Music lovers who have seen "The Audition," the documentary about a vocal competition at the Metropolitan Opera, may remember tenor Michael Fabiano as the dark, almost brooding presence who stands out in sharp contrast to his chipper, smiling fellow contestants.
The film takes viewers backstage where 10 young singers were competing in the finals of the Met's 2007 National Council Auditions for prize money and a career boost. Fabiano, only 22 at the time, is memorable for the blunt, tell-it-like-it-is attitude he reveals in such remarks as: "You know, people don't love each other ... they have to play that game," and, "There's always going to be another tenor in line to do my job."
On the strength of his urgent, emotionally charged singing — if not his sunny personality — the judges named Fabiano one of six winners that year, and since then he has performed in many leading opera houses and concert halls, including in Berlin, Milan and Paris. He has sung twice at the Met, most recently last fall as Cassio in Verdi's "Otello" with Renee Fleming.
But on Monday night, he makes his highest-profile New York appearance yet, singing the role of Oronte in Verdi's "I Lombardi" in concert with the Opera Orchestra of New York at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.
"I've been chomping at the bit to do this opera," Fabiano said in an interview this week after a rehearsal in a West Side Manhattan studio. "It's not the longest role for a Verdian tenor, but it's highly memorable to the public ear because the music is so tuneful and beautiful."
"I Lombardi," Verdi's fourth opera, is set during the First Crusade. Oronte, son of the ruler of Antioch, doesn't appear until the second of four acts, and by Act 3 he's been mortally wounded. But he sings the score's best-known aria, "La mia letizia infondere." He also gets to suffer one of those extended operatic death scenes usually reserved for sopranos, and he even reappears briefly from heaven in Act 4 to help lead the Christians to victory.
"Every moment I'm onstage is consequential," Fabiano said, adding, "I've got to deliver a huge range of dynamics, from very soft to very loud. I have to be able to show my voice is fluid, that I can move up and down the scale quickly and that I can sustain long, high notes."
Fabiano's co-star on Monday will be soprano Angela Meade, who studied with him at Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts and was also a winner of those Met auditions. In rehearsal that day they had ended a duet on a prolonged high B-flat, and Fabiano admits there's a bit of good-natured competition to see who can hold it longer. "We're both strong personalities," he said. "And we feed off of each other's energy."
Though rarely performed, "I Lombardi" has an illustrious history in New York. The Met's one and only production was staged in 1993 for Luciano Pavarotti. The OONY has done it twice before, both times with exceptional tenors: Jose Carreras in 1972 and Carlo Bergonzi in 1986.
Fabiano, who describes his voice as a "middleweight lyric tenor," looks forward in coming years to performing more early Verdi operas, like "Il Corsaro" and "Attila," and also the heavier bel canto works of Donizetti, like "La Favorite" and "Roberto Devereux."
This summer he will sing the role of Alfredo in Verdi's "La Traviata" for his debut in Santa Fe, N.M., and then appear as Alfred in a new production of the Johann Strauss operetta "Die Fledermaus" at the Met, opening on New Year's Eve.
Fabiano was born into a musical family in New Jersey but went to college at the University of Michigan intending to major in business and economics. Then he started studying voice with faculty member George Shirley, who in the 1960s had become the first African-American tenor to sing leading roles at the Met.
"With George telling me that I had the goods, that I should go for it, I made the calculation that it would be wise to study," Fabiano said. "He thought that I had a great gift that I needed to make better, and that if I didn't share it I was doing an injustice to at least some people, and so I had to pursue it. I agree with that kind of philosophy."
From Michigan, he went on to AVA, where his voice teacher was Bill Schuman, with whom he continues to study, along with two coaches who help him prepare new roles.
Six years later, how does the 28-year-old Fabiano — still very young for a successful opera singer — look back on his earlier self as documented in "The Audition"? The rough edges appear to have smoothed out, but the underlying drive to succeed at all costs is still there.
"I think everybody grows over time," he said with a wry smile. "I'm glad the Met showed the world what we do as competitors and as opera singers, what goes on behind the curtain.
"As much as the public doesn't want to admit it, the world is competitive."