March 11, 2012

Paul Asciak on Joseph Calleja


It was eleven years ago that Joseph Calleja first walked into my studio. He had been introduced by his piano teacher, who had asked me to give him an audition. With all the over-enthusiasm of youth, he announced the pieces he wanted to sing. At the age of sixteen it was not surprising that he chose songs from Mario Lanza’s film repertoire and the taxing “Nessun dorma”. With all the experience and responsibility of my seventy-one years, I hesitated as to whether I should allow him to proceed with his choice … but it is difficult to curb youthful enthusiasm! After a few bars of the evergreen Be My Love, even if sung in pushed tones, it was evident that this was a voice of unique beauty, but obviously an instrument which needed careful and disciplined teaching over a long period. Calleja’s voice, even at this tender age, had a rich baritone quality in its middle register, with a rather white tone in its upper range. It was even difficult to ascertain whether he would eventually end up as a baritone or tenor. What on the other hand was obvious, was that with the right rigorous study this raw material could develop into an exceptional and outstanding voice.

It was here that I had to reach back to my own experience both as singer and teacher. Although my own voice was very much a heavyspinto, it was always a voice with a penchant for singing belcanto. This was part of the vocal technique which had been passed on to me in my youth by my first teacher, a local Maltese tenor who had the privilege of studying with Bavagnoli, who in turn had coached and tutored none other than the great Aureliano Pertile. This sound technique, based on parameters established by singers of the Golden Age, was further reinforced by a period of study under the tenor Dino Borgioli, himself a great exponent of lyrical and belcanto singing. All this knowledge was now to be passed over to the youthful Calleja. Initially my tutelage was very much devoted to what he was not to do, rather than to what he should do. Like any modern youth, the young Calleja wanted quick results. At such an early age it was better for him to sing less and listen more, and much of our time was therefore spent listening to the recordings of the great tenors of the past such as Anselmi, Bonci, Schipa, early Gigli and Tagliavini, with all their distinctive techniques and legato school of singing. This was of course supplemented by the normal technical exercises and some occasional seventeenth and eighteenth-century arias. This ensured that Joseph’s tuition developed on a sound technical basis, with an exact placing of the voice, correct breathing technique and a sustained elegance of line.

Over a period of three years Joseph’s voice assumed many of the qualities of this old school of singing, and developed beautifully into a light, flexible and mellow instrument with both a distinctive timbre and a promising ringing top. After an initial introduction in a series of private recitals, at the age of nineteen he was offered the role of Macduff in a local production of Verdi’s Macbeth. It was not, of course, the ideal role at this early period of his career, but this debut demonstrated an already remarkable stage presence, and his Ah! La paterna mano earned him much praise and merited applause. A year later Joseph appeared in concert performances in Reggio Calabria, Italy, and as our study sessions continued, his stage appearances further added to his confidence. His participation in numerous vocal competitions, in all of which he was amongst the winners, manifested his exceptional initial promise. In the Plácido Domingo Operalia in 1998 in Hamburg he had a successful start and was forecast a certain winner. Unfortunately he contracted a virus and we had to return to Malta. The great tenor, however, had obviously been impressed by what he had heard and a week later we received an invitation to be present at the final Gala Night. Back in Hamburg, Joseph was invited to participate in the Operalia in 1999 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. As the youngest male participant there he was one of the winners, and Domingo invited him for performances of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia in Washington, which he undertook during the following year.

Gradually, this young tenor has established a firm international reputation. Performing in the world’s leading opera houses, always in roles appropriate to his vocal qualities, Calleja has proved to possess a voice which is today justly considered to be amongst the most exciting available. Essentially it is a medium-sized lyrical instrument, which however has the characteristic of cutting through the orchestra that the Italians refer to as “una voce che corre bene in teatro”. Perhaps essentially he is very much the ideal Donizetti tenor. As Riccardo Chailly commented in the notes accompanying Calleja’s first Decca recital release, the voice is earmarked by a Golden Age character, “a sound harking back to a quality I thought we had long lost”. It is a voice with a wonderful predisposition to sing legato, a voice which also boasts a rare quality in today’s tenor voices: the ability to spin out melting dreamlike diminuendos. During our lessons I would work with Calleja to sing every note of the tenor’s range and produce diminuendos on each and every note. Fortunately, it is also a voice which seems to have little difficulty with the passaggio, the tenor’s notorious transition from chest to head voice.

To end, may I express my sense of great satisfaction that I have somehow contributed to the development of Joseph’s God-given natural gift. In wishing him further success in his career, I join the proud people of my native island home, which has already produced other internationally recognized singers, in the hope of the fulfillment of the dream of one day having one of the world’s leading tenors hailing from our land. From the quality of Calleja’s singing in this recital it seems we are not far from achieving this.

Paul Asciak

Joseph's Blog

May 16th, 2016

Quo Vadis Eurovision and other stories

Malta did not win the Eurovision but lo and behold the sun still rose and the island (the center of the known universe) still spun…

My two cents is that Ira Losco gave a really good performance and that the whole presentation was excellent. She shouldn’t have performed cause she is pregnant? Come off it – I have performed repeatedly with pregnant opera singers well into their 7th and 8th month of pregnancy and trust me when I say that rehearsing and performing for a full opera production is much more physically demanding than a couple of days at the Eurovision. Of course there are those who know much better than the undersigned and who went on to say that the presentation was a tad “camp”…oh the irony when one considers that the Eurovision is the campest of them all.

Meanwhile, this wouldn’t be Malta and the Eurovision wouldn’t be the Eurovision unless its politicized to the exhaustible hilt. The inevitable “mud slinging competition,” which we will see a lot of in the coming 22 months, ensued and even yours truly (inexplicably) ended up in the midst of the fray, in yet another “supernova” in a tea cup. The Eurovision suddenly became an interchangeable bullet to be used ad nauseam by both sides much like bitter parents who use their innocent children during disputes.  I have always found sycophants interesting, even amusing but they will not be getting the much desired Streisand effect from me, thank you very much. It is part of human nature after all to conjure conspiracies and we are not going to let the simple truth get in the way of some exciting and convenient fiction.

Speaking of “conjuring” is it me or is a company advertising real estate using a chap “connected” with the tragic and unnecessary death of an underage girl? It must be a clone or a”doppleganger”, otherwise this would be the epitome of bad taste and a 100 shades of wrong. Don’t get me wrong I am all for “second chances” and all of that but shouldn’t there be due process first? After all Lisa Marie didn’t get a second chance did she?