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The new tenor sensation - Joseph Calleja


On 1 May 2004, Malta was one of ten new countries to join the European Union, and this also brings the country's classical musicians into focus. As it happens, everyone is currently talking about a young Maltese tenor by the name of Joseph Calleja. Calleja is now under exclusive contract with the label Decca. The recent release of his first album, Tenor Arias, has attracted the attention of pretty much everyone, including the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Independent.

The Independent wrote about him: 'Calleja has the kind of voice most thirty-year-old tenors would dream of: glossy, virile, lyrical and powerful -- this boy is going far'. And the Daily Telegraph said of him: 'Calleja is a rare find. He has a clean, easy, high-lying voice with a pleasant burr to its timbre.'

Joseph Calleja was born in Attard, Malta in 1978. When he was in his early teens, he went to the cinema there to watch the movie The Great Caruso, starring Mario Lanza. This impressed him to such an extent that the ambitious young man left the movie theatre and started singing the arias from the movie. 'And pretty soon I went hoarse,' he recalls.

For someone who had, until then, thought that music consisted of the likes of Iron Maiden (for those unaware of them: this is a British heavy metal band), it was quite a revelation that another kind of music existed that was highly pleasurable, whether he had the singing technique for it or not.

The turning point came when young Joseph, during a visit to his aunt in the UK, borrowed her CD Essential Pavarotti 2 and started singing Pavarotti arias. His aunt was so impressed with his voice that she urged the fifteen-year-old to become a professional singer. Upon his return to Malta, Calleja auditioned for the local opera choir there and was instantly hired as Second Tenor.

Joseph Calleja. Photo © Decca/Mitch Jenkins
Joseph Calleja. Photo © Decca/Mitch Jenkins

He also took up formal studies in music, initially piano and music theory, and then voice with Paul Asciak, a Maltese tenor who sang in London in the fifties. He went on to win several competitions, sang Macduff in Verdi's Macbeth and has since been called to perform in Dresden, Munich and Covent Garden. Many people who heard him were impressed with the young singer, but one man was so enthusiastic about Calleja that he wanted to record an entire CD with him. He was the conductor Riccardo Chailly who says about Calleja: 'When I first heard Joseph Calleja, I was immediately struck by the lyric Italianate sound of the voice, but also by an impressive musical maturity. For some time I have not heard such a talent at this young age, with a sound harking back to a quality I though we had long lost.'

In 2002, Decca invited Calleja for a first test recording. Jean-Hughes Allard, Vice President of Artist and Repertoire, remembers: 'The result was spectacular. It emphasized a whole range of color and style that one only recollects from the greatest tenors.'

The début CD, simply called Tenor Arias, contains all the usual: Donizetti, Verdi, Cilea, Puccini. Calleja is being supported by the Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano Guiseppe Verdi, conducted by Riccardo Chailly. The CD début is promising, with graceful phrasing and a soft lyrical timbre, but it also shows the limits of a young tenor who is still a diamond in the raw. He is awesome singing Donizetti but reaches his limits with Puccini. Especially the forte parts are still somewhat difficult for him but Calleja, who won the 1998 Caruso competition, seems to be a responsible young singer who can be trusted to carefully develop his voice -- the opportunities that lie in his throat are very promising indeed.

Copyright © 3 May 2004 Tess Crebbin, Germany


A Joseph Calleja factfile

Born: 1978 - Attard, Malta

Educated: De La Salle College, Malta

Teacher: Paul Asciak, Maltese tenor (who sang extensively in Italy and the United Kingdom, including Covent Garden and Welsh National Opera)

Début: May 1997 - Macduff in Macbeth (Verdi), Astra Theatre, Gozo

Belvedere Competition, Vienna
Leicester in Maria Stuarda (Donizetti) for Netherlands Reisopera
Tour of Italy in concerts of operatic arias (with orchestra)

Nemorino in L'Elisir d'amore (Donizetti), Valetta
Lind in Corgi's Isabella (Pesaro Rossini Festival)
Winner of Caruso Competition
Liecrona in Zandonai's I Cavalieri di Ekubu (Wexford Festival)
Don José in scenes from Carmen (Wexford Festival)
Awarded the Festival's John Small Bursary

US début as Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi in Spoleto, Charleston
German début as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni at Regensburg Festival
Prize-winner in Operalia Competition, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Remendado (Carmen), Brussels
Almaviva (The Barber of Seville), Liège
Rodolfo (La Bohème), Toronto and Dresden Semperoper

Ernesto (Don Pasquale), Brussels
Alfredo (La Traviata), Valletta

Duke (Rigoletto), Welsh National Opera, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Royal Theatre, Copenhagen
Rodolfo (La Bohème), Bregenz Festival, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Frankfurt Opera
Decca exclusive contract signed.

2004 onward
Elvino (La Sonnambula), Vienna State Opera
Rodolfo, Stockholm
Alfredo, Strasbourg, Welsh National Opera (2004), Covent Garden (2005)
Début recording (released Spring 2004):
Tenor Arias
CD 475 250-2 SACD 470 646-2
Joseph Calleja, tenor
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano Giuseppe Verdi
Riccardo Chailly, conductor

More information about Joseph Calleja

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