Michael Fabiano on working with Mike Figgis
American tenor Michael Fabiano is one of the most exciting young singers to emerge over the last few years. Despite still only being in his mid 20s, he’s already appeared at La Scala Milan, won the Metropolitan Opera Competition in 2007, “which gave me huge exposure as it was seen on TV, not only in the States, but throughout the world as well,” and made his critically acclaimed debut with ENO as The Duke in Jonathan Miller’s famous production of Rigoletto.
I ask him why he wanted to become an opera singer he tells me that it stems from his deep love for classical music, “but I never had the capacity to realise it ‘til I got to University, but once there I figured it out. I’ve always had this fiery competitiveness in me and between having that competitive edge and the desire for communicating with the public through singing I figured that this was the career I should go for.”
He’s back at ENO to sing the role of Gennaro in Mike Figgis’ eagerly anticipated operatic directing debut with Donizetti’ Lucrezia Borgia, so I was keen to find out what the differences were of working with a film director as opposed to an opera director. “My thinking is that a marketplace of ideas is better than a closed market as Mike was obviously going to bring his own ideas to the table. The more ideas we have, the likelihood of us having a better product at the end increases. Paul Daniel, who is an excellent conductor and who’s had a long association with ENO, has been able to collaborate with Mike over the last year and a half and discuss the musical style, what it requires, what’s necessary to make it right and as rehearsals progressed we learned what Mike Figgis’ approach was and what he wanted, and he had to learn our terminology as well.”
Michael goes on to explain that the whole rehearsal process was a learning experience for everyone but admits, "I didn’t understand what Mike wanted half the time, and there were things that he asked for that I’d never been exposed to before, but that comes with the territory as it was new for him and it was new for me.” Given that this was the first time he’d worked with a director who’d never directed an opera for, Michael concedes that as the process went on it became better and better and the way they worked together became more effective. He readily admits that Figgis, “has a focus that some opera directors don’t which has been like a breath of fresh air. He likes to focus on small but intense details, which are the ones that really count over the scope of the opera, which an opera singer might miss.” Initially Michael found this approach difficult but has come to accept it and adds, “what he has gone for is good.”
Unlike other directors new to the genre, Figgis has not gone for a conceptual approach and has been respectful to the opera as it’s going to look very traditional. The influx of directors from the straight theatre over the last few seasons at ENO has resulted in some very mixed stagings, so I wondered if there was a difference between theatre and film directors? “It’s difficult to compare them because the film director is always looking for images in stillness and minimalist moments because in film, every small movement is amplified. In a theatre the director is directing for every seat in the theatre, and that might require bigger gestures, bigger emotions on the face and bigger movements. Mike had a principle that being minimal was acting, and ‘acting’ was over-acting. I’ve worked with theatre directors before and they’re so not like this. He demands very concentrated specific movements but he wants them to be intensely focussed as if there were a camera on us.”
Of course, Donizetti is a master of the ‘bel canto’ style of singing and Michael is honest when he says it’s been difficult to marry the dramatic intensity of what Figgis is asking for to the musical intensity that the composer requires. “One thing that Mike has been saying more and more over the last few weeks is that ‘music is first’ – which it is. This is opera, this is not theatre, this is not film, we sing. And beautiful singing requires an intense focus on the body and the mind. And whist there is much to be said for the dramaturgy of what he wants, at the end of the day we have to sing.”
As talk turns to singing Michael is quick to reiterate how much he loves singing bel canto and Donizetti in particular, “To me bel canto is the operatic form that all young people should sing because it allows you to open your voice up high, up low and gives you long expansive lines, fioritura, staccati, legato – it gives you all these things.” He goes on to say that he is looking forward to singing Roberto Devereux, Maria Stuarda, La Favorita and the tenor roles in other Donizetti operas including the rarely performed Catarina Cornaro. He also has his sights on Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon which he has sung, but not professionally, and Lensky in Eugene Onegin, “which is one of my all time favourite operas but I haven’t had the opportunity to sing it yet.” And given that Michael is still only young, it’s a certainty that he’ll be wowing audiences in these roles, and many more in the years to come.
Michael Fabiano sings the role of Gennaro in ENO’s new production of Lucrezia Borgia from 31 January. www.eno.org.