Still Puccini after all these years | Joseph Calleja

Tenor laughs off claims that the Maltese are 'some sort of Aryan pure-blood race'

Photo by Ray Attard
Photo by Ray Attard

Call me superstitious, but I couldn’t help feeling something otherworldly about my drive last Friday morning to an appointment with Joseph Calleja in Valletta. It was as though an army of Wagnerian Valkyries suddenly thundered across the sky, obliterating ‘O Sole Mio’ behind a dark wall of threatening clouds. Lightning flashed, rain came pelting down. And all along, deep rumblings rolled ominously in the distance. 

It was something straight out of the Ring cycle: you could almost hear the tap of the conductor’s baton in preparation for the initial orchestral blast. The heavens, it seems, were preparing me for an encounter with the wonderful world of opera. And who better to epitomise this world than Joseph Calleja, whose voice has reverberated through every major theatre in the world? 

Last week it was heard in Kansas City and Boston; next month it will be Covent Garden in London, followed by Bratislava, Paris, Amsterdam, etc.  

“It sounds glamorous, I know, but trust me, it isn’t really,” the Maltese tenor confides when we finally meet (Malta having been temporarily put on hold by the unexpected downpour) at the Casa Ellul Hotel on Old Theatre Street. And even though speaking almost in sotto voce, his voice still seems to echo around the room: incisive, resolute and precise.   

Later, he will suggest that having such a voice is both a gift and a burden. But for the moment I am interested to know how it all began. As it happens, another famous Maltese tenor – Paul Asciak, who was also Calleja’s first tutor – passed away this week, and Joseph Calleja will sing at his funeral the day after this interview. Like Calleja today, Paul Asciak was something of a local legend in his own time: one of a tiny handful of local personalities to earn success and critical acclaim on the global stage. 

How extensive was his influence on Calleja’s early career?

“I met Paul exactly – hate to say it now, but 27 years ago, when I was 15,” he begins. “I was driven there by a friend so that he could hear me sing. The minute he heard me, he did this with his glasses” – here Calleja presses an imaginary pair of specs into his forehead with his middle finger – “and I thought: I’m either very good, or very bad. It was quite a startled reaction.”

No surprises for guessing the correct answer: “It turned out I was very good. Or at least, my talent was good… I was singing atrociously at the time. But I was born with a very considerable gift. It’s not thanks to me; it’s nature. My achievement was honing that gift, through Paul’s help, and the discipline involved in learning the art of singing in the operatic way…”

As for Asciak’s direct influence, this went well beyond mere vocal coaching. “To be successful in the operatic world you need more skills than just singing. You need diplomacy. Skills in managing your team. There’s a PR team, a team of agencies, managers… then you have to deal with the press… Paul’s help was instrumental in acquiring these skills: and to acquire them precociously, too. I had my debut in opera at the age of 19; that’s a prodigious age to start an operatic career. It’s tantamount to having a 17-year-old prime minister, or a 15-year-old immediately playing for Inter Milan’s first team. You can count the male opera singers who started at that age on one hand. Placido Domingo was one of them, Jussi Bjorling was another…”

But it wasn’t necessarily an easy ride to the top. Training under Paul Asciak, he recalls, involved hours upon hours of hard work at a time. “Ironically, singing was the thing we did least, because he didn’t want to overstrain my voice. What he demanded from me, at age 15, was total discipline and dedication. No nightlife, no friends, no girlfriends.”

He breaks into a grin. “And of course, when you’re 15 your hormones are raging, as a guy… but he was right. A lifestyle of partying and drinking, even just a few nights a week… even if you’re not drinking: just talking, shouting and laughing… if you don’t actually damage your voice, you’ll tire it. You can’t sing opera with a tired voice. So he was very demanding. I remember one time, he ‘caught’ me listening to a recording of Placido Domingo singing ‘Otello’ – I wasn’t supposed to even listen to certain arias, lest they influenced me – and he punched me in the shoulder. Now, I’ve always been a big guy, but Paul, even in his mid-70s…” He smiles again at the memory. “He hurt me, almost. That’s how insistent he was…”

Was Paul Asciak the only early musical influence? No, Calleja replies… and surprises me by citing my old former school as another factor in his musical formation. 

“I’ve always sung since I was three years old. I went to De La Salle, and I remember John Taylor calling me over at assembly…” His tone changes startlingly as he impersonates my old school master of discipline (a voice I remember only too well) to perfection: “’Oy, you… you were too loud on the bus!’ I’d say, ‘but that’s not loud, it’s just the way I talk…’ But he loved me, really. And De La Salle was very musically inclined. There was Daniel Buhagiar with his guitar; we sang Italian pop songs in class; there was the school choir, the school rock band… it was a very musical environment to grow up in. And not just at school, either. Music in Malta – perhaps not opera, but music in general – is very much part of our identity as a society…”

It has, in fact, often been remarked that for such a small population, Malta seems to produce a lot of musicians… Calleja nods emphatically.

“We’re like the Welsh. It’s exactly the same situation, a very small population that produces great musical talent. I don’t know why; perhaps it is the Latin culture colliding with all the others… you have French, Spanish, Portuguese cultures, some Arab culture in there as well. Malta is a pot-pourri of cultures… which is why I kind of grin when people start being xenophobic or racist. Especially when they claim that we’re some sort of Aryan pure-blood race. We’re anything but…”

This unprompted allusion to racism pre-empts a question I intended to ask later. Apart from an illustrious career in opera, Calleja is also a cultural ambassador for Malta: a role he takes very seriously, as attested by his frequent, outspoken interventions on various (sometimes very contentious) issues. One issue he has regularly spoken about is immigration, and his calls for a more humane approach have even entangled him in online spats with precisely the sort of people he has just described.

In a sense this makes Joseph Calleja quite different from the art-form he embodies. Opera and other manifestations of the ‘high arts’ are often viewed as being somehow cocooned from the more unpleasant realities of daily life (even if, paradoxically, most operas deal precisely with those realities). Given the events of the past two weeks – in which over 700 people drowned while attempting the crossing from Africa to Europe – does he view opera as being possibly relevant to the harsh realities of today?

“More than opera that’s relevant, I would say it is the personality who is singing. Whether we like it or not – whether I like it or not – in Malta I have become one of the very few recognisable international personalities. And I do get recognised. In big cities like New York, for instance. I meet people who recognise me all the time. So in public, I have to be careful how to conduct myself. Thankfully I don’t have any skeletons in the closet. My idea of a good time is to enjoy the odd bottle of wine (maybe two, sometimes, when I’m not singing) with friends or family…”

Apart from the pressure it inevitably exerts on privacy, fame also brings with it a certain responsibility. 

“In Malta, I try to use the influence, so to speak… not to educate, because that would be patronising, but to serve as an eye-opener for certain issues. I think that, in truth, Malta is not really racist, as much as ignorant. Part of the population really believes that ‘lampuki’ will eat rotting cadavers in the water… I mean, all these folk who go on the various media: blogs, online comments, tweets, and so on. All they have to do is imagine themselves in that sea. Or, worse still, imagine their children in that sea. Unless they are completely psychotic, I think they would instantaneously realise they are being completely unreasonable. Almost bordering on the criminal…”

Calleja stresses that Malta is historically associated with mass migration anyway. “We have on frequent occasions migrated to other countries: Australia, Canada, America, the UK. People might argue that it was different, because the migration was legal. But what if we had had no choice? Would we still have gone? Well, of course. Of course we would have tried everything to ameliorate our situation… to give our children the best quality of life possible…” 

But there is another side to the coin, he adds. Just as he feels compelled to try and ‘open eyes’ locally, Joseph Calleja is also quick to defend Malta from criticism overseas. 

“I don’t say these things to get an ego-boost, or a pat on the back. In fact sometimes I open my mouth on unpopular issues, when I could have just said nothing. But I think that the truth is not being told, and when Malta is featured in a bad light, I always spring to its defence. Is it cliché? Yes, it is. But it’s the truth. I am patriotic, and I truly love this island.”

He pauses. “Not everyone on this island,” he carries on with a laugh. “There are a few people I would gladly feed to the sharks…”

Meanwhile Calleja’s diplomatic efforts as cultural ambassador have by no means been limited to immigration. His voice has also been heard defending Malta over the contentious hunting issue… in reaction to a particularly damning news report on German station RTL. 

“It portrayed Malta as a bunch of troglodyte barbarians who blast everything out of the sky. Now, I went hunting a couple of times in my teens and early twenties. And back then illegal hunting was much more rife. Again, it was mostly due to ignorance. I saw hunters leaving bird carcasses in the field, without even picking them up. It was bad. Really bad. But by the time the RTL programme came out, there had been huge improvements. I stopped hunting some 16, 17 years ago, but I still take long walks in the countryside. In the last two years I didn’t witness one single hunting irregularity. Am I saying it doesn’t happen at all? Of course it happens. But much less nowadays, and it definitely doesn’t translate into the notion of an entire country of barbarians who shoot everything that flies.” 

Calleja however surprised many by coming out against spring hunting during the referendum campaign…. earning criticism (from hunters) regarding an apparent inconsistency. 

“I’m not against hunting in general, but yes, I declared my position against hunting in spring. Why? For one thing, turtle dove and quail have declined in Malta… there’s no longer the ‘passa’ [migration] of older times. That’s my opinion, by the way: it doesn’t mean I’m right. Meanwhile the migration I see each year tends to be birds of prey – honey buzzards, owls, and so on – and other birds like bee-eaters, hoopoes, golden orioles… and you can’t shoot any of them. So if the turtle dove and quail have decreased to such an extent, then why have a spring season at all, when the spring season is only for those two species? I respectfully disagreed with the hunting association, and allow me to repeat: it doesn’t mean I am right. Not everything I say is to be quoted in the Bible. But I don’t think I’m wrong on this. I think that birds, in the spring season, should be allowed to migrate peacefully without being hit, accidentally or not, by shots…”

What was his reaction to the referendum result? “I was not surprised, because it is not in the Maltese culture really to take to the countryside. Our idea of a ‘walk’ is to get into the car and drive around… a ‘passiggjata fil-karozza’. So the bulk of the population didn’t really care… and the hunters cared more. It all boiled down to that, really. All the same: so far there were three reported illegalities… and yes, there may be more unreported ones… but anyone with some sense will have to admit that illegal hunting has drastically declined. But in my honest opinion, the game is no longer worth the candle in spring.”

For all his vocal interventions as cultural ambassador, it is for opera that Joseph Calleja’s voice remains best known. And opera is not exactly free from its own internal controversies. Calleja himself may even be viewed as ‘controversial’ within that sphere, in that (like Pavarotti before him) he incorporates other genres of music into his live concerts and recordings. To the purist this is almost sacrilege. How does he himself view the juxtaposition? Does his diplomatic role also extend to being an ambassador for opera to a wider public?

“This is how I see the analogy. Imagine the latest super-charged Range Rover – which in fact I recently drove in the UK. It’s fantastic, a big hulk of a machine that does zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds. Then you have a Formula 1 car. Both are incredible statements of automotive engineering. But one is used on the road – or off-roading, if you like – while the other is strictly used for track only. It doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. They’re both cars, they both drive, they both have wheels...”

But then, shouldn’t they also be kept apart? I give him a particular example from memory. Some years ago, US pop singer Michael Bolton sang ‘Vesti La Giubba’ with Calleja during his annual summer Malta concert. Bolton is undeniably a talented singer in his own musical sphere, but the mismatch in voices was (in my own, untutored opinion) rather glaring. So isn’t there a danger that by juxtaposing the two musical genres, one also exposes the shortcomings of the other?

“Let me put it this way: yes, you’re right that the way Michael Bolton sang it was not the correct way… he’s not an opera singer. But he doesn’t claim to be an opera singer, either, and there lies the difference. The way he approaches it is: ‘listen, I’m a pop singer with a great voice for my ballads, but I love opera. This is my… not contribution, but tribute, if you like:  a pop voice singing operatic songs’.

Is the result great? No, it’s not. Is it good enough for entertainment? Yes it is. And that’s why I call the Michael Boltons, the pop artists, my ‘Trojan horses’… to introduce opera to people who otherwise would never have given it a chance. I’m here today, talking about opera, thanks to cross-over artists like Mario Lanza and Andrea Bocelli. And the Three Tenors. They were criticised, they received a lot of flak. Cynics would say they were making a million dollars per concert… and it was true. In some cases they made more than that. But it was a win-win situation. They brought opera to the masses. No one can deny that…”

At the same time, popular perceptions of opera suggest that it really does occupy quite a small, exclusive niche as an art form. I am aware that there is plenty of contemporary opera being written, but the names that still reverberate in this world remain firmly rooted in a lost Classical Age: Verdi, Puccini, Leoncavallo, etc. At a glance, then, opera seems to have been unable to reinvent itself as an art form reflecting the realities of its own age. It needs other genres to prop it up…

Calleja acknowledges that Classical Opera still dominates the international circuit, and that this is unlikely to change any time soon. “As to why we’re still singing Puccini and Verdi… the most direct answer I can give is that nobody has composed any music that can rival them. Simple as that. No composer alive today has composed any piece of music that is that grand, that beautiful, that easy on the ear, but complicated at the same time. Same for Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Tchaikovsky… these people had nothing to distract them. No Instagram, Facebook, Twitter accounts… they didn’t have planes, if they travelled, they travelled by horse-drawn carriage. Everything was slower… and it’s like wine. When you mature a great wine slowly, in the right conditions, the results are great.”

Doesn’t this also mean that opera’s days are numbered?

“Let there be no mistake. Slowly, slowly, opera is, if not a dying art form, a form which is changing a lot. And unless opera is going to have ambassadors who can take their voices to huge crowds, to propagate the art form and introduce it to new people… opera will die a slow death.”