The Maltese Tenor

The Maltese Tenor

Aleksandra Kurzak
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Marco Armiliato
1 CD / Download 0289 478 2720 7
Int. Release 20 May. 2011
The Maltese Tenor Sings Best-loved Arias and Duets
Album Website | Amazon | iTunes | Decca


The Maltese Tenor

It was summer 2010, and Joseph Calleja was making his role debut as Gabriele Adorno in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The house was Covent Garden in London, and his co-stars included a certain Plácido Domingo, now singing the baritone title-role.
Calleja had planned to study the challenging role of Adorno during the previous summer, but had lost that time preparing for another new role, Offenbach’s Hoffmann, which he had taken on at short notice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York after another tenor withdrew. “So, contrary to all my principles, I studied Adorno for just two weeks before I came to London”, Calleja explains, laughing. “I had no other time. But the voice was telling me it was ready for new things. And the minute I started on the piece, it just fitted into the voice as if I had been singing it for ten years. It was really one of those instances when it all just works.” The critics enthusiastically agreed: plaudits for Calleja not only matched those for Domingo himself, but in some cases even came close to exceeding them.

It’s a story that doesn’t just attest Calleja’s increasing prominence on the world operatic stage, but also his development as a dramatic artist. It’s now five years since the Maltese singer, now thirty-three, recorded his last recital album, The Golden Voice (a follow up to 2004’s Tenor Arias) – a long time to be away from the studio. “Back then I was an extremely young artist to be recording CDs at all”, he replies. “Of course I enjoyed the success, but I also had a long way to go. What’s changed is that I’m much more in control of my vocal facility and I have a maturity which only time on stage can bring to one’s art. If you know the role inside out, then you can find the right nuances and inflection much more easily.”

So one way into The Maltese Tenor is through the roles that Calleja now knows from the immediacy of live performance. There is, of course, Adorno’s aria “Sento avvampar nell’anima”, a late addition to the album, but one that Calleja felt was indispensable after his London triumph. It is still rarely performed outside of complete performances of the opera. “But any self-respecting tenor with a good voice should make it a show-stopper, because it’s so beautifully written.”

Hoffmann, another recently acquired role, is here too, as part of a quartet of French heroes that also includes Massenet’s Des Grieux (from Manon), Gounod’s Faust and, in a languorous duet with the Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, the lovesick fisherman Nadir in Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles.
“The next four to five years are ideal for me to explore these full lyric French roles”, Calleja explains. “There are so many opinions about what the ‘French style’ really is. The consensus is that the French line gives you less room to manoeuvre, to do your own thing as a singer. But the way I see it is through the Italian bel cantostyle. It’s what I try to do with Hoffmann, particularly in the middle of his aria, which is more lyrical.”

In the celebrated “Salut, demeure” from Faust, meanwhile – a role Calleja has sung in Berlin and would love to reprise – the challenge is to give fresh spontaneity to one of opera’s hit numbers. “This kind of aria is sung so much in concert that one tends to forget about what’s in the text, what the aria means in context.” The Pearl Fishers duet, too, followed live concert performances in Frankfurt starring both Calleja and Kurzak. “At the end of the evening we had a thirty-minute standing ovation… so I thought we had to repeat that duet on the album.”

A stronger dramatic take on these arias hasn’t diluted Calleja’s fidelity to that bel canto style. It’s one reason why his voice has often been described as “old-fashioned”: grace and elegance matched to a timbre that’s lighter than that of many other tenors of Calleja’s generation and flecked by a rapid, persistent vibrato. Early on in Calleja’s career, some found that intrusive. “For a period of time, my vibrato was very, very fast”, Calleja concedes. “But people fail to mention or think about how old I was at the time. If you listen to very early recordings of Jussi Björling, Enrico Caruso or Giuseppe di Stefano, they all have it. Eventually it settles down and matures.”

Calleja grew up soaked in the golden voices of the twentieth century and won’t be lectured on what they did or didn’t do to keep their voices in peak condition: listening to their recordings was a cornerstone of his studies in Malta with his childhood mentor, the tenor-turned-teacher Paul Asciak. “He sang concerts with Tito Schipa, he was friends with Franco Corelli… what he gave me is really the way they used to do things back then, based on listening to the old recordings. Some people say that when they’re preparing a new role they don’t listen to anybody else. I can understand that, but I don’t accept it! If you don’t listen to what your predecessors did before you, it’s like being a leaf on a tree and not knowing which tree you’re on.”

The old masters will be Calleja’s guide as he tackles the bigger, meatier Italian repertoire, too. It’s a new direction in The Maltese Tenor: not just Puccini’s La bohème, but Tosca and Manon Lescaut, too; Verdi, aside from Boccanegra, is represented by the more spinto (literally: pushed) operas Un ballo in maschera andLuisa Miller. Some would call Boito’s version of the Faust story,Mefistofele, from which Calleja sings the winsome “Dai campi, dai prati”, another step up altogether on the ladder to the big dramatic repertoire. “The voice should tell the singer by itself when it’s time to move on from La bohème or Lucia di Lammermoor to this repertoire”, Calleja observes. “Mefistofele and Un ballo in mascherain particular are both beautifully written, they’re all on the breath and the approach is still bel canto. Just because it’s Verdi doesn’t mean you have to shout your way through it.”

You could call this the wisdom of the mature Maltese tenor. Or, if you’re Joseph Calleja, you might simply call it gut instinct. “I’m sorry I haven’t anything more intellectual to offer you”, he laughs, by way of apology. “But I just want to sing as beautifully as possible – without losing my commitment to the work.”

Neil Fisher

Joseph's Blog

November 15th, 2015

Men in Black

Men dressed in black shooting indiscriminately, young people fleeing in terror, some leaving trails of blood behind them – broken bodies dangling from windows three stories above the street. People fleeing and trampling over the dead trying to escape the line of fire… Is this the latest Dan Brown novel? No, this happened yesterday in Paris and was the second attack in less than a year.

I sometimes get the impression that the majority of people have become desensitized to footage of fellow human beings being slaughtered in the middle of a major European city. Modern technology allows us to video people trying to flee whilst the terrorists take pot shots at them. One such video showed a young man limping leaving a trail of blood behind him, another was very bravely pulling along the body of another of the fallen. Young women were hanging from windows by the tips of their fingers and others were crying for help in the most unimaginable distress. When exactly will enough be enough?  Not since World War II has there been a time when Europe needs to stand united and legislate new laws that give utmost protection to the bona fide immigrants and take to task those who are here just to incite violence, thinking that they can impose their archaic and often barbaric way of life upon us Europeans. Some might argue (at least in the case of France) that the hatred is born and bred at home and the attackers might be holding French passports. Well in the latter case new laws have to be passed with haste to allow the government to strip citizenship and take all the necessary precautions and actions to extrapolate these evil human beings from society permanently. Something has to change and something has to give but will it?

Nor is it a problem exclusive to Europe. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq etc. and no these acts are not less serious because they happen to happen “there.” Scores of videos showing decapitation of anyone who doesn’t agree with their barbaric ideology, children shot point blank and/or buried alive, the rape of countless women, the selling of young girls in slave markets and all this in 2015. Need I continue? Isn’t it high time that the Western World takes a no nonsense approach and sends a clear message to the perpetrators and those who support them. Yes we do know who they are. We have known for years but they are “allies” so we cannot really do anything about it or so we think. Just google Clinton Wiki Leaks and those who are uninformed are in for quite a nasty surprise. Then again I might be out of my depth discussing the above – I am sure there are those who will say as much and they would probably be right. However there is one thing I know very well – our entertainment. We do take the latter very seriously in the West and it is ingrained in our culture…

Many will ask  why I am bothering to write “off topic” and how this is relevant to classical music. Oh, but it is very relevant and this recent attack could indeed mark the end of live performances, theatre, cinemas etc. Hyperbole? Think about it – how many attacks will it take in Europe for people to start avoiding theatres, stadiums and restaurants? Few other venues lend themselves better to be used as a platform for mass carnage than a space where hundreds of people sit in close proximity to each other whilst they enjoy themselves with their guard let down. Make no mistake, these terrorists new exactly what they were doing and they drove the stake right at the heart of one of the world’s most beautiful cosmopolitan cities. I am afraid to say that if such an attack would happen in Malta it would wipe tourism out for months if not years, crippling the industry altogether. Globally change for the worse has already happened. How many opera productions were modified, changed or dropped altogether because it “might” offend some minority or other? I am also guilty of the latter – in the 2012 proms I wanted to dress as a Knight of Malta but had second thoughts after someone pointed out to me that it would be seen as a provocation by some since it evoked memories of the crusades! For crying out loud,  it is the year 2015 and some living with us in the streets of London and Paris seem to think that the price for Blasphemy should be death – think Charlie Hebdo and the Scandinavian incidents. A simple youtube search will serve you with an alarming number of results of some of these “protests” and some of the “messages” conveyed during such rallies.

What is sure is that something  has to change and something has to give. We can’t ignore helping the genuine refugees who are fleeing this exact same massacres in their troubled lands but we can’t continue to succumb to pressure to give up our way of life or our own security at the same time. It is a very tough act to balance. A no nonsense approach with  people who refuse to integrate or are trouble makers strikes me as a very civil, fair and logical solution to the plight Europe is facing.  Yes, we need to take serious action against those who hate our way of life and we would have the full support of the real Muslim moderates who are escaping that way of life anyway. Think of the Australian model – they seem to handle this nonsense in a concise and strong way.

Priorities must be put in the right order. Mediterranean is in turmoil  with scores of men, women and children drowning and washing up on beaches, hundreds of thousands fleeing persecution and certain death from countries like Iraq and Syria, the ever growing threat of global terrorism and an ever growing dangerous far right movement in the Western world, yet what some want us to worry about in Malta is whether a Muslim woman can wear a “Niqab” or “Burka” in public. This mollycoddling and fake liberalism has to stop. These absolutely ridiculous requests and expectations have to be ignored and focus must be directed to the issues that matter.

I am inclined to think that a family of refugees fleeing the threat of beheadings, rape, slavery and wanton murder would not be concerned about Christian symbolism such as Father Christmas, Baby Jesus and the occasional cross. It is neither racist nor bigoted to be proud of our way of life. We don’t have to change for anyone and the real, moderate Muslims will appreciate and embrace the new culture that took them in and they will be thankful that they are in a safe place where they can go about their business in peace.