The new tenor sensation - Joseph Calleja
by TESS CREBBIN
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
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
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