Joseph Calleja - a Maltese tenor
Le Figaro voted the Maltese tenor into its global Top Ten operatic male voices. However, awards and accolades having been coming his way since 1998 when the then 21-yearold won Placido Domingo’s Operalia International Opera Competition. Subsequent highlights include 2012’s ‘Artist of the Year’ for Gramophone Magazine; 2016’s Opera News Award, for his contributions to Opera; 2017’s, the ‘Cavaliere al Merito della Repubblica Italiana,’ whereby Calleja was singled out for his outstanding artistic talents in performing Italian composers’ work and his contribution to keeping Italian opera at the forefront and you can see why Joseph Calleja is already a part of operatic folklore.
Additionally, Calleja has frequently been compared to the great tenors, especially Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti – compliments he accepts graciously but wryly. As he told the Guardian newspaper in 2012; ‘Comparisons are inevitable, so I take them with a pinch of salt. When a serious critic mentions it then it’s a compliment, of course.’
Trained in Malta by the late Paul Asciak, the noted Maltese tenor, Calleja clearly learned more than just music from his teacher and mentor: the acceptance of hard work, discipline and the sheer graft needed to become a world class performer, as well as a thorough grounding in the golden voices of previous generations of opera stars. This included Calleja’s first idol, Mario Lanza, who inspired him to transfer his allegiance from ‘heavy metal’ to opera. He says of his early years: ‘I was a rock/heavy metal singer first in my early teens but from the moment that I listened to opera and realised that I could produce the sound quite easily, I didn’t want to sing anything else
I had some lessons with Brian Cefai who introduced me to Paul Borg for some basic piano and theory. Eventually I started studying full time with tenor Paul Asciak who became my mentor. We were inseparable for many years and he did really teach me everything that makes me special’. What makes Joseph Calleja’s voice so special is summed up by Tom Huizenga, music producer from NPR.
As he wrote earlier this year: ‘The ability to control dynamic levels and expressively shade notes and phrases were once techniques in nearly every singer’s toolbox. But we don’t hear as much subtlety these days, and that makes Calleja an especially refreshing throwback… It’s a reason Calleja is in such demand from all of the world’s top opera houses.’ Nostalgia for the finer things in life is universal, but Calleja works hard to promote opera as democratic, accessible and relevant against a backdrop of elitism and exclusivity.
His albums showcase both the famous arias such as ‘Che gelida manina’ from La Bohème, ‘E lucevan le stele’ from Tosca and ‘De mon amie’ from ‘Les Pêcheurs de Perles as well as introducing listeners to the concept of operatic style on ‘Be My Love’, his 2012 tribute to Mario Lanza, especially through his choice of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ - by Rogers & Hammerstein. Calleja’s love of sport was also evidenced by his spectacular first performance at the 2012 Last Night of the Proms. Now a staple performer at this hugely enjoyable event in London, an ecstatic welcome from the crowds in Hyde Park greeted his rendition of ‘La Donna è mobile’ from Rigoletto in September 2018. Previously, Joseph created a roar of approval for appearing in a TEAM GB tracksuit before revealing a Maltese Cross t shirt underneath, as well as for his hugely successful musical performance.
A former ‘jock’ at De La Salle College, Malta’s pre-eminent boys’ school with a serious reputation for sports, the young Joseph excelled at basketball as well as track and field events, including shotput and discus - all of which stand him in good stead for on stage performances. Staying in shape is clearly imperative for both visual and audio success as an opera star with a punishing schedule. This year, between October and Christmas alone, he will sing a variety of roles in Hamburg, New York, Denmark, Lithuania and Poland before starting the new year in Munich.
How does he prepare mentally for the roles as well as physically? ‘Study and discipline are key and of course loads of talent. I do study with a teacher and I coach with a répétiteur. My trainer – Robert Cameron – makes sure I stay relatively in shape. Mentally, I first listen to as many recordings of the work as possible and then I start working on the score on the piano. I usually memorise the words with relative ease, thanks to a lot of repetition. I have memorised and performed 40 operas so far. There is no trick other than hard work and sometimes sleepless nights! An opera singer never stops studying and he needs a coach to keep him in check just like any sports.’ After thousands of performances in hundreds of roles, how emotionally involved is he still with his characters? Pensively, he says: ‘Sometimes, for example in La Bohème , I do break down in tears because of certain memories and I can get too over involved. However, I never have problems leaving the character on stage and I lead a relatively normal life.
The rehearsals, the performance and the audience reaction are different each time but they all belong together and one cannot choose which is the more important element. They are intertwined. The physical singing, it’s a bond between the artist who is performing and the audience who is receiving that energy and reacts to it. Opera is the highest form of artistic expression, a one of a kind wonder that can only be truly experienced properly in the opera house.
In my opinion this is why it has endured throughout the centuries.’ It is hard to believ
e, with his vast repertoire and international career spanning 20 years, that Joseph Calleja is only just 40 and still has some of the biggest roles in opera to sing. Otello by Verdi is one Calleja has referenced in several interviews as his future milestone. Several of the main arias are performed by him on his Calleja Verdi album, released 2017 and Mark Pullinger, in an online review of the album for Gramophone Magazine, describes Calleja’s ‘beautifully observed dynamics’ in the recording and anticipates his eventual stage performance of this demanding portrayal of a great man brought down by one character flaw.
As a tenor-led operatic masterpiece, the greatest performers to take on this rôle include Placido Domingo, who played his last Otello in 2001. When will we see Joseph Calleja
making this his part? His reply: ‘The way my voice is developing, it does augur some hope that I will be able to sing this rôle but, I would rather not speculate about it until the right moment in time. It takes a full, rich and strong instrument at the height of its powers.’ Something for Calleja fans to anticipate and meanwhile, his repertoire continues to amaze and delight audiences worldwide. 2018/19’s schedule includes Tosca , Carmen and Rigoletto, all with rôles which Calleja has made his own. Bravo Mr Calleja, we cannot wait.
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