Natural Selection: Tales of John Fanning's Evolution as an Opera Villain

By Martens, Dawn | Opera Canada, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Natural Selection: Tales of John Fanning's Evolution as an Opera Villain


Martens, Dawn, Opera Canada


It's quite a stretch to go from delivering milk in the east end of Hamilton, Ont., to garnering rave reviews on opera stages around the world. Yet that is just what John Fanning has accomplished. A glance at his schedule leaves no doubt that tie is among the most sought-after baritones today. This journey was the result of a unique combination of three factors: hard work, good luck and a very supportive family. Fanning believes that if any of these had been lacking, he might not have become the singer tie is today.

His opera career, he says, "kind of evolved. There was no one moment when a hammer came down with the words, "You will sing opera.'" In fact, the start of his career was anything but classical. He attended high school in Dundas, Ont., played the trombone "not very well" and sang what he calls "folky music" in local bands. He went on to Brock University as a history major, with a minor in music. But the electronic-music course turned out to be "more like physics"--not at all his strong suit--and after a year and a hall he left university to play in bands, supplementing his meager income by delivering milk. Finally, after some soul-searching, he decided to go back to university for a formal music education.

A local choir director arranged an audition for him at the New England Conservatory of Music. He was successful and joined the Conservatory choir, immersing himself in the music of composers such as Mahler and Janacek. The chorus experience in Boston would serve him well, as would performances under masters such as Andrew Davis mad singing with artists such as Jessye Norman. Eventually his interest turned to opera. "Everyone in Boston wanted to be in the opera program," he says, "so I tried out, got in mad spent a couple of years studying opera." After graduation, he applied to the Opera School at the University of Toronto, eventually winding up in the Canadian Opera Company apprentice program. "Any place that would take me," jokes Fainting hi a typical self deprecating way, "I joined up."

The turning point in Fanning's career was when he landed his first big role, as the Villains in Minnesota Opera's Les Contes d'Hoffmann. It was 1996, and the conductor was George Manahan. Fate was kind, because it was Manahan's last show before he went on to become the music director of New York City Opera. And so it was that Fanning had his next big break at NYCO when he signed on to sing in Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Le Nozze di Figaro and Carmen. Between his last two performances of Hoffmann at NYCO came the coveted call fur a screening audition at the Met. By this time, Fanning had also sting for so many sports events that his children left him a phone message before his audition: "Dad, we're so excited you're singing for the Mets!"

His time at the Met took Fanning in a new direction. Until then, he had tended to sing lighter roles such as Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Madama Butterfly's Sharpless. With the Met came roles he feels were essential for developing a heavier, richer vocal repertoire. He appeared more frequently in Verdi, Strauss and Germanic operas, starting with Der Musiklehrer in Ariadne auf Naxos, moving on to roles like Faninal in Der Rosenkavalier and the demanding exercise of coveting artist for the title role of Wozzeck and Gunther in Gotterdammerung.

In 2000, Fanning's career received an unexpected boost in another Contes d'Hoffmann. Although he had been warned he might have to step in for an ailing Bryn Terfel, he didn't receive confirmation he would replace the Welsh singer until 7:05 p.m. on a certain fateful evening. In one frenzied hour, he was shown sets, trapdoors and pyrotechnics, was costumed and had his extensive Villains makeup applied. His triumphant last-minute performance earned him stellar reviews: "John Fanning is one of those rare performers," wrote Canadian critic Hugh Fraser, "whose effortless stagecraft, gorgeous voice and innate musicality never disappoint, even on such a lofty operatic perch as the Met and even when you're all worked up about lending your ears to a star such as Terfel. …

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