not one to get really intimidated but that did intimidate me, so I stayed away from it. I regarded it as an avocation, not a vocation or job possibility. The strangest part of it was that my teachers always came up to me and tried to encourage me to explore my voice more. But I never did, because I had my other vices. It wasn't until university that I had an epiphany that this was my true calling.'

The tenor is also grateful to have been guided by two excellent mentors: 'I've had two great teachers: George Shirley and my current teacher, Bill Schuman. George, my first teacher, had a huge impact on me because he was the biggest driving force behind me taking the plunge and really going for it (along with my family). He was a unique guy: very well polished, and he'd worked on the greatest stages so he had contact with all the greats, including Renata Tebaldi and Zinka Milanov. He worked at the Met, Covent Garden, and everywhere. He was very, very strict with me. I remember in my first year, he had a baton that was about three feet long. We would be in a lesson, with me singing by the piano, and if I made an error or made a choice that he disagreed with, he would slam the baton down really hard on the desk. But then he'd smile and giggle after he'd done it, to diffuse the tension. So he was very aware of himself, and very nice. The point was to drill in my head that what I'd done was not right and I needed to make an adjustment.

'So I grew really fast because of his technique. Other students struggled with that because he was strict and demanded a lot from you as a singer. Within months, I went from having no idea about languages to wanting to study until three in the morning so that my diction was perfect. I'm the type of guy that if you convince me of something, I'm going to go for it one hundred per cent and never stop. So he was great for me, and I worked with him for three years at the University of Michigan. I finished university early because I wanted to start working so badly.

'I left for the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, which is where I began studying with Bill Schuman, who helped foster my voice in a broader way and helped bring it to its core, and helped me to find more access to my high voice than I had before. The institution itself is a landmark because some of the great American singers have gone through it. So I've been very fortunate to work with people that came from an old school style and did not constrain me to a typical university route. I was allowed to focus on the right things: my voice and my languages. And I had very strict but loving teachers around me that have helped me to grow.'

What plans does he have for the future? 'The rest of this year, I have my first Verdi Requiem with the Columbus Symphony in the States. Then I'm going to Limoges in France to do Boheme, followed by Lucia di Lammermoor with Diana Damrau in Bilbao. She's a phenomenal artist, so it will be an incredible joy for me to share the same stage as her. I'm also making my Paris debut as Cassio in Otello with Renee Fleming as Desdemona. So to the end of this season, it's full steam ahead. Next season, I'm not doing anything new – it's all my current repertory.'

Will he extend into heavier, later repertoire? 'My sincere hope is that I'll get to do the Massenet Des Grieux. It's my favourite role; I did it when I was a student at AVA, and it's butter in my voice. I would also love to do some more bel canto roles, such as Roberto Devereux and La favorita. If any Verdi, maybe Lombardi. Eugene Onegin and Romeo would be great too. But it's all lyric tenor roles for the time being.'

In a recent interview, Fabiano said that opera is 'not for the faint of heart'. I ask him to expand on the challenges of being an international opera singer. 'Opera is incredibly glamorous, but it is not for the faint of heart because it can be such a slog. It's hard work, especially in production time when you're onstage for six or eight hours. It sounds like a normal day for someone with a desk job, but if you're encumbered with large, heavy costumes, make-up, bright lights, stopping and starting with a blaring orchestra, coming on and off stage, being refit, dressing and undressing for hours before and after the performance, spending time vocalising, it becomes a twelve- or fourteen-hour day. So couple that with the fact that if you're an international singer, you have to travel a lot, which is heavy. Making multiple trips between time zones in quick succession is by no means easy.

'But that doesn't detract from the point that I love what I do, and I would do nothing else. I accept the fact that there are complexities and difficulties in this career, as there are with any career. But you have to be strong and have a strong mind in order to do it.'

By Dominic McHugh

photo credit: Dario Acosta



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