Page last updated at 08:31 GMT, Monday, 21 September 2009 09:31 UK

Opera Mafia Style


Tenor Michael Fabiano takes us backstage at ENO

Tenor Michael Fabiano is making his English National Opera debut in Rigoletto. Director Jonathan Miller relocates Verdi's Renaissance revenge drama to 1950s Mafia run New York.

Complete with a sharp suit straight out of the Rat Pack era, Michael Fabiano plays The Duke of Mantua, a role made famous by Luciano Pavarotti. Stephen Lord, Music Director of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, makes his UK debut in Verdi's darkly dramatic, melody-driven score which includes the beautiful aria La Donna e Mobile.

You are making your debut with English National Opera, how do do you feel?

I am having the time of my life here. I am very blessed and it could be one of the best professional experiences I have had in my life to date. I am grateful for the staff and the director Jonathan Miller, and maestro Stephen Lord.

Scene from Rigoletto

You are playing the 'Duke' in this production of Rigoletto set in 1950s New York, do you like the setting?

I love this production, this for me is one of the most brilliant things I have ever seen in my life . It is set in the heart of Little Italy in 1950. My family comes from that area, my grandmother was born in the heart of Little Italy, I understand completely. All of it is just spot on. I would encourage every person who has not seen it to see it because it is tremendous and there is nothing else like this out there.

Luciano Pavarotti played the Duke of Mantua in the film Rigoletto, are you tempted to try and emulate him in your current role?

The one big thing that my first ever singing teacher George Shirley made me swear is that I would never listen to a recording more than once or twice because I would engrain into my chords what those other singers do. Sometimes emulation is nice but it is not necessarily you. One has to develop their own voice and their own characteristics. Pavarotti is one of the most fabulous Dukes of all time, but I wouldn't say I emulate his performance in anyway, I do it in my way.

Scene from Rigoletto

So tell us about your background, where did you train?

I was born in the state of New Jersey, in the United States . After High School I went to the University of Michigan, which is one of the prestigious music schools in the United States and when I was there I studied with a man named George Shirley who was the first African-American Tenor to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House. I went on to the Academy of Vocal Arts AVA in Philadelphia, which is now considered one of the premiere opera training programmes in our country . I sang at La Scala during my training.

Did you find an element of snobbery at La Scala about Opera in the United States?

This is something I am entirely passionate about. I don't think it is snobbery, I think the reason why in America Opera is not as prevalent, is the lack of education in the arts. I believe it is my mission as a young singer and it should be the mission of many other young singers, to make a change and ensure young children learn about opera. It is a highly accessible art form, that encompasses music dancing and acting. It is something that so many people from my generation could appreciate and understand but they just don't know about it. Young people should participate as it can help foster their own mental awareness and development .

Scene from Rigoletto

Your voice has been compared to many of the great singers out there, for example Jose Carreras, how does that make you feel?

Well I am very grateful for all those comparisons. I am still a young guy and my voice is still growing. In time I hope I am going to develop into something where people can identify me, Michael Fabiano.

When people think of a Tenor in the Opera they often have an image of an older man with a pot belly, here you are young and slim do you think your image will help to change people's attitudes?

I think it is a double edged sword. The fact is that the fundamental aspect of opera is singing! I respect any singer whatever size they are . That being said there has to be some sort of outreach to bring young people in, and if that includes having people that look good and move well on stage, in tandem with a great voice then you have the correct package for success.

So many people are put off going to the Opera because they think they won't understand it, but I believe if people go they will fall in love with the music would you agree?

Most people do! They just don't know and that is what is so unfortunate about our society. Think about this, if at any moment in time you turn on the television and there was no music behind any commercial or any programme you were watching, most of those jingles relate to classical music in some way, there is usually violins, violas cellos playing. If that music stopped people would pull their hair out of their heads, sincerely you know people would go crazy if there wasn't music behind everything . People don't always make the connection between classical music that existed five hundred years ago and what it has led to now.

What would you say to encourage a new audience into the Opera?

There is nothing like it in the world. You can't find this in musical theatre. There is no art form existent in the world where people are unamplified, where people sing in tandem with an orchestra and move around in costume continually through the night . It would be a total unique experience for anyone and I would implore them to come, as it would open their eyes to something new and give them a totally exciting experience.

ENO's Rigoletto is playing at The London Coliseum. Michael Fabiano talked to BBC News reporter Claudia Redmond.

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