The American tenor Michael Fabiano is speaking to me on the phone, laying out the reasons why his character should be considered crazier than the opera’s leading lady. He’s just touched down in Sydney, and the work in question is Opera Australia’s hotly anticipated production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, famous for its soprano’s mad scene. An interesting argument to make, then.

Michael Fabiano. Photo © Jiyang Chen

His first time back after making his Australian debut in the title role of Faust for Opera Australia in 2015, Fabiano’s star has continued its steady ascent in the intervening years. At only 34, he had the rather gargantuan task of opening the Royal Opera House’s 2017/18 season in Richard Jones’ new production of La Bohème (replacing John Copley’s beloved 1974 staging) as Rodolfo opposite Nicole Car’s Mimí, a role that’s been taken at that house by the likes of Domingo and Pavarotti. A string of performances at the Metropolitan Opera – he has appeared to acclaim in Bohème, Traviata and Lucia – has made him something of an MVP, while his increasing recital work has seen him venture into art song.

Fabiano and Nicole Car in the Royal Opera House’s La Bohème. Photo © Catherine Ashmore

But for Fabiano, it’s Lucia that remains particularly important, describing it as his “ground zero” opera. “Edgardo is the role of roles that brings me back to my technique, that keeps me grounded,” he says. “It’s the role that all other roles stem from for me in terms of drama, music and technique. Whenever I sing Edgardo, it’s kind of like a voice lesson in itself – that’s what bel canto basically is. It’s a voice lesson.”

A most memorable Lucia came in 2015, when with seven hours’ notice he went onstage at the Met in a production he had neither seen nor rehearsed. Though he didn’t escape entirely unscathed – his unfamiliarity with the blocking led to him cutting his head as he exited the stage after a duet – Fabiano’s can-do attitude and exciting performance were rapturously received, even making international headlines.

Perhaps this attitude can be chalked up to his dislike of long rehearsal periods – seven hours might not be so daunting after all. With roughly three weeks allotted for Fabiano and the cast – which includes the dazzling British-Australian soprano Jessica Pratt in the title role – to get to grips with John Doyle’s revival production of Lucia, he admits to liking compact rehearsal periods.

“I think most artists would agree with me,” he says. “Two to three weeks is the sweet spot. We have to work quick and efficiently, but we have enough time to do what we need to do. A long rehearsal period, four weeks or more, there tends to be a lot of repetition and by the time you get to the stage sometimes the organic nature of the performance disappears because you repeat it so much, whereas here we’re going to put it up and it’ll be fresh. It will feel like we’ve gotten to the pinnacle on opening night, rather than we’ve already reached the pinnacle at some point in rehearsal.”

Fabiano as a last minute sub for the Metropolitan Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor in 2015. Photo © Ken Howard / Met Opera

I’ve caught him early in the rehearsal period and he’s got nothing but good things to say so far. Although he’s never worked with Pratt before, both belong to the same agency and have had dinners together in New York, long-time admirers of each other’s work. He describes her as one of the great sopranos of the day, adding, “She’s easy to work with, which is refreshing because there are other sopranos that are not easy to work with.”

One of the great joys of the art form for any opera fanatic is the coming together of great interpreters – think Callas and Gobbi in just about anything they did together, including recording a definitive Lucia in 1953 under Tullio Serafin. Fabiano is cognisant of how important this onstage chemistry is.

“If there’s a moment of passion, Jessica’s willing to be passionate,” he says. “If there’s a moment of anger and rage, she’s willing to get into the boat with me, but then there are other people that I’ve worked with where it’s very difficult to even have physical contact with them. That means it’s more difficult to have chemistry and the public doesn’t believe us as much. With Jessica, there’s none of that. I can do what I need to do and she can do what she needs to do.”

Fabiano in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor in 2018. Photo © Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera

Which brings me back to his strong assertion that Edgardo should be considered the crazier character in Lucia di Lammermoor. “In my opinion, as much as the opera is named Lucia di Lammermoor, the person that has the most proclivity to madness is Edgardo. I mean, Lucia kills someone, I kill myself. So one could argue that I’m more crazed than she is – a crazy person is one that kills themselves.”

“In this production it’s a little more staid, but in a general sense Edgardo goes mad in the contract scene,” he continues. “He rages, her curses her, he tells her to ‘get out of here, you bad word you’ – I’m not even going to say it. And basically he says ‘kill me now because I don’t want to bear the weight of this life.’ Then we get to the last scene where he says, ‘don’t even come to this hallowed ground of my family’s, you don’t have the right to even come here’. And then to hear that she’s dead doesn’t make sense… the only ‘logical’ response is to kill myself so I can reunite with her in heaven, which is precisely what I say.”

Fabiano’s conception of Edgardo doesn’t alter from production to production. Instead, he emphasises that he doesn’t think the part can be played any other way – Edgardo is full of rage and skirts close to madness even in his first appearance in the opera, when he tells Lucia he must depart for France. “Here’s the difference between Lucia and Edgardo, and why I believe Edgardo is crazier,” he says. “She’s being married off, she’s very young and inexperienced and reacts to her circumstances. I’m experienced. Arguably she’s a teenager. I’m an adult – I’m 22, 24, 26. I have been to war. I know what it’s like to fight for country, for self, so to kill oneself in the interest of love is truly crazy and not logical whatsoever.”

Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva in the Metropolitan Opera’s La Traviata. Photo © Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Edgardo is obviously a part that he has strong ideas about then. Still, I wonder whether there’s ever been a director that’s been key to helping him realise the role. He is at pains to say that he doesn’t intend it in an arrogant way, but that his ideas are truly his own. “Studying this opera, I’ve actually often had directors challenge me on my notions,” he says.

I ask him how he resolves these disagreements in the hothouse atmosphere of the rehearsal room. Fabiano chooses his words carefully, saying “I think the art of diplomacy is very important in a room with a director, a conductor and a singer. It’s a triumvirate of three different types of artistic sensibilities, so each one in a normal sense should be given equal weight. They all bring ideas to the table and all have a vote, but as much as each one tries to assert their authority, at the end of the day the only person that’s ultimately responsible is the singer, because the public is watching the singer. They’re the one on the firing line. That’s where the buck stops. My burden then is to take what’s been given to me, do my best with it but still know that I am responsible for doing a good job. So that means if I have to truncate the ideas of certain people, sometimes I will do it. But I will also do my best to adhere to what has been given to me. And as a singer, I will also give my opinion, and weigh in very strongly on what I feel the music and character is.”

Fabiano in Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House in 2017. Photo © Mark Douet

Though he’s hesitant to name any specific interpreters of Edgardo that he admires – his voice teacher George Shirley warned him off listening to too many recordings when preparing a role as a young singer – Fabiano does rate Carlo Bergonzi. “Not necessarily as a vocalist but an interpreter of bel canto, in terms of communication, style and line. There are other singers in terms of high notes or climax that I prefer, like Corelli or Pavarotti for instance, but in an overall stylistic sense I think that Bergonzi is a great style for this kind of music.”

The music is yet another reason why Fabiano is so drawn to the role – he considers Donizetti’s highly dramatic writing a precursor to Verdi. “People always lump Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti together as, quote, the ‘bel canto trio’, but Donizetti is quite distinct from those two in that his music is laden with fire and sturm und drang. Whereas with Bellini there’s often a classical line that can be found in Schubert and Mozart– it’s more light, it’s higher. Rossini for me feels in his own world, but Donizetti definitely leads to Verdi.”

“In fact, if you look at his works from the middle of 1830 all the way to when he died in the late 1840s, it’s very hard to discern between Donizetti’s operas and the early works of Verdi up until 1850 with something like Luisa Miller. Donizetti wrote with fire and a deep affection for matching words to music, and defined what the next 30 years of musical composition would be like. Whereas with Bellini or Rossini, I’m not so sure you can make that case.”

Fabiano as an aged Faust in Opera Australia’s Faust. Photo © Lisa Tomasetti

Our time is running out, and I can feel Fabiano itching to return to the rehearsal room. One last question, then, about the roles he’d like to add to his already quite broad lirico-spinto repertoire. “It’s a trap to ask that question because it assumes that when I start singing those it means I can’t sing the ones I’m singing now, which are more lyric,” he says. “I think that’s a fallacy. Good singers can sing lots of music and the evidence is in the past, where you’d have Dick Tucker who would sing Così fan tutte one night, Rigoletto another, and Radamés in Aida the next all in the same week at the Met. That was accepted and common. Caruso was the same: he’d sing Elixir of Love and then Trovatore four nights later. So it begs the question, why are we suddenly pigeonholing people into singing a certain repertory all the time? It’s a huge mistake. Voices should be able to sing all types of music or as many as possible, so I say that I’m not switching, I’m simply augmenting.”

“And those roles include Hoffmann and Cavaradossi and Riccardo in Ballo in Maschera. Werther. They’re all coming down the pike. Other Verdi operas of the earlier ilk. I’ll do more Donizetti works, as well as new works. To pigeonhole a younger singer is unfair because as a 34 year old, even though I’ve had 12 years of a career, I still can’t tell you where I’ll be 10 years from now. Will I still be, as I call myself, a lyric-plus tenor? Or will I be a spinto? I have no idea, but right now I’m a lyric tenor with colour, I would say.”

Opera Australia’s Lucia di Lamermoor is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre from June 28 – July 27