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Joseph Calleja

Sitting down with tenor Joseph Calleja

On a cold November evening in Amsterdam, I stand at the door of Calleja’s apartment and discover the doorbell is broken. I give Calleja a short call explaining I’m at the door, to which he decides to throw me the key through the window. To my own amazement, I manage to catch it. I open the door. Before anything, the long staircase is to be climbed. While I overcome the last few steps of the staircase, Calleja stands in the doorway to the living room and smilingly greets me. His appearance fits my impression of him: an impressive figure, tall for a tenor, and a très sympathique face. As we walk further into the apartment, the atmosphere proves tranquil and inviting. The young tenor shows no hint of stardom arrogance: he receives me in a friendly and relaxed manner. However, life as an operatic singer can be quite unrelaxing, crazy even. “Are opera singers eccentric?” was a question that was fired at Luciano Pavarotti, one Calleja’s idols. Pavarotti replied: “The singers generally are completely crazy; it’s not possible to do our job without being crazy!” If Calleja is crazy, it’s expressed in the right way, through humor – a good feature to cope with the ‘craziness’ of a singer’s life. As I sit down with him, we discuss his blooming career, the technicalities of singing, his idols, and the relaxing as well as the unrelaxing aspects of a singers’ life.

Pawel: You’ve been in the Netherlands since October for the rehearsals of Rigoletto, how is your experience with regard to things like the rehearse schedule?

J.Calleja: Nowadays, the tendency among opera houses is to do a lot of rehearsals, for various reasons, such as technical security. Doing a lot of rehearsals does take its toll on singers. It sips your energy. I think in general, singers should have at least a two-day break between the general rehearsal and the première, especially when experiencing a heavy rehearsal schedule. But that’s life, we deal with it. It’s just something you have to take into account: some productions are more taxing than others, when it comes to rehearsing.

Pawel: So how do you look back on your Rigoletto première here in Amsterdam, the fourth of November, 2005?

J.Calleja: I think I’m quite satisfied: the reaction from the audience was very good. The whole cast will continue to build upon the first performance.

Pawel: How would you define your interpretation of the duke in Rigoletto? What are the defining aspects of the character according to you? How do you express them when singing? Also, how does this rhyme with director wishes?

J.Calleja: Well, first of all, you almost need three voices to sing the duke: a lirico leggerio, lirico and a hint of a spinto tenor for very small parts of the opera – Possente amor mi chiama, parts of Bella figlia dell’amore. It is music that makes you sing a lot. The Duke is a very interesting character, because it’s a man who believes his lies and that’s the only way he manages to convince women that he loves them – even those who know him, like Maddalena. Apart from Gilda, of whom you might say she is naive. Maddalena is not naive, she believes him when he says ‘I love you, I want to marry you’, even though she knows he is joking. She knows everything. But of course, she still goes the way of her brother, who wouldn’t think twice to slit her throat as well. He doesn’t do it, because he needs her to attract future victims. She does risk..What do women risk in an opera, actually? This is why Gilda gives her life in the end, because this guy is charming, charismatic.

Pawel: Then how do you portray the character musically?

J.Calleja: By shading differently, applying different coloring when singing, by really understanding what you’re singing. It’s all in the score though: libretto, the music and Verdi’s markings – it’s almost all there. All you have to do is to read the libretto and really understand what’s going on there. So what I try to do is to respect the markings, and fittingly put in the emotions; a diminuendo suggesting innocence in the duet, conveying sweetness when seducing etc.

Pawel: Lastly regarding singing here in the Netherlands, I would like to ask you about your experience here with the Dutch opera (DNO). DNO is known for abstract scenery. This time around, the Rigoletto scenery is yet again minimalist and abstract. What would be the pros and cons of this approach in theory? And perhaps more importantly, how was the experience singing in such a stage set?

J.Calleja: First of all, the production of Monique Wagemakers is very good. She respects the libretto and she works very well with singers. It does work in many ways. The difficulty arises in the fact that the scenery is not created having in mind the comfort of singing, that doesn’t exist in the scenery. As an example: the duke has to be there from the beginning of the opera, the prelude, to act certain things, Of course it doesn’t involve singing, but it does make the whole performance heavier, more difficult. I have to wait behind a wall onstage and have barely time to change into my student costume after act one. Sometimes, coupled with nerves and tension, it’s not a very good thing to experience. Besides that, Monique Wagemakers knew the libretto inside out; she was in form. These are pretty rare qualities in directors nowadays. Besides, it’s not her doing, it’s the majority of productions nowadays that don’t cater for singers needs, and I’m not talking about standing up and singing statically. It’s really about the logistics, simply straightforward logistics that get ignored.

Pawel: What’s your fondest onstage memory in your singer career up till now?

J.Calleja: (Chuckling) Every time I sing the way I want to sing. Invariably, when that happens there is a very good response from the public. The public might not know why you’re in form or not, but they do know when you are in form or not, and react accordingly.

Pawel: And what would be the most embarrassing moment you ever had up till now?

J.Calleja: (Laughs) Let me think … I don’t remember very well, but I was about to sing in a concert dressed in a beautiful suit and I had my fly open, which was extremely … I could barely sing.

Pawel: Did people notice?

J.Calleja: Oh yes, they noticed! The first row started laughing, so I turned as red as a cherry. I tried to find the right moment to close it, but of course it never came. So, basically I sang the whole performance with it open … trying to convince people…

Pawel: … it’s all part of the plan, ha ha!

J.Calleja: …it’s a new style, all part of the show! I doubt many fell for it…

Pawel: Ha! Nice story! Now I would like to venture into some technical topics. If anything, your voice is characterized most often as brilliant, youthful, and especially reminiscent of the old school singing. There is no hint of strain, the voice is fully equalized and flows caressingly through the music. How do you view your vocal development in the coming ten years, with regard to the development of vocal characteristics and with regard to operatic roles you would like to tackle?

J.Calleja: First of all, I would describe my voice as a light lyric instrument, at the moment it’s between a small and medium sized voice. It does have the characteristic of cutting through the orchestra, it runs well. In Italian we say ‘corre bene nell teatro’. It arrives to the audience quite well. That’s important, I think. There are many requests nowadays to make young singers sing louder. But you know what? It’s not the singers’ fault that stages are open, that the orchestra is very loud, and that they have screens in front of the stage. And of course in situations when singers need to lie down, kneel down, stand in the back of the stage when singing, there is going to be a change in acoustics.
Opera has changed a lot in the last couple of years. It takes a lot of argument with the stage director explaining the music is difficult to sing. I’m so scared that people are forgetting what beautiful singing is about, I’m all for the acting, but there needs to be a healthy balance, otherwise one or the other suffers.
As for my development, I will not change repertoire at the moment, I am in the Bel Canto. The biggest thing I do is Puccini’s La bohème, which I don’t do a lot. My next project would be to venture into the suitable French repertoire: Roméo et Juliette, Faust. Werther might still be a bit too heavy.

Pawel: Another rare quality in your voice, even from a historical perspective, is the ability to make beautiful diminuendos. One can always link two voices by describing shared characteristics. I must say that you certainly do have a unique timbre. If I were to link you to another voice, however, I would think of Di Stefano because of your diminuendos. They imply a great deal of naturalness as did Di Stefano’s, for which he is historically quite unique. Is it a natural ability in your case, or is it a result of hard work?

J.Calleja: I think it’s both. Firstly, my voice has a predisposition to sing legato beautifully. Now that is a fact – and before I continue, I want to make it clear that when I speak of my voice I do it as if it were a separate entity. So, secondly, we have worked and studied a lot to be able to achieve those effects. The basic technique is very solid, although having said that, I still have a lot of maturing and learning to do. I usually do manage to give a very good account of what I sing. So going back to the diminuendo, I think it’s partially natural predisposition but also a lot and a lot of work with my maestro. We used to sing every single note from the middle C up to the tenor high C. I would do a diminuendo on each and every note. That’s actually the way to know if my voice is healthy. After a performance, to see if I’m tired, or to check if I pushed, I do a diminuendo on a F sharp, which is strangely more difficult for me than on a high B or high C. I do a diminuendo on a F sharp, and if that’s clean – if the transition from forte, mezzo forte, and the mezza voce is clean, I can conclude that my voice is still intact, that the muscles are healthy.

Pawel: That does concern my next question, actually. One of your idols, Luciano Pavarotti, often referred to the singer’s passaggio, overcoming the bridge between middle and top register. How do you view the tenor passaggio, did you have to technically overcome it?

J.Calleja: I don’t have much trouble with the passaggio, actually. But I notice it when I’m tired. That is where I begin to suffer.

Pawel: That would be that F sharp.

J.Calleja: Yes, between F sharp and B flat. Every singer has his own physical limitations. The difficult notes for me, when I’m tired, are exactly between the F sharp, A flat and B flat. When I have to sing Bellini, Donizetti and even some Verdi lines in Rigoletto, especially Parmi veder le lagrime in Rigoletto..

Pawel: …Which is centered on the passaggio…

J.Calleja: ..Exactly. It’s all on the passaggio, and I have to support a lot with the breath, I have to think the notes before singing them. After F sharp/G you have to cover, putting the voice forward: keeping the breath low and at the same time high as well, it’s a paradox (!), but it does work well for me.

Pawel: How would you describe your preparation for a performance? Do you vocalize daily?

J.Calleja: I do vocalize daily, except when I’m tired. When I’m tired the best thing to do is not to sing. With performances nowadays, again, it’s very difficult. The last 10/15 days before the première consist of rehearsals with orchestra. Also the bad habit arose to have rehearsals at 10.30 in the morning with orchestra. Especially for high voices, it literally takes double the energy to produce the same sound as you would normally do in the middle of the day. Of course there are people who can manage that just fine, no individual is the same. I’m one of those singers that suffer when such things happen, however.

Pawel: Now I would like to ask you a bit of an elaborate question: which artists have influenced you the most directly, artists you’ve actually talked to, teachers etc.
And which artists have influenced you the most indirectly (through their singing for example)?

J.Calleja: Well I haven’t met many artists, because of my age and also because Malta, where I was living, not many opera singers used to go there. My teacher, Paul Asciak, had an enormous influence, of course. He was an artist himself in the 50’s. He had a very respectable career. For me, a spinto-voice with an unusual penchant for singing bel canto, like hearing a heavy voice which tries to modulate and phrase in the Bel Canto style.
Singers, tenors, especially whom I never (could have) met but admire a lot, are Tagliavini, Pertile, Schipa … of course Gigli, Caruso, Pavarotti, Di Stefano. I mean … all the greats really had something, had their roles, their years. I listen to so many recordings; it’s hard to say who had the most influence. Admiration-wise, if I would go for interpretation I would go for Pertile. If I would go for the beauty of the sound, it would be Di Stefano. If I want to go for complete relaxation, leaning back on a sofa, it would be Pavarotti, do you know what I mean?

Pawel: Yes, I do know what you mean. So having said that, would you be able to say what your ‘desert-island’ recording is? The single recording you can’t do without?

J.Calleja: My desert island recording … would be an excerpt, not full recordings. It would be the duet of the baritone and tenor, with Di Stefano in Forza del Destino. Even though it’s really not for him, but the emotion he puts into it … it makes you forget, what some people would call ‘technical shortcomings’, I call them character, hahaha! Another is definitely Pavarotti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Fille du Regiment. Also his Boheme (Puccini) and Del Monaco’s Otello. Corelli’s Di quella pira.

Pawel: Well, the tenor voice is first and foremost associated with ‘glory’, what’s the most glorious tenor voice ever?

J.Calleja: Well, it’s not exactly … you know, a lot of opera die-hards may want to kill me for this, one of the voices that touched me in a way that very few did, is definitely Di Stefano’s, the other one is Mario Lanza. I know that this comes from ‘nowhere’, he didn’t have the operatic career other greats had. He was active in opera, I learned recently. But he wasn’t singing regular seasons, in big theatres like the others, but still… The charisma of this guy, the beauty of his voice, the apparent power which he had, it clearly emerges from recordings. Very recently, thanks to one of the patrons of, actually, I heard his last Otello scene which was recorded just a couple months before he died. And I was really impressed, the colour of the voice, the shading … it was one of the glorious tenor sounds and there lies also the fact that it was thanks to him that I first was attracted to opera. But, as I said: all the major tenors of the last century had moments of which you say: “Wow, this is something special!”

Pawel: I do agree indeed, undeniably there was glory in Lanza’s voice! If you could have dinner right now with three people, with whom would you dinner and why (dead or alive)?

J.Calleja: Definitely, I’d like to sit down with Pavarotti. Although not if I’m really hungry, because Pavarotti and I at the same table would be quite something – hehe. Let’s say it would be difficult to get enough food! Also with Corelli, I think… Just three people? I’d have twenty! … but the third would be Björling…

Pawel: And would you have specific reasons for those three, or would you just basically like to strip their mind?

J.Calleja: Pavarotti because I would like to ask him millions of questions on his voice production, the sheer easiness of it. Björling, because I don’t know how a Swedish guy got this beautiful Italian voice. It was the only voice that reminded Caruso’s wife, Dorothy, of her husband. Corelli … again: just to grab him at his collar and exclaim “Why didn’t you record the complete Otello and/or perform it on stage?!” In my humble opinion his voice was extremely suited to that role.

Pawel: Who is your favourite opera composer and why?

J.Calleja: …I think I would go for Bizet. I love Carmen even though it has become like a musical, it’s being performed so much but it’s just fantastic. Bizet has written the most beautiful duet ever as well, Au fond du temple saint, from Pêcheurs des Perles. He would be the most complete composer in that respect. Of course there is Verdi, Puccini – the great masters. But in my opinion Carmen is really the complete opera.

Pawel: So are you looking forward to sing Don José?

J.Calleja: I hope that my voice matures enough to do it, I am not in the position to sing it right now. Even not in the near future. I just hope I will be able to do it sometime … well actually I’ve already sung it.

Pawel: Ha!

J.Calleja: Ha, but not in opera scenes, just with piano at the Wexford Opera Festival.

Pawel: So, perhaps in 10 years?

J.Calleja: I don’t know, maybe. It totally depends on the voice. You don’t mature your voice by singing the heavier repertoire, you correctly mature by singing the repertoire the voice wants to be in, and then the voice grows. Analogically if you want a small child of 7 years old to be 6 feet tall, first of all the child has to have the potential to be that tall; the genetical predisposition. And then you have to provide sports, nutrition, vitamins and generally a healthy upbringing, so that the child grows well. You can’t try to put him into a machine, to stretch him to 6 feet, that doesn’t work (!). The voice works exactly the same way.

Pawel: That’s clear! If you could be any other voice type for a day outside the tenor fach, to sing anything you’d like, which voice type would you choose?

J.Calleja: I think it would be Rigoletto for Cortigiani, that’s just an amazing moment. But not just that. And actually, if I could choose… I think I would like to have the voice of Cesare Siepi, and be Don Giovanni. I mean, the beauty of his voice in that role is haunting!

Pawel: What are your favourite old Neapolitan songs?

J.Calleja: All of them! I especially like Torna a Surriento, Tarentalle Neapolitana, Core ‘ngrato, O’ sole mio … they all have charm. I am really fond of Marechiare, also Mattinita of course.

Pawel: Are you planning to record them somewhere in the future?

J.Calleja: I think it’s too early to talk about that because there are so many recordings of Neapolitan songs out there, beautifully done, too.

Pawel: You want a more matured voice to portray them?

J.Calleja: I think you need a couple of years under your belt, before presenting a popular song C.D. to the people.

Pawel: Are you interested in new compositions of songs, and perhaps not only classical but also what is called ‘crossover’ nowadays? Do you frown upon events such as the three tenors concerts?

J.Calleja: This Crossover business has been there since the time of Caruso, it has been always there. You know this snobbery about crossover is extremely silly. Everybody; Gigli, Caruso etc. – they all did it in some form or another.

Pawel: So you think it’s a misconception that it is something new?

J.Calleja: I think it’s a big misconception that it’s something new, and I think many people are jealous, they don’t understand it. Especially the first series of the three tenors concerts, they sang beautifully … it was beautiful music. They did it in the original key for most of the music, original arrangement. What I don’t like, alternatively, is when singers change the orchestration.

Pawel: Without a good musical purpose?

J.Calleja: Yes, they change funny things, manipulate it. And it becomes neither meat nor fish. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to go with an orchestra and a stadium, when the artists are professional. There is nothing wrong with that.

Pawel: Yes, and of course it has its function – You mentioned Mario Lanza, he may not have sung opera, but he did popularize the genre.

J.Calleja: I used the Mario Lanza example with my wife, an opera singer, who didn’t know who his voice although she knew of him. So I put his Improvviso on and I asked: ”What do you think about this tenor?” She replied: Oh, beautiful voice … who is he? I said: ”It’s Mario Lanza”. ”What?!”, she surprisingly replied, ”Mario Lanza?”
I have spoken to quite a few singers of his generation, who were lucky enough to hear him live, and they testify it was a magnificent voice, perfectly capable of filling an opera house.
Then of course there is Andrea Bocelli. People disagree whether he is an opera singer. I won’t say he is, nor will I say he isn’t. What I am going to say is: thanks to his recordings with good record sales, record companies can make opera. Without him there wouldn’t be opera recordings. No solo recitals which were recently released. Bocelli, not unlike Lanza, is a good advert for Opera.

Pawel: What are the currently scheduled recordings for yourself and engagements in the near future?

J.Calleja: Well, I am going to sing at the Met (New York), in Münich, in Vienna and London. I am happy to be able to sing in major theatres. We are coming up with repertoire for the next C.D., hopefully it will be out soon. I can’t specify when exactly, because we didn’t set that yet, but you will be the first to know when we do!

Pawel: Okay, great! What are the most negative aspects in your life as a singer up till now and do the positive aspects outweigh them?

J.Calleja: You can have a bad night. Especially nowadays with the fast telecommunication, word travels fast. Also, I think expecting too much too early from a singer is a negative aspect. Nowadays people want a finished product in one, two or three years. You know, it’s just not possible, I am well aware of that and I’m not going to push myself: I am not going to push my voice so that I sound like a tenor in mid 30’s. I am still in my mid- twenties and I will act as such. Being humble, studying and learning as much as possible. The stage is the best ‘teacher.’ So … it’s a bit silly when they compare you with the young Pavarotti or the young Domingo. It doesn’t work that way. I think that is why many talents have gone up so fast and then have gone down equally fast … that’s the danger. Vocal development has to be smeared out over 10, 15 years, not two or three.

Pawel: Did you have a hard time coping with the exposure of your artistry, exposing yourself to critiques for example?

J.Calleja: I have been very lucky with regard to critiques. The percentage of negative ones is extremely low. I always try to sing a good, solid performance, I try to use good technique, I try to rest. I go through enormous lengths, effort to be rested, to sing healthily. Of course, sometimes things still go wrong, for a multitude of reasons, which are beyond my control. So my policy is do everything well, to do my best. If my conscience is okay, I can say afterwards “I gave it my best shot, couldn’t have done anything more for a better result.”

Pawel: That certainly is a very healthy mind set to go with. Have you become to love places you have travelled?

J.Calleja: Yes, but I am always very eager to return to Malta, my home. I love America, I love Charleston, South Carolina. I was also very happy in Copenhagen.
There are many places where I feel at home although in the end home is where my family is.

Pawel: Well, we’re almost through now. I would like to ask you: what is, or would have been your alternative to the singing life?

J.Calleja: The singing life..! Hahaha!

Pawel: Really?

J.Calleja: I can’t imagine doing anything else, really. Since I’ve been doing this, I have become to know it as such a beautiful job, with all its shortcomings. If I were to push myself, it’d be either fishing or I’d be a lawyer, which I was going to study to be, before I started singing. And probably a defence lawyer, because it’s much also about performing, only before a jury. But there is much more competition in that field!

Pawel: Indeed there is! We started out with and I would like to conclude with it as well., besides being a place for opera lovers is also a place for singers nowadays and quite a many aspiring singers as well. What would be your word of advice for aspiring singers, what kind of advice would you have given your younger self, knowing what you know now?

J.Calleja: …Hmm

Pawel: You know … you would say to yourself “Joseph, you will face this or that challenge, the best way to go about it is..!”, or…

J.Calleja: I don’t think I would have much advice… I’d probably want to say to myself not to sing La Boheme too early. I sang it very early. I didn’t damage my voice, but it was one of the few mistakes I made, regarding repertoire. Probably not to have my I Puritani debut in Vienna, without any rehearsals!

Pawel: Ha!

J.Calleja: Although it went reasonably well. Also I would tell myself not to sing every general rehearsal when feeling down. I have my teacher with my all the time – with over than 40 years of singing experience in the opera world. He did save me from many pitfalls.

Pawel: And with regard to your answer, what would be your advice to young singers? I think you have outlined the dangers nowadays, so…

J.Calleja: Well, first of all I feel a bit uncomfortable giving out advice to young singers, who are more or less my age. I wouldn’t like to sound arrogant. Basically, they n/em Yes, I do know what you mean. So having said that, would you be able to say what your ‘desert-island’ recording is? The single recording you can’t do without?J.Calleja:eed to be honest with themselves. They should ask themselves: “Do I have the voice to have a good career?” – that’s very important, because you can work bloody hard, you can be the most musical person in the world, you can be highly intelligent but you do need to have the natural gift. You need to have the voice, otherwise it’s impossible to do it. With all the good teachers, I see so many students wasting time, energy and money trying to become something they’ll never be. If you are sure of having the raw material I think you should go for it. But don’t be too fast, by that I don’t mean “do not sing!” Not singing won’t make you a better singer. Sing in the right repertoire, sing in the right way. It’s a misconception that starting early is wrong. It’s wrong to start in the wrong way, singing the wrong things.

Pawel: Is there anything you would like to mention to conclude?

J.Calleja: Thank you so much for your interest, I am really awestruck most of the time by many of the patron’s posts by their knowledge and passion. I learned so much about “unknown” tenors that I eagerly check out the site for the likes of Audio of the Month.
Keep it up! Thanks to you people opera has a future, we opera singers need to respect that. Without the audience opera wouldn’t exist.

Pawel: And with that, we end. Thanks for your time!

Originally published on, November 2005.