Joseph Calleja was born in Attard, Malta, on 22 January 1978. His first encounter with the tenor voice was when he was only 12 or 13, through Mario Lanza in the film “The Great Caruso”. He joined a choir, started piano lessons and solfeggio, and was eventually recommended to the Maltese tenor Paul Asciak, with whom he began studies in 1994.
Asciak later recalled Calleja’s schooling, praising his development: “Over a period of three years Joseph’s voice assumed many of the qualities of this old school of singing, and developed beautifully into a light, flexible and mellow instrument with both a distinctive timbre and a promising ringing top.”
Joseph made his performance debut in May 1997, at the very tender age of 19. He sang as Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth at the Astra Theatre, Gozo, Malta.
In the remainder of 1997, he enjoyed success at the Belvedere competition in Wien and did a concert tour of Italy, focusing on operatic arias. He also sang in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda with the Netherlands Reisopera.
Calleja won first prize in the 1998 Caruso Competition in Milano, and was a prize winner in Plácido Domingo’s 1999 Operalia International Opera Competition. As his fame grew, Calleja landed roles in more prominent productions: l’Elisir d’amore in Valletta, the premiere of Azio Corghi’s “Isabella” at Pesaro’s Rossini Festival, and Zandonai’s “I Cavalieri di Ekubu” at the Wexford Festival.
The year of 1999 was significant for Joseph. He made his US debut as Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi in Spoleto, Charleston, and was a prize-winner in the Placido Domingo Operalia Competition. Calleja also made his German debut as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni at the Regensburg Festival.
After the turn of the millennium, he sang for the first time at the Bayerische Staatsoper München and the Frankfurt Opera as Rodolfo (2002). Following these performances, Joseph debuted as Rigoletto’s Duke at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen.
Albums & Recordings
Calleja’s first Decca recording, Tenor Arias, with conductor Riccardo Chailly, was released internationally in spring 2004. Chailly remarked:
When I first heard him I knew I encountered a new type of a voice. A voice that could match the past, in the tradition of the old way of singing at the turn of the last century, together with the taste of today’s music making.
Several more Decca albums followed, and the label signed Calleja exclusively. After the first recital album, the next followed in 2005, entitled The Golden Voice (2005). A few years later, Calleja recorded several full opera albums, such as I Capuleti e i Montecchi in 2009 and Simon Boccanegra with Plácido Domingo. Joseph then took a recording hiatus for 5 years, eventually returning with another solo recital disc: The Maltese Tenor (2011). One year later, Joseph released a tribute album to his childhood hero, Mario Lanza. The album was named after one of Lanza’s most iconic songs, Be My Love.
More Performances & Awards
In 2009, Joseph started a tradition of annual concerts in Malta. Reminiscent of “Pavarotti and friends”. These concerts feature Calleja joined by many non-operatic artists, including Michael Bolton, Lucio Dalla, Ronan Keating, and Rebecca Ferguson.
He was the featured soloist at the 2011 Nobel Prize Concert in Stockholm, and was selected by the Maltese President to perform a private concert for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.
World capitals such as Malta, Paris, Munich, and Amsterdam have all welcomed Joseph Calleja’s outdoor concerts. He has sung at a number of summer festivals, including the Salzburg Festival and The Proms in London. He appeared at Last Night of the Proms in 2012 at Royal Albert Hall, and in 2013 at the Proms in the Park.
This period continued to be fruitful for the now-established tenor. Calleja was named Gramophone Artist of the Year in 2012, and Malta honored him by appointing him the country’s first cultural ambassador. He was also named a brand ambassador for Air Malta just one year later. He then teamed up with Malta’s Bank of Valletta to form the BOV Joseph Calleja Foundation, a charity that assists needy children and families.
In 2013, Calleja sang at the Kennedy Center Honors in tribute to honoree Martina Arroyo, sharing the stage with artists like Snoop Dogg and performing for a prestigious audience, one that included President Barack Obama. The Maltese tenor went on to sing for more high-profile audiences. In that same year, he performed at the Supreme Court of the United States for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as part of the Supreme Court Musicale.
Joseph Calleja Today
Joseph Calleja’s voice is maturing gradually without losing its most important qualities, such as artful phrasing and a radiant timbre often praised by reviewers. The voice is marked by a distinctively bright shine, one that very much reminds of his native Malta. As a skilled interpreter, Calleja’s mastery of dynamics delights audiences all over the world.
Almost two decades into his professional singing career, he recently started to add somewhat heavier roles to his repertory, such as Riccardo from Verdi’s un Ballo in Maschera and Don José from Bizet’s Carmen. Nowadays, Joseph Calleja is an international tenor of significant fame and continues to be in great demand at top venues around the world.