PERSPECTIVE — “I was thinking that Paris would cancel and it would be good riddance to opera for another three or four months,” said tenor Michael Fabiano wryly about his years-in-planning role debut as Cavaradossi at the Opéra national de Paris. But the June debut has indeed happened. He’s on for another Cavaradossi run in a different production at the Teatro Real de Madrid in July, and in August, at the San Francisco Opera, he’ll sing the role once again.
Before flying to Paris, Fabiano spoke from the side of a road, in his car, on his 37th birthday, admitting surprise over the good news about a role he had not sung professionally before. “It was a nice birthday present to find out I would be working after all,” he said, and then pivoted immediately to the way Covid cancellations have devastated singers just arriving in the professional ranks. These are the newcomers attempting to pile up their first valuable professional opera experiences on meager free-lance wages that rarely cover the cost of living.
“The singers aged 23 to 28 who have limited opportunities and now might be blanketed out of the business because of where we are — that is rough,” Fabiano said. Several years ago, Fabiano and fellow tenor John Viscardi founded a non-profit program called ArtSmart, in part to help sustain such gifted freelance artists by paying them to give voice lessons and mentoring to pre-teen and teen students at schools lacking robust arts programs.
So far, ArtSmart is helping students and schools in cities such as Newark, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chicago on a $1.05 million budget, and Fabiano, who is actively involved in the fund-raising, said he envisions more mentoring teams and cities to follow. When Covid hit, ArtSmart was fortunately able to take advantage of the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, commonly referred to as PPP, which helped secure the continuation of lessons even when fund-raising became difficult.
“Fifty percent of these mentors are opera singers, and the others are in music theater, or they are jazz musicians, or educators,” Fabiano said, adding that he doesn’t do much mentoring himself at this point. “I’m often in the wrong time zone given the nature of my current career. But I sure would have loved to have had this opportunity back when I was 21 or 25. That’s when I went on Craig’s List and hunted for every Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah that needed a singer, and I would agree to do it for $20 or $25 with no contract, no guarantee, and the employer could walk away when done with an excuse like ‘Oh, I forgot to bring the cash. Can I get in touch with you next week?’ and I was nowhere.”
Clearly a tenor with a brain for strategic thinking, Fabiano emphasized that he is one of the lucky ones in this moment. “I mean, it was a miserable year for me in that I got divorced, and my parents got divorced, and I fell onstage, and it was a write-off year financially,” he said. “But I have jobs for the next four years. One thing that would help singers going into the field would be to have more business training. Not because they shouldn’t pursue music, but what is Plan B? What is Plan C? You never know what is going to happen. But if you think nothing will ever happen and then the world shuts down, then that is when you draw on your strategic plan, with alternatives to a career or supplements to a career. And that includes myself. This situation was a reckoning for me, too. Luckily I can work as a licensed pilot of single-engine planes if the industry were to really stay shut.”
Fabiano serves as a co-executive director of ArtSmart, his second time around at such a non-profit arts effort, after a first try at something that he decided was in need of a more centralized structure and technology backbone. ArtSmart has given 20,000 private lessons so far, chiefly in vocal performance. “It’s one thing to play trumpet or violin as a kid,” Fabiano said. “Those lessons may still be happening. But it is quite possible to get to the age of 13 or 14 without much training in singing at all.”
As for the professionals who do the training, “we call them mentors and working artists, not teachers,” Fabiano said. “Teacher is an important word, too, only it sends a different message. In fact, we noticed very quickly that the kids are doing as well or better studying privately over the internet than when they did the work in person, because the experience is not as if they are being watched or judged like they are in a classroom. It was also a big lesson for us to realize we could deploy this training privately from anywhere in the world.” Now the challenge will be to achieve the same success once the mentors get back into the schools, he said: “How do we keep that risk-taking alive? I think we’ll be working with the school districts to create a greater environment of privacy, perhaps, or working with smaller, more curated groups, where everybody feels safe in knowing they are working toward unified goals.”
ArtSmart works with students as young as eleven, and the program cuts off after high school. “What is really great is the ecosystem that is created,” Fabiano said. “Because in college there are already some who want to be mentors for ArtSmart since it was so meaningful for them.” The program itself has delved increasingly into what he calls “strategic living,” which he described as the bedrocks of life after high school that will be favorable to their continued growth as young singers. “We can see them making meaningful changes, with average grades up a full grade or better, and many of them graduating with honors or going to college with scholarships.”
ArtSmart is hardly alone in facing the challenge of finding a way to sustain itself, and even grow, during a health crisis in an unstable economy, and Fabiano is cheering hard for the arts industry as a whole to get on with it. “I do think it’s beyond time to figure out the sweet spot between securing health and securing the industry,” he said. “If you look at what has been happening in the technology and financial services industries, this was a huge time for growth. There was a gigantic opportunity missed in the arts world to pitch a broader, newer form for our work and to gain momentum. If, God forbid, the business shrinks another 25 percent, then where is the inspiration for new music in the future? Where does that leave our kids?
“We do seem to be turning the corner in the U.S., getting closer and closer to where we can be doing big live productions. So where are the leaders with gumption? Enough with digital already! San Francisco Opera is doing Tosca live [Aug. 21-Sept. 5] and I will be there for it!”