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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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

November 29, 2013

Loneliness and how to try to overcome it

3356596800_8b0d02f788Yes one does have to learn to be comfortable with oneself but lets not kid ourselves, homo sapiens are social creatures and there is no doubt that one of the hardest things for an opera singer*  at a certain career stage is, plain and simple, loneliness. It is a bit better for singers who are under contract in one theatre, as this means they stay mainly in one city. However,  if a singer is freelance he or she is invariably hopping from one city to another sometimes forgetting in which city they are  in (think concert tours) and often mistake closets for toilets. Yes, before you ask, the latter did happen to me and it had my girlfriend  in stitches at the ungodly hour of 4am. I didn’t even know that chicks could laugh at that hour…

For jet setting singers it is very hard to maintain close connections with friends and colleagues. Indeed  the minute you start building a friendship it is time to leave again to the next city probably on a different continent . Of course there are the advantages of constant changes of scenery, exciting new cities, people and challenges but the fun stuff can be easily forgotten when you don’t really have someone to share the joys (and occasional pains) with. In normal circumstances, leaving out the terrible tragedies that life sometimes throw at us, there is simply nothing sadder than going back to an empty hotel room or apartment after a successful performance. No one to dissipate the adrenalin on and no one to share the Ben and Jerry’s chocolate fudge ice cream with…

It is of course good to have a good laptop and a tablet to keep you company with your e-books, music and videos after your legs get tired from exploring the city. And talking about the  latter; discovering a city on foot is one of the best ways to discover a new city. I have so many great memories of running around Munich in minus 15 degrees Celsius, jogging on the soft snow and don’t let them scare you about the voice. As long as you’re healthy and appropriately dressed, running in the cold actually builds your stamina and resistance. Just don’t sing on the same day of jogging as you might find your nasal passages a bit dried out. Zimmerman’s dark knight music is particularly invigorating and meditation inducing during such jogs.

When loneliness becomes overwhelming there is always Skype and Facetime and you will be surprised by how many hours one can actually “burn” on these endless chats and how many times you will find yourself kissing and hugging the screen. Sometimes it almost seems that your loved ones are in the same room with you which makes it all the more difficult when you hang up and realize that actually, they are thousands of kilometers away. Then again you will “hug” your loved one silly when you next see him or her and if you have children you will just learn to give them every minute when you are actually with them. Distance does make the heart grow fonder sometimes and this is apparently scientific now!**

Then there are those who are lucky enough to find a better half that doesn’t mind all the travelling and city hopping. When this happens, loneliness becomes a thing of the past and almost all the disadvantages disappear being replaced instead by a sort of “honeymoon after honeymoon” experience as long, of course, as the relationship works is healthy. If you are an opera singer and you find that person don’t ever let go as they are a special kind. In fact I just can’t resist but take this opportunity to thank my beautiful girlfriend Victoria for putting up with this crazy life!

 

*singers are generally homosapiens although it is still open for debate whether tenors do indeed form part of this category..

** http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/07/20/long-distance-relationships-2013/2568295/

 

November 15, 2013

Opera singers, the internet and “trolls”…

I remember back in 2002, at the tender age of 24, I signed with Decca records. I had already sung leading roles in some major theatres but by and large my name was not that well known except for “promising tenor” status. My first CD released only a year later quickly changed that and suddenly, I became known throughout the opera world. Enthusiastically I surfed the internet to see how my CD was being received. Most of the press loved it but then I delved deeper into the opera forums, back then a new thing for me, and was quite shocked at how scathing and destructive some of these comments were. I am not going to lie to you. At first, and especially if you are a young singer, these comments will hurt. With time however an opera singer should develop a thick skin and quickly able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

But the question remains. Should an opera singer read “unofficial” reviews and comments from, more often than not, anonymous contributors? In my opinion the answer is, perhaps surprisingly, yes. If one is able to ignore trolls, whose only virtual existence seems to be to try and denigrate a particular singer due to their own pettiness or inadequacy, there is so much to learn from these “uncensored” comments which more often than not are quite honest albeit perhaps brutal at times. I find it healthy, to occasionally typing my name in a search engine and see what the general public truly thinks about my voice and nowadays I can immediately focus on the honest criticism and discard the rubbish.

It does take a kind of mentality that is rather saved by criticism than ruined by praise but you would be surprised by how much one can learn if you take your ego down a couple of notches and up the desire to improve by sometimes reading what people have to say about your art.

 

 

 

 

 

 

July 9, 2013

Opera singing loud?

Is opera singing about singing loud?

I have lost count on how often I have heard that operatic singing is “loud” singing. Yes an operatic voice has to have a minimum amount of decibels in order to be heard over a large orchestra and fill a large auditorium without the help of amplification but a loud voice does not an opera singer make. Let there be no mistake – an opera singer is born, you just have to have the natural predisposition to sing this way. If you are an opera singer your vocal cords, lungs and facial bone structure are special. The latter especially is crucial in giving you the quality and timbre of your voice. That is why your voice changes completely when you have a cold as your voice finds yucky “mucus” instead of healthy tissue and bone!

A good teacher will not teach you how to sing loud. Instead she or he will help you “find” your voice and “mould” it in the suitable repertoire according to your voice type. Ironically a good teacher will first start by finding your “piano” voice and develop there before even tackling the loud bits. Hence if you are straining and pushing your voice often during a performance something is wrong. Operatic singing is about pushing the voice beyond its comfort zone but not beyond already set “limits.”

The biggest irony in singing is that the more “unforced” a sound is the more they hear it in the auditorium and the more “goosebumps” it gives!

July 1, 2013

Amplification in opera houses?

A few days ago I thought to myself that my next blog would be about “miking” in opera houses or the lack thereof and coincidentally this morning I read that a reputable newspaper mentioned singers wearing “microphones” for HD broadcasts, recordings etc.

For years I have read, not without amusement may I add, of various conspiracies that today’s leading singers, including yours truly, use “microscopic James Bond type microphones” in order to be heard in the world’s leading opera houses. In fact it’s quite  a bummer that I didn’t know about such “devices” before,  as I would  have certainly not spent all those years learning vocal technique in order to perform one of the many  little ” vocal miracles” and project my voice over an orchestra in the auditorium!

Naturally if there is an HD broadcast or a live recording of the performance, singers have to wear a microphone in order to capture the sound of their voices for broadcast or recording. Without this all you would have is “silent opera” in the cinema or on the recording and that would defeat the purpose a little bit, wouldn’t it? This, however, is NOT amplification in any way and the sound is not transmitted into the house at all. I’ll go a step further and state that I have been singing professionally since 1997 and not once, did I ever encounter any singer wearing any “secret” amplification device in a “normal” and “acoustically viable” opera house such as London, Munich, The Metropolitan Opera, Vienna Staatsoper etc. Of course there were exceptions that relate to open air performances or giant indoor venues. In latter venues amplification is as necessary as it is obvious.  Examples of these are the Bregenz Festival when performed on the lake, indoor sport arenas and my own yearly concert in Malta where we sing in a square that can take more than 50000 people. Another instance is when there are “spoken” words in an opera like Bizet’s Carmen. Again here the direction might decide to amplify the speaking part but never the singing part.

The irony of this is that many singers including myself find singing with a microphone, when used for amplification,  as a very uncomfortable experience as the “sensation” and “return” of the voice is very different than what we opera singers are used to in the opera house.

In fact I am ready to take one for the team and offer any “journalist” or “conspirator” the opportunity to check me for any “futuristic amplification devices” right before going on stage and right after stepping out of it on the wings… if I am guilty I will eat a microphone…the tiny futuristic one of course…

May 19, 2013

Eurovision and cross voting

Despite having a brilliant song that was delivered impeccably Malta didn’t win the Eurovision song contest. No doubt there will be many who will cry foul, bring up the unfair issue of neighbourly  cross voting and insist on having Malta withdraw from future contests.

Whether it is in the office or on stage “cross voting” is just yet a common and normal factor that has to catered for and dealt with in the long road of realising ones goal, whatever that might be. Fierce competition is rampant everywhere in todays society and the road to success will be constantly besieged by factions, jealousy, envy, loyalties, nepotism or downright corruption. Multiple spokes in the wheels are not only the norm but they are to be expected and dealt with. Indeed I view these acts of cheekiness as adding to ones achievment and a sad reminder that human nature can sometimes be petty and small minded.

So to all of those who think that Malta should stop competing in the Eurovision I say that some form of “tomfoolery” will always be present and cannot really be avoided and it is the marking of true, real talent to triumph despite and against the odds!

What we really need to do in Malta is to see the Eurovision for what it is; great, silly fun and just another way to remind our European neighbours what a great destination and fun Malta is.

Life ain’t perfect and it certainly isn’t fair but fate is inexorable and the day will come when someone from these shores will lift the trophy… in the meantime a big BRAVO to Gianluca and all the Maltese team who went there to have fun and fun they had!

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Joseph's Blog

April 8th, 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…