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 canto style. 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 and Luisa 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 maschera in 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
2/2011