Margarida Mota-Bull Interviews Joseph Calleja, The Maltese Tenor

Margarida Mota-Bull interviews Joseph Calleja, The Maltese Tenor

Joseph Calleja Photo Credit: Johannes Ifkovits


Born in Malta in 1978, Joseph Calleja began singing at the age of 16, training with Maltese tenor Paul Asciak.  He made his professional debut in Malta in 1997 as Macduff in Macbeth and won an award in the Belvedere Hans Gabor competition later that year.  He went on to win the 1998 Caruso Competition in Milan and was a prize winner in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia the following year.

Mr Calleja treated us in England to an outstanding performance at this year’s BBC Proms, namely Prom 13, in Verdi’s Requiem, which I reviewed for Seen and Heard. He has recently launched a new CD under the title The Maltese Tenor and so I thought that it would be interesting and appropriate to interview him. He readily agreed to do it, either over the phone or via e-mail, as he was on a break with his family in Malta. In the end, I went for the latter method, just because it is easier than long distance international phone calls. You can read the full interview, in his unique, refreshing style, immediately following this introductory article.

I have always been intrigued by Joseph Calleja’s voice, from the first time I saw and heard him in June 2007 at the Royal Opera House in a concert performance of Massenet’s Thaïs alongside Renée Fleming. His technique was not then as polished as it is now and his singing not as refined. He has developed and improved immensely since then; a comment that he agrees with himself, as he told me in the interview stating that the improvement I mentioned is a fact and “…it is the result of study, vocal development and experience”. What I felt however throughout his performance back in 2007 was that he was a natural, a force of nature, in a manner of speaking. He seemed to simply open his mouth and just sing effortlessly; this marvellous voice ringing across the auditorium gave one the impression that it was actually easy to go onto the stage and sing like that. It was this fact that led me (and many other people, I think) to compare him with Pavarotti; something, he does not like. I asked him why and his answer was not only touching but also sincere and straight from the heart: “Pavarotti sang perfectly and managed to give the impression that he was singing as if he were talking. I have learned a lot from hearing him sing and from the way he talked about voice in the various interviews he gave. I dismiss being compared to him just because there was only one Pavarotti and there will never be another quite like him”. Calleja is definitely a generous professional, unassuming about his own talent, – “I somewhat ‘dismiss’ my successes and concentrate instead on what I could have done better” – and decisive in expressing genuine admiration for some of his colleagues – “…From my contemporaries, I just love the sound and artistry of Flórez, Beczala and Alagna”.

Earlier this year, Calleja launched a new CD: The Maltese Tenor. It is an outstanding work, demonstrating his maturity, as an artist, and exceptionally effective in show-casing his voice. It is obvious that great care was taken with the presentation of the album and a lot of thought was given to the choice of repertoire included in the recital. Fascinating to me was the strong national identity of the work, even though the composers are not from Malta. Asked about this, Mr Calleja replied without hesitation that Malta is a unique place in geographical and historical terms and “…Being born there definitely affected the way I sing”. This sets him apart from many of his colleagues, who often appear to shy away from openly talking about their cultural heritage and national identity, almost as if they feared it could compromise their careers. It is refreshing that Calleja has a straightforward attitude and, like everything about him, his thoughts and words are genuine. The title of his newest CD came to exist because, as he puts it, people have been generally referring to him as the Maltese tenor for many years, which made it a suitable name for the recital but, he promptly added that “…It [the CD’s title] is of course also a tribute to my beautiful country and to the Maltese who have supported me so much throughout my career”.

Speaking with Joseph Calleja and obtaining this opportunity to find a little more about the artist and the man, was a fascinating experience for me, even though the conversation was conducted via e-mail. Calleja is a star with a difference: unassuming, kind and generous, self-assured, independent and conscious of his talent but without arrogance or pretence. It was a pleasure and a privilege to exchange e-mails with him.

Full Interview with tenor Joseph Calleja by Margarida Mota-Bull – October 2011 


MMB: First of all, I would like to ask you why or how you decided to become an opera singer. Were there any musicians or singers in your family? Any other influences?

JC: I started singing when I was three years old. Everything I would listen to I would imitate! The best friend of my late father was a composer of popular “marches” and I would “hum” those to my father’s (and his) delight! No singers in my family other than me.

MMB: I watched you recently on “Breakfast”, the morning programme on one of the BBC’s major channels. I found very interesting the story you told about the film of Caruso’s life with Mario Lanza as the great man. I have seen that film myself a couple of times. Did you find the film inspiring in any particular way? What was your impression of Lanza, as an artist, and of Caruso’s story?

JC: “The Great Caruso” is the reason why I am singing today. Lanza had one of the most beautiful tenor voices and the first tenor sound I heard was him vocalizing in the movie when they give him the wine to remove the “flour from his throat…”! In retrospect, the movie is a bit “cheesy” and does not portray the life of Enrico Caruso accurately. Having said that, it does justice to both artists and it has its moments.

MMB: You sing what I would call a very eclectic repertoire, which includes Bel Canto composers of the first half of the 19th century – Bellini, Donizetti, and even one of Rossini’s most famous operas Il Barbiere di Siviglia. You also sing some of the big dramatic roles by Verdi and Puccini, as well as a little Mozart and some French composers, like Massenet, Gounod and Bizet. I find this unusual but also fascinating. How do you prepare for a Bel Canto role, as for example, Arturo in Bellini’s I puritani and for a dramatic role, like Adorno in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra?

JC: My approach is basically the same. My teacher taught me to sing everything as if it were bel canto, which of course “just” means “beautiful singing”! This is also the approach that singers of the past took. You do not need to intentionally “belt out a phrase”! A singer should let himself be carried by the music and follow the markings of the composer carefully.

MMB: I think that Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia is better suited for a tenor with a lighter voice than yours. Do you agree or disagree with my opinion? Why?

JC: I agree with you that today, Almaviva would generally be cast with a tenor whose voice is lighter than mine. However, I think that a lyric tenor should be able to negotiate Almaviva pretty easily. The role’s tessitura is actually not that high; especially if the last aria, Cessa di più resistere, is omitted.

MMB: Following up from what you’ve just written, do you actually sing this last aria? If yes, how do you approach it? If you don’t sing it, then why not?

JC: I haven’t sung Almaviva for years and on the occasion that I did, the last aria was omitted. The decision was a directorial one.

MMB: Do you consider yourself competition for the Bel Canto specialists?

JC: I do not view my career and art as a competition.

MMB: Joyce DiDonato, whom I interviewed a year ago, told me that composers like Handel and Rossini made her a better singer. Would you agree with her comment?

JC: I think it depends from the type of voice one has. In my case, it would be Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi and some Puccini.

MMB: Personally, I think your voice is best suited for Verdi and Puccini and I think you really excel at dramatic roles. Would you agree with my comment?

JC: My voice is maturing into that of a full lyric tenor and some of the finest roles for this type of voice have been written by Puccini and Verdi.

MMB: I watched you perform three times at the Royal Opera House: first, a few years back in a concert performance of Massenet’s Thaïs, alongside Renée Fleming. More recently, I have watched you in Verdi’s La Traviata, again with Fleming and in Simon Boccanegra, with no less than Plácido Domingo. To my mind, there was great difference in your singing. I thought you have improved immensely since Thaïs in technical and dramatic terms. Do you think this is true? If yes, what did you do?

JC: I started my present career, as an opera singer, at the very young age of 19 in 1997. A couple of years later, I had already managed to receive some international attention. In view of this, it is only natural (and positive!) that the correct vocal development will occur. The improvement that you mentioned, (which is a fact) is the result of study, vocal development and experience.

MMB: How was it for you to sing at the ROH, in London, with the living legend that is Plácido Domingo?

JC: I had met him a couple of times before but never worked with him in a full opera production. What astounded me was his energy, which is veritably equal to that of a 20 year old. He still has the “artistic hunger” to do new things, despite his age, and he has no intention of stopping!

MMB: I believe, it was a critic from The Independent newspaper that wrote of your performance in Simon Boccanegra: ‘Calleja almost steals the show’. What do you think?

JC: I was very happy with this role debut at the ROH and with the reception that a wonderful audience gave me. Having said that, I somewhat “dismiss” my successes and concentrate instead on what I could have done better. I understand that this might sound as being too hard on myself but this is how I continue to improve my technique and artistry.

MMB: You burst on the scene in 2004 with a very good and pleasant CD, Tenor Arias, with Riccardo Chailly. The work came across as very spontaneous and fresh but with some small imperfections in your technique. Would you agree with this? Do you think it was perhaps lacking a little in maturity?

JC: In 2004, I was only 26 years old and the recording was actually done before that. Of course, at such a young age, one cannot expect technical perfection or a fully matured artist. Still, I am very proud of my first two albums and they formed part of the road I had to take to be here today!

MMB: Certainly and I couldn’t agree more. Moving on, I think that your diction is clearer now and that your tone is purer. This comes across in your new CD, The Maltese Tenor, and I noticed it too during your performance at the Proms, this summer, in Verdi’s Requiem, which I reviewed. Moreover, it was not only your diction that was clearer but your phrasing was more refined and elegant. Do you agree?

JC: Yes, it’s a correct observation. Unfortunately, we are so used to a voice “regressing” or “declining” nowadays that we tend to forget that it can also be the other way round!…

MMB: I thought that the performance of Verdi’s Requiem at this year’s Proms (on 24th July) was generally magnificent and I wrote as much in my review. I thought that your performance this year was even better than the one you gave in 2008. Would you agree?

JC: Yes. I have grown as an artist and I am more comfortable with my technique. Still, I have much to learn and this is why I do not sing often during the summer, in order to leave time for study and for rest.

MMB: One of the most distinctive characteristics of your voice is your very quick vibrato. Some people do not appreciate it; I think this is what makes your voice unique. What do you think? And is it a natural quality or did you have to work very hard to achieve it?

JC: Every major tenor voice of the last century had a quick vibrato when they started out. Listen to the early pirate recordings of Jussi Björling, singing in Swedish, for example – or Corelli, or Pavarotti, etc. A quick vibrato is actually a sign of a healthy young voice. With correct (and slow!) development it settles down and usually, becomes all but imperceptible. It is a pity that occasionally tenors – and I know a few, some of them notable – who worked hard to eliminate it and ended up damaging their voices in the process!

MMB: I know you don’t like to be compared to other tenors and I understand why though people often mean well. Each great voice is unique, in its own way, however, there are some similarities between you and Pavarotti in his younger years: In terms of repertoire for one and the easiness with which you sing, particularly in the upper register of your voice. Was Pavarotti a tenor that you felt you could learn from?

JC: Pavarotti sang perfectly and managed to give the impression that he was singing as if he were talking. I have learned a lot from hearing him sing and from the way he talked about voice in the various interviews he gave. I dismiss being compared to him just because there was only one Pavarotti and there will never be another quite like him.

MMB: Are there any artists, singers or otherwise, male or female that you look up to?

JC: From the older generation, Lauri Volpi, Pavarotti, Björling, Gigli and Caruso.  Of my contemporaries, I just love the sound and artistry of Flórez, Beczala and Alagna.

MMB: For a long time, you appeared to have withdrawn from performing and recording but now you are back. Was this a conscious decision? If it is something that you feel you could talk about, please do so.

JC: I never took a break from performing as such. I made a conscious decision to stop recording for a couple of years for two reasons: 1) I didn’t have any more operatic repertoire to record without venturing into heavier roles and 2) with all interviews and PR activities required to promote a recording, I had little time to improve my artistry and work on my technique. In retrospect, this was the best decision I could have made. Singing, for me, is not only a matter of achieving success and making a reasonable living; it is more about pride and the satisfaction I feel after “conquering” an opera and listening to the audience’s approval at the end of the evening.

MMB: In your new CD “The Maltese Tenor”, the emphasis is more on dramatic roles as opposed to Bel Canto. There is a lot of Puccini and Verdi. Is this where you see yourself going in the future?

JC: In this CD, I do not actually venture into the real dramatic yet. All the roles I sing on the disc can be sung by a full lyric tenor. Only in Manon Lescaut, perhaps, does one need a more dramatic voice. If my voice continues to develop, I will add more roles in the future but if my voice remains the same, I will happily stay a lyric!

MMB: In your new CD, I found rather interesting the fact that you pair two composers who treated a similar theme in different ways. I’m talking of Boito’s Mefistofele and Gounod’s Faust; and then, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Massenet’s Manon. Was this pure chance or a deliberate way of showcasing various composers and different aspects of your voice? Please elaborate a little.

JC: A lyric tenor is perhaps the most flexible of tenor voices in terms of repertoire, and I think that singing different styles helps to prove this point. When I chose the repertoire together with the great team at Decca, we thought it would be interesting to present the same theme treated differently by the different composers and to show how the voice would respond to both.

MMB: You named your new CD The Maltese Tenor, which makes it very individual. Nowadays, people will always associate a Maltese tenor with yourself. Was this the reason why or was it intended as a tribute to your country? Or perhaps because you feel that being Maltese is a really defining aspect of your identity?

JC: Everybody has been calling me the “Maltese Tenor” for at least a decade! When we were trying to find a name for the album, this felt as the most natural choice. It is of course also a tribute to my beautiful country and to the Maltese who have supported me so much throughout my career. Malta is such a unique place, smack in the middle of the Mediterranean! Being born there, definitely affected the way I sing!

MMB: I visited Malta and Gozo last year. I was struck by its fascinating history, particularly the connections to my own country (Portugal) via some of the Grand Masters of the Order of St John in Malta; most especially, Anton (António in Portuguese) Manoel de Vilhena whose name was given to that beautiful little theatre, the Manoel Theatre in Valleta. Have you ever sung at this theatre? If yes, how do you feel about its history and does it have a bearing on your performance?

JC: The Manoel Theatre is one of the oldest Baroque theatres in the world. When one considers Malta’s size, this is pretty extraordinary. I have sung several times in the Manoel and it was there, at the age of 15, that I heard the first live operatic notes being played: The prelude of Rigoletto!…

MMB: During your appearance in the BBC’s Breakfast show, you mentioned Verdi’s Otello as one of your favourite operas but that you cannot sing now. Why and do you see it changing in the future?

JC: Otello needs, ideally, a dramatic voiced tenor. A lirico spinto can negotiate it if he does so with intelligence. It remains to be seen whether I will ever mature into a lirico spinto. I would love to sing the role some day but only if I see that I can do justice to it.

MMB: Do you have a favourite composer? If yes, who?

JC: I think that I love too many composers to have a favourite one.

MMB: Is there a composer or composers that you feel you cannot sing?

JC: I don’t think I will ever be a Wagnerian tenor. But I would certainly like to attempt Lohengrin at some point!

MMB: Finally, just a couple of slightly more personal questions: 1) How do you relax after a performance or a stressful opera run?

JC: Going to the gym, swimming when I can or enjoying a glass of my favourite St Emilion Bordeaux wine. But mostly I relax by doting on my children!

MMB: 2) How do you reconcile an obviously busy professional career, which involves a considerable amount of travelling, with a healthy family life (as you appear to me to be a real family man, and I’ve seen some lovely pictures of you and your children for example)?

JC: Singing is my soul but my heart belongs to my children. It is ever so hard to find the perfect balance but all I can do is give my best!

MMB: And 3) In spite of your fame and the fact that your career has really taken off, you chose to continue living in Malta while many artists in your situation would probably have moved to big operatic centres like Milan, New York, Munich or London. Why is it?

JC: It would certainly be easier to live in one of these big cities but the simple answer to your question is that I am too much in love with my island! Malta is a truly wonderful and spiritual place, replete with history and breathtaking landscape!

MMB: Mr Calleja, thank you very much for taking time to answer all my questions. It was a real pleasure to conduct this e-mail conversation with you.

Margarida Mota-Bull