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September 10, 2014

A summer festival in Malta?

I was more than a bit amused to read some negative reporting re the fact that the government sponsored my summer concert. Hundreds of thousand of euros, if not millions, were thrown around  and some went as far to state that I was “on the take” and part of the hundreds of thousands were directed to my pocket. The claims are so ridiculous and unfounded that, to date,  I didn’t even bother to point it out. For those unfamiliar with our island, Malta is ferociously bi-partisan it is inevitable that, for some at least,  everything has to be turned into a political football. Others simply measure by their own yardstick. For the record I got no remuneration by the government, whether directly or indirectly, in the deal they made with NNG promotions nor form part of same company.  To my knowledge, the funds are wisely spent on the filming, editing and international distribution of the concert creating an incredible advert for Malta. Should the government sponsor such initiatives? Of course it should- as what better advertisement can Malta have to increase the much coveted “cultural tourism”?

In Malta we have the curse but also the blessing of being very small. So small in fact that you can walk from one end of the island to the other in less than a day. And what a walk that would be. Despite our small size, our location – smack in the middle of the Mare Nostrum  – made sure that every major civilization left its mark throughout our 7000 year history. Natural resources are pretty much non existent and even for fresh water we have to turn to the sea. Still our island nation enjoys the most important resource of all – its people. Once you remove our petty and constant bickering which (surprise surprise) usually revolve around politics, the Maltese are a force to be reckoned with and a nation that shy away from challenges we are not. Most of us are at least bi-lingual , hard working, resourceful and good hearted. Talent is also another virtue that this island has and never before  did we have so many young budding artists on the verge of an international career. When I was studying to be an opera singer there was literally no one else on the scene on a professional level bar Miriam Gauci. Nowadays we have close to a dozen. Clare Ghigo, Nico Darmanin, Cliff Zammit Stevens, Joseph Lia, Nicola Said and Marvic Monreal are already chasing their dream in conservatories and colleges abroad. Nico Darmanin in particular is already performing professionally and has already debuted at the Royal Opera House. This from a nation of 400,000.

Indeed it is a time of renaissance for at least classical music in Malta. So many festivals whether in Gozo, the place of my very first performances,  or Valletta. In fact it is time that the government notices the elephant in the room and launch THE proper summer festival our island deserves. The raw material is in place already it just needs to be coordinated and a month long festival is really within our grasp and no there is no multi million euro outlay as we have the necessary infrastructure in place already.  Our airport and airline are top notch and hotels comparable to the best on mainland Europe. All that is needed is that nudge, the concentration of the laser beam, the proverbial pulling of the same rope and Malta could host a festival that would rival any in Europe. This government has won with such a majority that it should really use that majority to implement changes that no one had the courage to do before. Redundant boards and committees should be restructured or removed altogether. Competent people should be given executive power to effect necessary changes and not waste their time and energies navigating the endless meanders of bureaucracy caused by useless boards.

 

Last but not least lets give Malta its cultural home back and move ahead with a National Theatre/auditorium. I hear there are great plans for the MCC, now is the time to move forward and turn these plans into reality. We have so much to offer and it would be a great sin to miss out on this opportunity. I dream of the day when Valletta will turn into a major and globally renowned  artistic hub. Believe me when I tell you that we have what it takes.

July 11, 2014

10 tips to overcome vocal fatigue

The end of my operatic season is night and pretty much invariably, year after year, its when I feel most tired and in dire need of my annual summer break. Singing the last few performances culminating with my Malta yearly summer concert can be a challenge – especially when I have to tackle a total of around 19 arias/songs!
Thankfully there is stuff that works for a tired physique and voice. Here is what works for me -

1. Move! Working out, swimming and even a long brisk walk will do wonders for your circulatory system. Don’t do this on the day of the performance but definitely in between.

2. Silence. If you are singing a lot than it is imperative that you keep mum during other hours and only talk if its absolutely necessary. Limit phone conversations too as much as possible.

3. Diet – 3 main meals a day are a must. Avoid foods high in lactose and sugar and go instead for protein, veg and loads of fresh fruit. Keeping your blood sugar relatively constant is important and regular, healthy meals will lessen the likelihood of acid reflux. Its also important not to eat late in the evening. I try to avoid eating after 6pm whenever possible.

4. Steam inhalations – Get a big pot or steam inhalator, throw in some bicarbonate of soda and sea salt and just inhale the healing/relieving vapours! This is really beneficial to basically all your upper respiratory tract and will dislodge mucus and other impurities from your throat.

5. Nasal irrigation – Not the nicest “procedure” but it does remove all kinds of “junk” from your nose. Make sure you always rinse with saline water and there are prepared sachets you can get from virtually any pharmacy.

6. Sleep – Its boring but a good 8 hour sleep is unbeatable to get the voice back in shape. Acid reflux sufferers will also find relief by tilting their head upwards by using two pillows to avoid nasty acid creeping up their throat during their slumber.

7. Stress – or the lack of it. Absolutely avoid stressful situations which may include noisy places/bars. Your throat tenses up automatically even if you don’t speak apart from the fact that you can “tire” your ears out. There have been some studies that our “ears” tire out too so the avoidance of high decibel places is a must!

8. Vibrator – Yep that one. Apparently tests have shown that massaging your throat with a vibrator is beneficial to the surrounding neck muscles. Apparently there are some therapists that employ such “devices” already…

9. Humidity – A constant dry environment can spell disaster for your voice and general well being. If you are in a cold climate and the heating is at full blast, chances are that the relative humidity is low. Invest in a humidifier and let them rip! We all have slightly different comfort levels. For me what works best is around 55 to 65% – just like a good cigar!

10. Arguments – Whether of a business or personal nature do walk away from these when you are singing. Even if talking is not involved the mere thought or presence of something negative will automatically tense your neck muscles and raise the incidence of acid reflux!

 

If everything of the above fails than you need a vacation! Choose a high humid climate with beautiful, clear seas at hand. Swimming in the ocean/sea is truly beneficial for the voice as long as one avoids the worse hours of the sun.

May 11, 2014

Malta’s best eateries according to moi – Part 1

Baia beach, Malta

Baia beach, Malta

Often I am asked by people where to lunch/dine out in Malta and since its basically already summer in Malta here are my favourite haunts in Malta and Gozo. Disclaimer – This is truly my opinion and yes you might see me there. There is no ranking/order in the below and I do not get any freebies/free meals either. :)

 

Baia Beach – Little Armier Beach (Mellieha)

One of the most stunning restaurant locations in Malta. Relax with a glass of crisp Sauvignon Blanc whilst nibbling on Mediterranean goodies. Arriving by boat? No problem. Drop the anchor and they will come and fetch you with their dinghy and take you back to your boat after you’re done. Bliss!

Grabiel Restaurant – Marsascala

One of the best fish restaurants in the south run by Giovanni, Mario, Paul and Karmenu. The latter are all brothers and experts in veritable fish feasts. Try the local “Rossi shrimps” and if you want fish ask for “Gurbell” or “Ciapulazz.” Portions are gargantuan and big eaters will love a plate of “pasta vongole”  (pasta with clams) or “nero,” the latter done with fresh squid ink. This is a good first stop in Malta as Karmenu will give you a list of who is who in Malta together with the latest gossip and political intrigue. They also love talking about their nephew who apparently did quite well for himself…

Tarragon Restaurant – St. Paul’s Bay

Marvin has created a charming restaurant in the heart of the picturesque sea side village of St. Paul’s Bay. The décor is tasteful and it includes sizeable aquariums with lobsters  intended for cooking of course. The staff is attentive, so much so that they run around with “star trek type” ear pieces to make sure that they are in constant touch with the kitchen. Whether you’re out for some “molecular food preparation” or some good old plain fish this multi award winning restaurant is also a must! Ask for the raw appetizers and for an “al sale” prepared fish.

 

De Mondion Restaurant – Xara Palace, Mdina

In the second world war this building was apparently used as a residence for the allied ace pilots. Legend has it that the Luftwaffe pilot knew this and it wasn’t uncommon for them to strafe its beautiful, historical terrace with bullets… Nowadays Xara Palace is a 5 star boutique hotel with an amazing restaurant specializing in French/Maltese cuisine. It is not cheap but the excellent food, service and extensive wine list makes experiencing this restaurant a must. Ask for a table on the terrace so that you can enjoy the view of multiple village fireworks. The rabbit menu washed down by a bottle of St Emilion is especially delicious!

 

Kartell Restaurant – Marsalforn, Gozo

I have been going to this restaurant, right on the water’s edge of Gozo’s main seaside resort of Marsalforn since the age of 10. The location is literally on the water and Philip, the owner,  a gracious and efficient host. Fare is predominantly Mediterranean although do ask for the Gozitan cheese and Maltese “Awwista.” Not the first time that I ended up serenading the guests impromptu at this restaurant accompanied by Pawlu Carbonaro, one of Malta’s finest post war artists. Ask for a taste of Gozitan local wine from the “Ta’ Mena” estate especially the Vermentino!

 

 

 

Xara Palace De Mondion Restaurant

Xara Palace De Mondion Restaurant

 

 

May 7, 2014

The silent voice killer

Did it ever happen to you to vocalize before a show, find that you are absolutely fine only to get tired, without cause and suddenly during a performance? If you are not sick and didn’t strain your voice then there is quite a big probability that you are suffering from acid reflux.

Basically the stomach produces acid in order to digest the foods you digest. Sometimes this acid, in liquid or gas form, can travel up your food pipe and end in your larynx wrecking your throat and voice.  Indeed I rate acid reflux as the worst affliction a singer can have after tracheitis and laryngitis.

If you suspect that you suffer from the condition do contact your doctor who, if indicated, will probably put you on some “proton pump inhibitors” to lower the acid your body makes. This medication will help but its also good to rely on a good diet with foods that don’t trigger a surplus of acid. Personally I find fried foods, bread and over indulgence of alcohol to be the worst. Bananas, rice and whole wheat pasta bring some relief.  The medication “Gaviscon” will become your best friend and sleeping with a “raised” pillow is also a must together with not eating after 6pm.

Remember that tight costumes and stress in general can also cause an upsurge in acid and never persist on singing with a feeble voice as this can only worsen the condition.

April 27, 2014

Accommodation and singing opera.

One thing I seldom see being discussed is the type of accommodation an opera singer really needs. Indeed I rank the place where you live, sleep and eat as one of the most imp0rtant factors to be able to perform consistently and at an acceptable level. Noise levels, cleanliness and (perhaps most important) humidity really do factor and contribute to one’s general vocal health. Lets take humidity as an example. Anything below 40% relative humidity is generally going to be problematic for most singers. Your nose will probably bleed and you will feel a sensation of a “parched throat.” Chamomile tea with honey will sooth this temporary but it is advisable that you go out and buy humidifiers immediately.

Temperature is another thing which is often overlooked. I tend to keep my room at 19 to 20 degrees Celsius. I open windows to let in fresh air as often as possible and do not mind different temperatures in different rooms of the apartment. In fact I find changes of temperature to be rather invigorating much like a cold shower after a few minutes in the Sauna…

Last but not least I cannot stress how sound insulation is a must especially in noisy cities. It is quite boring but what the voice really needs to recover is loads of sleep and the latter is difficult to get if you can hear noisy sirens and horns all night long!

 

 

April 8, 2014

Defending the indefensible

On the 3rd of April my daughter turned 10. Having a child is such a priceless gift and big responsibility and that is why any responsible parent should  invest all the love, time and money in the child’s formation, with the hope, that such child will grow up into a responsible and considerate individual…

A Maltese family recently had their child stripped away from them in such an unnecessary and irresponsible fashion after she associated with someone who should have been a source of guidance for their daughter and not, as it seems, the road to her absolutely tragic demise. I therefore couldn’t believe my eyes when I found myself reading actual messages of support, on the internet and in various forums,  for this teacher. A “teacher” who abused his position of trust by sleeping with his minor student, sometimes in her father’s own home,  and planned their supposedly joint “suicide” over a number of days. I have the greatest sympathy and pity for his parents, especially since they are known to be a decent lot but I find it very hard to conjure a lot of kind thoughts for him I am afraid.

What is even more unbelievable are those who are stating that this is a “rich” vrs “poor” situation or a battle of “classes” of some sort. Are the latter going insane? Are they actually saying that the death of this 15 year old girl, a daughter, a cousin, a niece etc, is less serious or tragic because she hailed from a prominent and well off family and the perpetrator is poor so he should have our sympathy? I also read that this happened because she was “disturbed.” Even if she was, since when does this warrant or deserve a death sentence?

There is no denying that sometimes, some of us, lose the plot and the correct sense of perspective. Another example is www.timesofmalta.com,  the web portal for Malta’s most prominent and respected newspaper. It had recently  ran two stories; 1. the killing of migratory birds 2. the killing of dozens of Syrian toddlers and pre adolescent children slaughtered in the conflict. Both stories had the same, very visible, exposure on the site. As yet, the story about the bird killings had literally hundreds of comments and the one about the slaughtered children, which included pictures of the dead children, had perhaps 8 comments. Now of course I am really sorry that beautiful migratory birds where shot out of the sky but this is no way comparable to the death of innocent children who’s only crime was being born in the wrong time and country. The hundreds of comments should have been on the story about the dead Syrian children and its really sad and telling that this was not the case.

Our collective morality needs an urgent retune and to all of you out there who think your problems are insurmountable please to think again. Help is at hand and much closer than you think…

 

 

 

 

March 31, 2014

“Simshar” and the ongoing tragedy of the Mediterranean…

What better ways are there to highlight the ongoing tragedy of thousands of lives swallowed by the Mediterranean sea a couple of miles beyond our shores than a feature film? Well not many I can think of and Rebecca Cremona does wonderfully by linking and intertwining it with yet another tragedy; the loss of a Maltese fishing boat with all its crew save for one… I will stop here re the movie as I don’t want to give out more spoilers for those who are not familiar with the story. However I can tell you that it is well acted throughout and expect to be glued to the screen…

What I am writing about is the other thousands of “Simshars” lost at sea. In this case the lives of those who perish(ed) will not be documented in any movies and very few people on our side of the “fence” will mourn them or even give their plight and tragedy a second thought. It is shocking that we treat mass “drownings” as business as usual. The immigrants who risk life and limb to cross are not doing so as a sort of “lets see how this thing goes…” The vast majority are escaping persecution, famine, disease and (in the worst cases) annihilation from all three. There is no other way of dealing with the situation, once the boats have left the shores of Libya, other than going out at sea to offer help when and whenever necessary. Anything short of the latter would be cruel and inhumane.

But what about us Maltese; can the island take and absorb wave after wave of immigrants indefinitely? Are we getting enough help from our neighboring countries? The answer to the latter is in a constantly changing gray area. A leap forward would be more stability (or stability at all!) around the North African coast and in the countries further south but that is not going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime we have to retain and live up to our reputation of a good hearted and welcoming nation and give the best possible aid to those who need it most. Unfortunately our best is not always enough and leaps and bounds of improvements are still to be made in the conditions we keep these immigrants till they are integrated or repatriated. In this area our politicians must appeal, in the strongest way possible, for more physical and financial aid from our bigger and stronger neighbors. Malta can not face this problem alone and lets not forget that our population density is one of the highest anywhere.

Anger and frustration might lead to the temptation of displaying racist or xenophobic behavior, especially when confronted with the unknown. To those who may be inclined to entertain such thoughts I ask one question; what if it were you in that overcrowded boat clinging to its failing structure for dear life? Would you want help then? If it were your kin out there on the boats or floating aimlessly on the high seas, would you go help then?

March 8, 2014

The Airmalta Advert.

Most of you who follow me on facebook or on this site must have seen the new Airmalta advert from a few days ago. It was such a pleasure to drive around Malta and visit my “usual haunts” with a fantastic (and funny!) crew that Airmalta contracted for the filming of this advert…

I am sure that some of you out there will question the authenticity of the advert and whether it really represents what I think of Malta. The answer is both yes and absolutely. Almost all of the sites we visited are some of my favourite spots in Malta. Starting from the North we visited Little Armier bay. This is a spectacular small beach facing Comino. Ray’s Lido offer efficient sun bed/umbrella service and they have very decent food served al fresco. A little to the left you have the Baia beach Lido which is beautifully designed and offers excellent food in an idyllic environment. If visiting by boat they will even send a dinghy out to get you.

A stone throw away (and also featured on the ad) you can find the “red watchtower” ore more accurately “St Agatha’s tower” built in 1649 with impressive views which spans from the North West Coast all to Gozo and Comino. A walk to the edge of the cliffs is spectacular offering amazing views enhanced by the permeating smell of wild thyme which grow in abundance in the area…we ended the day of filming in my hometown Mellieha where, in a bar with the most spectacular view on the island, we had some Maltese Ftira washed down with our local softdrink and beer.

The above is only a small fraction of what Malta and Gozo have to offer. Indeed, one can get lost and drunk in the poetry, mystery and transcending beauty that our rugged coast and crystalline sea have to offer.

To sum it up yes I am truly in love with the Maltese Islands and its people…well at least most of them…in fact I sometimes I wished that more of my countrymen loved our island more…

 

St Agatha’s Tower-

File:St. Agatha's Tower-NW.JPG

 

 

Little Armier Bay -

 

 

 

January 14, 2014

How to deal with pressure of performing

How to deal with pressure is one thing that any budding opera singer needs to come to terms with pretty quickly. Years of study in a small studio, conservatory or a young artists program suddenly fizzle into oblivion when you go on stage, the orchestra starts playing and the spotlight is shining on you, literally. Strangely enough I was pretty much immune to pressure during the early part of my career. I had my professional debut at the age of 19 in a leading role. I won a couple of competitions, aced a couple of auditions and my calendar was steadily filling up in spite of my young age and relative inexperience. Still I faced the stage with artistic hunger and a hunger for success and I didn’t really even think of pressure or chance of failure. But then again most teenagers think they are bullet proof and I didn’t have anything to lose…

Then the game changer happened and the latter came into the form of a word called “reputation.” Audiences are the best form of publicity a singer can have and audiences TALK! Slowly but surely I was becoming “a name” and people came to the opera house with “expectation(s)” My recording contract with Decca a the tender age of 23 further catapulted me into the public foray and the much dreaded “pressure” came knocking at the door with a vengeance.

I didn’t know what to do hence I did what I always did in these instances and I called my teacher Paul Asciak. He first teased me and told me the proverbial “I told you it will catch up with you” (he always loved “I told you so” scenarios!) and then proceeded to give me some of the best advice I have ever received. He told me to live the operatic life like a vocation. No talking, socializing, drinking or even eating badly the days  before a performance. That way, if something did go wrong on stage, I couldn’t possibly blame myself given that I took every single precaution possible. I didn’t mention hard study and preparation because that’s a given but many artists, especially young ones, think they can do without the mostly “monastic” lifestyle that an opera career requires. That is why an opera singers way of life is as much a vocation as it is a career. A long conversation in a noisy pub (even one without smoke) is a no go even two days prior to a performance. Even a seemingly harmless bottle of wine can dehydrate your cords and give you enough acid reflux to make a difference in your sound. Even a night of passion the night before is a no go, especially for tenors, although the latter is controversial with some artsits claiming that sex actually helps their performance. Boring? Yes! But still a must. I know of no major artist with a reasonably long career who didn’t exercise this discipline. Of course I hastily add that singing the right repertoire and not singing too often are also musts unless you are the Great Placido Domingo. The latter, with vocal cords forged out of Wolverine’s Adamamtium. is simply unbreakable and unstoppable…

 

Last but not least is to never underestimate sickness. My rule of thumb is to never sing when the vocal cords are at all compromised or when there is a lot of mucus in the nasal passages that will get dislodged from the nose right down to the actual cords by the actual vibrations caused by singing. You only have one pair of vocal cords and they are very hard to repair if compromised. Take care of them!

In the end no two performances will ever be the same no matter of the precautions taken. That is one of the beauties of performing live opera – its unpredictable!

 

 

 

 

December 18, 2013

Global Stardom

Kathy Bates, Justice Ginsberg, Scalia, Sotomayor, Roberts, Glenn Close, Alan Alda, President Obama, Arroyo, Santana and Snoop Dog etc. etc. What an amazing month December was! I don’t want to enter the merits of the existence of an “afterlife” but if the latter exists it is a sure thing that my father, born in the village of Qormi in Malta, is surely smiling…

But what does one learn from global legends? Well I guess humility and the long road that starts from nowhere, seemingly going to nowhere that instead ends up changing people’s lives and indeed history. I mean all the eulogies, especially to Billy Joel, delivered by the amazing Garth Brooks, was so heartfelt and intense  without that annoying prosopopeia that so often accompany such events that yes, I did feel privileged to be assisting at the American “knighting” equivalent of Joel, Arroyo, Hancock, Santana and Maclaine. Something to tell the grand children for sure…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Joseph's Blog

September 10th, 2014

A summer festival in Malta?

I was more than a bit amused to read some negative reporting re the fact that the government sponsored my summer concert. Hundreds of thousand of euros, if not millions, were thrown around  and some went as far to state that I was “on the take” and part of the hundreds of thousands were directed to my pocket. The claims are so ridiculous and unfounded that, to date,  I didn’t even bother to point it out. For those unfamiliar with our island, Malta is ferociously bi-partisan it is inevitable that, for some at least,  everything has to be turned into a political football. Others simply measure by their own yardstick. For the record I got no remuneration by the government, whether directly or indirectly, in the deal they made with NNG promotions nor form part of same company.  To my knowledge, the funds are wisely spent on the filming, editing and international distribution of the concert creating an incredible advert for Malta. Should the government sponsor such initiatives? Of course it should- as what better advertisement can Malta have to increase the much coveted “cultural tourism”?

In Malta we have the curse but also the blessing of being very small. So small in fact that you can walk from one end of the island to the other in less than a day. And what a walk that would be. Despite our small size, our location – smack in the middle of the Mare Nostrum  – made sure that every major civilization left its mark throughout our 7000 year history. Natural resources are pretty much non existent and even for fresh water we have to turn to the sea. Still our island nation enjoys the most important resource of all – its people. Once you remove our petty and constant bickering which (surprise surprise) usually revolve around politics, the Maltese are a force to be reckoned with and a nation that shy away from challenges we are not. Most of us are at least bi-lingual , hard working, resourceful and good hearted. Talent is also another virtue that this island has and never before  did we have so many young budding artists on the verge of an international career. When I was studying to be an opera singer there was literally no one else on the scene on a professional level bar Miriam Gauci. Nowadays we have close to a dozen. Clare Ghigo, Nico Darmanin, Cliff Zammit Stevens, Joseph Lia, Nicola Said and Marvic Monreal are already chasing their dream in conservatories and colleges abroad. Nico Darmanin in particular is already performing professionally and has already debuted at the Royal Opera House. This from a nation of 400,000.

Indeed it is a time of renaissance for at least classical music in Malta. So many festivals whether in Gozo, the place of my very first performances,  or Valletta. In fact it is time that the government notices the elephant in the room and launch THE proper summer festival our island deserves. The raw material is in place already it just needs to be coordinated and a month long festival is really within our grasp and no there is no multi million euro outlay as we have the necessary infrastructure in place already.  Our airport and airline are top notch and hotels comparable to the best on mainland Europe. All that is needed is that nudge, the concentration of the laser beam, the proverbial pulling of the same rope and Malta could host a festival that would rival any in Europe. This government has won with such a majority that it should really use that majority to implement changes that no one had the courage to do before. Redundant boards and committees should be restructured or removed altogether. Competent people should be given executive power to effect necessary changes and not waste their time and energies navigating the endless meanders of bureaucracy caused by useless boards.

 

Last but not least lets give Malta its cultural home back and move ahead with a National Theatre/auditorium. I hear there are great plans for the MCC, now is the time to move forward and turn these plans into reality. We have so much to offer and it would be a great sin to miss out on this opportunity. I dream of the day when Valletta will turn into a major and globally renowned  artistic hub. Believe me when I tell you that we have what it takes.