Martin Fisher: Versatile Artist, Indomitable Spirit

Martin Fisher shares his experiences working in opera and television. Read on to learn about his nontraditional path that led to his current roles and the transferrable skills singers need in order to work in both theatre and television—and how to plan for the next level no matter what your career trajectory.

 

Opera singer, actor, and martial artist Martin Fisher enjoys a multidimensional career that has taken him from operatic stages to Broadway and television. His notable roles include Alfred P. Doolittle in the Broadway national tour of My Fair Lady, directed by Bartlett Sher, and a recurring role on Wu-Tang: An American Saga on HULU. Fisher spoke to Classical Singer about his surprising artistic path, and more. 

 

Did you sing when you were a child?

As a kid I sang in church a lot. Then, in my last two years of high school, I was singing by myself in the hallway and the choir director said, “You need to sing in our choir.” The next thing I knew I was trying out for Area All-State and I got in. But I didn’t think of singing as a vocation until college. 

I went to school as an engineering major at UMass–Amherst and did terribly my freshman year. They have a bachelor’s degree where you can do a self-designed major, so I took courses in interior design, engineering, and art and I made it into an architectural studies program. My intention was to go to graduate school for architecture. In my freshman year, I ended up getting a solo on our choir tour of Japan, and that’s what made me want to start taking voice lessons. 

 

By then had you seen or listened to any opera?

None whatsoever! I knew of Pavarotti because he was probably the most famous singer at that time, but I hadn’t seen a single opera. Initially, I took a class in jazz singing with the late Professor Horace Boyer. Then, throughout my college career, I took classical voice lessons. When I graduated, I moved to New York City to continue to study voice and I was hooked on opera for sure.

 

Was your Fach obvious from the start?

Because of the size and darkness of my voice, some teachers told me I was a bass-baritone or a bass, and some people called me a dramatic baritone. I always thought of myself as a dramatic baritone, and that’s the kind of repertoire I sang: some Verdi, some Puccini, including Scarpia. But it takes forever for your voice to mature enough to go into a lot of those roles, so I really didn’t start singing the bigger stuff until my late 30s. In the interim, I was trying to get into every Young Artist Program, going to competitions and failing miserably at them, and getting my feet wet with small comprimario roles with various companies.

 

What prompted your decision to focus on theatre?

I wasn’t having the success at the level I wanted to as an opera singer. I had sung in some regional houses, but I wasn’t breaking through as I hoped. So, I decided to be a bit flexible. I was supporting myself through a corporate-level job and worked in banking for many years. Then I started a construction company which I had for a few years. A big company decided not to pay me [for work done], so I closed my company and thought, I’m just going to dive fully into acting because I have no other choice at this point. I started making the transition from opera into more acting about six or seven years ago.

Fisher as Alfred P. Doolittle in the Broadway National Tour of My Fair Lady at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 2022

What challenges did you face while you were trying to find your way?

Paying bills, just like everybody else. I bought my first home and I struggled mightily to pay my mortgage on time. There were times when I didn’t even have power or water, so it was really rough. I didn’t have a struggle in the belief that I could push through and get beyond that, but there were some lean-and-mean years, for sure.

Fisher as Head Janitor in Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga, Season 1, Episode 9, 2019

Did you have mentors who guided you?

I’m very thankful because I have a very close-knit group of my family. And all my opera teachers were very supportive. I went to the International Vocal Arts Institute and I worked with so many wonderful teachers like Richard Barrett, Joan Dornemann, Mignon Dunn, Trish McCaffrey, and Mark Oswald. Those lessons built a certain amount of resilience. 

As a classical singer there’s a lot of challenge in learning the technique [and] a lot of criticism—some good, some can be out of line—so you push through it and develop a thick skin, which is certainly what I needed coming into theatre. In some respect, it was easier going into theatre because I didn’t have that constant thinking of “Am I doing my technique right? Am I raising the palate?” It’s just a whole lot less to think about.

Fisher as Dancairo in Syracuse Opera’s production of Carmen, 2017

Was the transition into acting easy?

No, not at all. I literally had to take everything that was opera off my resume and start fresh. With television, particularly, acting is so subtle, everything you do is very insular. For example, I was on set in Baltimore for a new show and I had just gotten off the national tour of My Fair Lady. I hadn’t been on a television set for some time, and I had to readjust my performance to keep things small. Even in a dramatic scene on television, you can be whispering and you don’t move a single muscle. 

 

Did your opera experience help you at all in television?

Opera grounded my vocal technique. So, what I brought to theatre and television was a voice that always sounded clean. I wasn’t mumbling, and there was clarity of tone and diction. And being on stage in front of people singing all those years, it’s all experience. There are transferable skills there. 

Fisher as Tom in Hulu’s Monsterland, Season 1, Episode 2, 2020

Are you getting more work as an actor?

I am, but that’s partially by choice. I get offered operatic work, but the challenge is that opera takes four to five weeks of preparation for three or four performances. From a scheduling perspective it’s hard to put aside a month and a couple of television projects just for one opera project. Now I don’t have a day job, so I have to make sure that I’m paying my mortgage and my bills—and feeding my cat!

 

Tell us about the My Fair Lady tour.

I got to work with some wonderful people—the dance captains and the stage management, who really helped me get the role up on its feet in a swift time, because I auditioned at the end of January 2022, and my first performance was on February 10. For me, the tour went from February until mid-August. 

It was terrifying at first, because I hadn’t done a musical since high school. What I’ve learned is that musical theatre people are some of the hardest working people ever—especially the ensemble people, who are dancing and having 50 different changes of costume. It was a really wonderful experience. I got the chance to travel across the country, perform, meet tons of people, reconnect with friends I hadn’t seen in decades—all while performing eight shows a week.

 

Did you do anything special for your voice to keep it in shape on tour?

I maintained warming up. In the show, I had two really big song numbers, but I’ve sung big roles like Rigoletto before, so it’s not the same type of challenge vocally. Incorporating all the movement is the tougher part because you have to sing and dance at the same time. 

When I felt vocally tired, I made sure that I was drinking all my fluids. I like pineapple a lot because it keeps the inflammation down. Sleep is vitally important, so I would try to get my sleep. Exercise keeps the voice healthy as well, so I maintained my physical stamina working out as much as I could.

 

Speaking of exercise, you have a black belt in Taekwondo. How did you get into that?

I was such a skinny kid, so I was teased relentlessly. In my freshman year in high school, I weighed 107 pounds! When I went away to college I was bigger, but I had some wounds that I wanted to heal in terms of being able to defend myself. I randomly met a guy who started a Taekwondo club at UMass and I began taking lessons. By the time I graduated, I had earned my Black Belt.

 

How has the practice of a martial art enhanced your performing abilities—and your life?

Taekwondo is kick based, which is useful also because I don’t have a dance background, and the kicking ability helped me keep up with some of the dancers in the My Fair Lady kick lines. One of the tenets of Taekwondo is indomitable spirit. That goes back to the whole concept of resilience and perseverance, another tenet. I think that’s a lesson to be had anywhere. If I can do it, anyone can, really.

 

And you already were resilient by nature . . .

The crucible was being chased home by bullies when I was a kid, which probably contributed to that.

Fisher as Head Janitor in Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga, Season 1, Episode 7, 2019

Did you ever imagine that you would have such a versatile career?

I always hoped for it. One of my mentors, movie star and Tony award-winning actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, said that no matter your level, you’re always trying to push through to the next level. I’m grateful for the success that I have right now, but I’m always looking to one-up that. 

When you finish a big gig, there’s that sense of “I don’t know if I’ll work again.” But there’s that hunger inside, so I’m always trying to reach the next level of success, whatever that might be.

Young singers can be pulled in different directions: some of their mentors may encourage them to focus only on singing while, on the other hand, diversification helps. Engaging with different aspects of the performing arts expands the possibilities for jobs. But when would you consider that you may be stretching yourself too thin?

That’s a tough one. I think it depends on where you are in your life. I never married, nor did I ever have children. That’s not necessarily the life that others may want. You can have a balanced family life and a career. 

From a young perspective, I would say, if you’re still in school, maintain your grades. When you’re out, try to get in a Young Artist Program. Explore as much as you can but also maintain your relationships with people, because there is more to life than a career. A lot of my good jobs have come from being a good colleague. 

So, try as many things as possible as long as you’re doing it the healthy, balanced way. That’s going to mean different things for different people.

Fisher as Deadlust Jones in The Drama League’s production of The Sporting Life of Icarus Jones, 2020

How do you feel about the current state of the opera industry in the U.S.? 

I think it’s better and better. This is a conversation that’s been going on throughout all the artistic media—not just opera but also television, film, theater. I’m the first Black person in the entire world to do the role of Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady. So, we’re moving things along. But like anything else, there will be pushback. That’s just part of our discourses living in the country that we live in. 

A few years back I was discouraged when I saw that a lot of opera companies were closing, some of them for financial reasons. But it seems like they’re finding their way back to donors or grants. A lot of companies, even during COVID-19, have been pushing through and are finding new audiences.

Fisher as Alfred P. Doolittle in the Broadway National Tour of My Fair Lady at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 2022

Is it difficult to break into television?

It depends on what you want to do. If you want to have speaking roles, you’ll have to take time to learn the things you need to do that. I started from the bottom up. I did background work as an extra, then I did stand-in work, and then I got my first speaking role in somebody’s crime reenactment show on the Discovery Channel. From that I was able to bridge into co-star and guest star roles on television, and recurring stuff. 

So, there is a process. It can be done; it depends on what level you want to do it. Some people may be happy with just being an extra; they feed you and it’s less stressful. There are a lot of things you can do in television which don’t necessarily mean being a lead.

 

And it’s more flexible about age…

There’s no limit on age when it comes to making a premiere on television. I honestly wish I had started a little younger. I missed out on the romantic lead type stuff. I’m grateful for the work that I do but there are aspects of it that are beneficial if you start a little younger.

Is it helpful if you market yourself as a certain type of character?

Yeah, but you don’t want to lean into it too much. There used to be a time way back when people would do these composites: pictures of themselves in different types of outfits to give suggestions to directors. Those days are over. If your materials—your headshot, your media, and your demo reel—look good, casting directors can pretty much see it. They have to get to know you and what you’re capable of. 

When you’re first starting out, you might fit a certain niche—like if you’re a tough guy or an ingenue type, it’s good to have headshots like that. As you develop a career and a resume, those things become less important. But sometimes offering a type can be a way in.

 

But if you do too many roles as a certain type, isn’t it challenging to break out of that?

It can be. But often all it takes is a change of your materials. There are definitely people who are stuck in a certain type of character and casting directors aren’t willing to give them the opportunity to try other things. But you are grateful for the work too. In opera, for example, there are those who made a career singing Queen of the Night. Would you love to sing something else? You would. But if you’re one of the 2% lucky enough to be working full time, then it’s a balancing act.

 

What is coming up next for you?

I have two projects coming out, one on Apple TV Plus around January called Extrapolations, and one on Paramount Plus. For now, my operatic career is on hold until a project comes to me that I can fit into the television world. But, like anything else, a phone call or an e-mail can change anything.

 

For additional information about Martin Fisher, visit his website: 

www.martinfishersings.com.

Maria-Cristina Necula

Maria-Cristina Necula is a New York-based writer whose published work includes the books “The Don Carlos Enigma,” “Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo, and Soul” and articles in “Das Opernglas,” “Studies in European Cinema,” and “Opera News.” A classically-trained singer, she has presented on opera at Baruch College, the Graduate Center, the City College of New York, UCLA, and others. She holds a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina also writes for the culture and society website “Woman Around Town.” To find out more and get in touch, please visit her website.