Sitting down with 40-year-old Joseph Calleja

Joseph Calleja Interview at 40

Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja made his debut as Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth at the precious age of nineteen. Today, twenty-one years later, he has sung over 25 roles in the biggest theaters in the world.  His debut solo-album under Riccardo Chailly was released when he was just twenty-four. In the meantime, he produced 5 more solo-albums. We sit down and discuss his 7th solo-album, “Calleja Verdi”, which is about to be released.

Pawel: In November 2005 we sat down for an interview in Amsterdam. You were singing the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto. You were 27. You had recorded your first Decca album with Riccardo Chailly a few ears earlier. What did you and did you not see coming?

Joseph: I didn’t imagine the voice would make such an important “evolution” without losing the intrinsic qualities that make it special.

Pawel: If you could travel back in time to pay 27-year-old Joseph a visit, would you have any advice for him?

Joseph: Yes and no. I am as much a product of my mistakes as much as I am the product of the good decisions I made.

Pawel: Besides the voice, how does 40-year-old Joseph differ from 27-year-old Joseph, as a person and artist?

Joseph: Nowadays I try to focus more on my general characterization on stage rather than focus on my voice as my technique grows stronger.

Pawel: So now it is February 2018. You are singing Mario Cavadarossi in Puccini’s Tosca at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. You recently turned 40. And you just recorded your sixth solo album with Ramón Tebar: Calleja Verdi. How do you feel about where you are now?

Joseph:  I have been singing professionally since I was 19 and (knock on wood), I have never suffered from vocal trauma, vocal damage or long bouts of repeated cancellations. I am thankful for what I achieved and look forward to continue achieving more in the pursuit of artistic excellence and fulfillment.

Pawel: How would you describe your current artistic relation to Verdi, especially in contrast to Puccini?

Joseph: Puccini and Verdi are more alike than you would think when it comes (exclusively) to vocal production and projection. Both require stamina, beauty and legato.

Pawel: The Verdi Calleja album, with Il Trovatore being a bit of an exception, focuses on excerpts from late Verdi operas (Aida, La forza del destino, Don Carlos, Otello). With Verdi operas of this caliber, one could imagine arias from other operas would fit in well enough, even if it’s early Verdi, such as Ernani’s “Mercè, dilette amici” all the way up to the cabaletta “O tu che l’alma adora”. It seems the deliberate choice here was “more arias from fewer operas” rather than “many arias from many operas”. What’s the thinking behind the selection?

Joseph: When doing an album one has to choose its direction and composition. We went ahead with lengthy excerpts wherever possible.

Pawel: Your voice has up till now been mainly regarded as a lyric instrument. What’s your answer to critics who say this heavier repertory is a bridge too far?

Joseph: Not at all. It is undeniable that my voice has undergone quite the evolution since 20 years ago and few will deny that especially the middle voice hasn’t acquired quite a lot of heft. There is absolutely no harm in expressing these qualities on a recording.

Naturally this doesn’t mean that I am going to sing Otello on stage next year, it is actually more likely that I will not touch that role for at least another decade. Having said that, things like Trovatore and Aida will come sooner than that.

Pawel: Tell us what tenors, are the ideal Radamès, Manrico, Don Alvaro, Don Carlos, and Otello. And what about their take on these roles made them ideal?

Joseph: A lyric/full lyric tenor with a good sized voice can tackle all the above roles in a career that is meticulously planned. Di Stefano had the quintessential light/lyric voice when he started out, and yet he ended up being one of the great interpreters of operas like La forza del destino.

A good example is also the Great Plácido Domingo – he started out as a lyric tenor but went on to sing a very varied repertoire, while making most of it his own.

Pawel: Were these picks part of your preparation for this album? How did you prepare?

Joseph: They were the choice of everyone involved and preparation is always loads of study!

Pawel: Francesco Tamagno created Verdi’s Otello. Verdi found him too loud and brash at times and would implore him to sing more softly. Would you venture to guess how Verdi would feel about how his music is sung today? 

Joseph: Verdi would be no doubt astounded by some of the size of the venues we sing in and the high tuning of orchestras. He would also probably appreciate how much respect his works are still receiving, at least from the musical side.

Pawel: What would you want listeners of Verdi Calleja to walk away with?

Joseph: Beauty of tone and faithfulness to the composer and the text.

Pawel: You are hereby magically constrained to sing only one role from the Verdi Calleja album for the rest of your life. Which do you choose and why?

Joseph: Otello. There is so much beauty in that role and it is indeed the perfect opera.

Pawel: In 2005, I asked you for your fondest onstage memory up till then. You said it was every time you sing how you want to sing, because the audience can feel that. “They know you are in form and react accordingly”, you said. Does that answer still apply?

Joseph: It certainly still applies. There is something quite magical when the voice and technique are both in top form.

Pawel: In different countries, such as Holland or England, you often sing their national favorites, and people love you for it. Do you feel you’re tending towards being a singer of the people, in the vein that Beniamino Gigli declared himself to be? If so, how did this grow? Are you looking for ways to do more of that?

Joseph: I love bringing joy to people. Its also why I launched the Bank of Valletta/Joseph Calleja foundation, to help young Maltese artists from the whole spectrum of the performing arts. We also help underprivileged children. Since then I am also the proud cofounder of the Drake/Calleja trust and also helped the Inle trust to help children in Burma.

My management does complain that I do too many charity events a year! The truth is that “charity” is just another word for the simple gesture of helping others…

Pawel: Your dear teacher and mentor Paul Asciak passed away almost 3 years ago. How have you been coping with his loss artistically? Are there marked differences with how you have gone about your career and singing, now that he is absent?

Joseph: I could tell you something fancy but I have simply blocked out Paul’s death to deal with the pain and loss. He was such an important person in my life that, much like what happened with the premature death of my father, I simply haven’t dealt with it in toto yet.

Pawel: If Paul were with us today, what would you want to say to him? What do you think he’d say to you?

Joseph: No question he would be extremely proud and insist on me making more time to study. Something I still do, of course.

Pawel: Is there any part of you that is tired of this career yet? If so, are you looking to change anything in the coming future?

Joseph: I am living my dream and I am privileged to be doing what I love most, but nothing is perfect – not being able to return to my home and to my beloved children after a long day of rehearsals or a performance is one of the sacrifices I have to make.

Pawel: You released several albums. You’re singing at the biggest opera houses in the world. What’s next? What are you looking forward to? 

Joseph: More roles, more albums and many other things to come. I just turned 40 and this decade is said to be the best for a tenor, so I am very excited!

Pawel: Great! Wishing you more successes in the coming decade. Let’s do this again when you are 50. 

Joseph Calleja’s album “Verdi” is out now and can be purchased and listened to here.