Opera Actual




4 November 2004

Interview by Ruben Amon

English translation by Sergio Maclean



Joseph Calleja – “I am nobody’s heir”


Joseph Calleja (Attard, Malta 1978) has become a revelation within the tenor ranks.  So much so that the Decca Label has given him the privilege of a solo album, and in no less than the company of Riccardo Chailly and in a manner fitting an heir to Alfredo Krauss.  It is true that the Maltese tenor considers this comparison as a sacrilege of sorts because he shares both an affinity and an obsession to preserve the repertoire with the Canarian tenor.  Now he’s arriving in Spain, first in Palma de Mallorca (Don G. Dec 7) and later at the Liceu with a double bill; Rigoletto (Dec 19) and L’Elisir d’Amore (April 21)


O.A (Opera Actual) “There are without a doubt more entries under the Calleja surname in the Spanish telephone book than in any other.”

J.C (Joseph Calleja) “ It’s a surname inherited from Spain.  I have ancestors that lived in Catalonia.  The other branch comes from Sicily so I could consider myself a Italo-Spaniard with a Maltese passport.”


O.A “No wonder you have an inkling for Opera”

J.C “There is for sure a genetic factor, a cultural one. But it is also true that there wasn’t an atmosphere for any particular musical tendency at home. Let’s say I decided to become a tenor thanks to the movies.  As a kid I had the opportunity to watch “The Great Caruso” on television and Mario Lanza impressed me so such much that I aimed to be exactly like him.  It was then that I became familiar with the world of opera. I was 12 and I began to discover a world that both absorbed and attracted me.  I liked rock, and as a teenager I even had a band, but the fact that I met certain lyric singers began weighing on me leaning more towards opera.  In fact, by the time I was 15 I knew I had to be a singer.”


O.A “What other influences can you mention?”

J.C “Andrea Bocelli and the Three Tenors … They were very important influences.  I know certain mass events are often frowned upon, but I would not be here today if not for Lanza or Pavarotti.  Both great communicators that have awaken a musical inclination in many people.”


O.A “You are only 26, but you have already appeared in the record market led by the hand of Chailly in an aria album.  You have also had your debut at Covent Garden and you have a dizzying agenda that includes the Met, The Vienna Opera and the Liceu.  Isn’t this a bit rushed?”

J.C “I think I am in a position to undertake these engagements.  I am young and am aware there is a shortage of tenors, but this does not make me loose my head.  In fact I am going to be very careful in my choice of repertoire.  Of course I will make mistakes, but we must try to make them as small as possible.  In this matter I have always admired Alfredo Kraus who was singing at 70 with incredible vocal health.  All this, because he knew his limitations, strengthened his technique, studied and had the courage, when necessary, to steer away from tempting roles.”


O.A “It’s also true that you share a similar repertoire with Krauss.  Mozart, the lyric Verdi, bel canto…”

J.C “You could say this is the triangle where I am at my best and what best reflects on me.  It’s a matter of artistic affinity, of musical identification, even of vocal colour.  These are roles that demand a very polished style of singing; taking care of the details, the phrasing, diction.  You have to sing them in a very honest manner.  Mozart leaves you completely naked.  There is no place to hide; you can’t hide yourself behind the orchestra.  You’re there, exposed, without a safety net or protective distance; but he is a composer of extraordinary importance for the health of the voice and for artistic maturity.  I need to access him (Mozart) from time to time to assess exactly where I’m at, and how I feel.”


O.A “ You will now sing Mozart in Palma - what does this Spanish debut mean for you? What does singing at the Liceu bring forth?”

J.C “I am very excited about it, and I also have a healthy respect, because the Spanish public, like the Italian, has a special sensitivity towards voices, particularly tenor voices.  It is not the same to peak into a conventional hall to confront the experts.  But this responsibility also brings with it a certain stimuli. I am a Mediterranean tenor, sunny.  I was born in Malta, where, incidentally, there exists a great lyric tradition.  Without forgetting our closeness to Sicily.  This is why I think my vocal colour is like that of a Spanish Tenor.”


O.A “Don’t you also feel an extra responsibility having been named as a heir… a Dauphin?”

J.C “There’s too much haste to seek an heir.  And I think it would be unfair to set more demands on me, than those that result from a 26 year old tenor beginning to make his way in the world of opera. I am nobody’s heir; many of these claims would not be made if I was a baritone, but the fact that I am part of the tenor line attracts a higher degree of attention - an extraordinary and out of bounds level of attention.  It is for this reason I allow myself to remember one fact.  In the 20th Century there are only two tenors that surpass the rest; Caruso and Pavarotti.  I don’t think it reasonable to give me any succession rights.  I am Joseph Calleja, and I must re-validate my current position, without haste.”


O.A “Your CD is a kind of letter of introduction?”

J.C “This project was a real challenge, because the current crisis in the record industry has restricted one’s ability to become known.  This is why the backing of both a label such as Decca and of Chailly as a conductor, have infused me with both a sense of security and a sense of responsibility.  I think it is a good work and that the musical aficionados will get to know me and even guess the direction I’m heading in.  It is not the record of a definitely mature Tenor, but it has a lot of freshness and it reveals a way of singing, a personality,”


O.A “How was the collaboration with Chailly?”

J.C “Simply extraordinary.  We understood each other from the first moment and we worked on a high of affinity.  As a curious fact Chailly reminded me that he had conducted Kraus several times, and that he remembered with particular emotion when he did so at the of age 19 for the San Francisco Opera.  I mention this because the Italian conductor is a great connoisseur of the repertoire I am starting to sing.”


O.A “And are you not attracted to the Lied genre?”

J.C “Let’s say that from now on I am interested on two aspects; French opera - Gounod and Massenet in particular - and Lied.  But before undertaking Lied I must master the German language better; otherwise I could make the mistake and sing in a too superficial way. This would defeat the purpose.”