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World-famous Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja will be singing the role of Macduff in Verdi’s opera Macbeth at Teatru Astra on Thursday 25 and Saturday 27 October 2007. Both performances start at 19.30hrs. Dinner with Joseph Calleja and the other singers taking part in Macbeth will be held after the first performance for a limited number of patrons on a first come first served basis. Teatru Astra is presenting Macbeth to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Joseph Calleja’s debut as a tenor in the same theatre singing the same role. Maria Frendo catches up with Joseph Calleja in an exclusive interview.

Trying to fix an appointment with Joseph Calleja is like hoping to find asparagus on the steppes of the Caucasus in the dead of winter. It is not because this world-class tenor is unapproachable or inaccessible. Nothing could be further from the truth; but such is the demanding schedule of his scintillating career that the moment the man finds some free time he hops on a boat with his family and gets away from it all sailing in his beloved Mediterranean. Good for him, he sure deserves it and much much more.

The meteoric rise to super stardom of Joseph Calleja is an indisputable fact. Equally indisputable facts are his humility, sympathetic nature, innate goodness, and a boyish charm that is irresistible. Talking to him is great fun. There is no hint of the aloofness and snobbery one almost invariably expects to find when talking to superstars. Singers, especially, for a reason known best to themselves seem to be alarmingly notorious for this kind of obnoxious behaviour. In the case of Joseph Calleja, his simplicity and humble nature are an eloquent testimony to his true greatness. We speak over the internet, and when I ask him whether he would be willing to help us publicise the forthcoming Macbeth at Teatru Astra he jumps at the idea, brushing aside my customary apologetics, making me feel at home as I have always felt with him, ever since I accompanied him at the piano throughout all the rehearsals that led to his debut.

Joseph Calleja made his debut at our theatre, Teatru Astra, exactly ten years ago in May 1997. Then, as a young, brilliant, 19 year-old man studying vocal technique with Mro Paul Asciak, he auditioned for Prof Mro Joseph Vella, musical director at the Astra, who immediately offered him the role of Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth. Joseph remembers vividly the telling moment when he went to Prof Vella’s house in Rabat and sang through the whole role, including all the ensembles, technically known as concertanti. He recalls with still palpable pleasure the incredible excitement he felt when at such a tender age, barely out of his school uniform, he found himself performing alongside world class singers as Mark Rucker (Macbeth), Pamela Kucenic (Lady Macbeth), and Hao Jiang Tian (Banquo) that fateful May in 1997. The rest is history.

I tell Joseph that even before he was approached by the organising committee to consider singing the role of Macduff, Teatru Astra had already decided on staging Macbeth in his honour, to celebrate the first decade since his debut at the same theatre singing the same role. Astra’s stage had provided a platform for a virtually unknown young tenor of great promise to launch what has turned out to be an extraordinary career. Asking him what had been his feelings and expectations on his debut Joseph smiles and says that he cannot even believe that ten years have actually flown by! In fact, he says that looking back over this past decade does give him the confidence and assurance that he is doing things the right way. Having said that, he quickly states that he is facing the future knowing that he has loads more to learn. The tone of his beautiful voice becomes suddenly serious, and he does say something that all artists know so well, namely, that it is so very easy for things to go horribly wrong if one falls prey to complacency.

The conversation then switches to the production of La Bohème two years ago at Teatru Astra when Joseph and his talented, lovely wife Tatiana sang the principal roles of Rodolfo and Mimí respectively to a full and enthusiastic house. It was the first time that Joseph had come back to the Astra after his debut eight years earlier. During his first rehearsal under the expert direction of Joseph Vella and Joseph Bascetta, Joseph told me that treading the Astra boards again felt like coming back home. A signal tribute indeed, coming from an artist of his calibre, one for whom artistically sacred places such as Covent Garden and the Met have become a regular feature on his packed calendar. I tell him that it is indeed a great honour and an equally great privilege for the Astra that he should accept to sing in the same place that had launched him. Joseph quickly plays down any notions of grandeur I try to endow him with, and with candid honesty tells me that for him every single theatre that he has ever sung in is equally important, irrespective of name, fame, and tradition. With characteristic perception he says that in the end it is the artists and their audience that make a theatre, not vice versa.

Coming back to the present, I ask him how he imagines audience expectations to differ, if indeed they will, from those of ten years ago, when they will flock to the Astra to hear him sing the role that catapulted him on to the world stage. He promptly answers that they will now expect to find a more refined, polished, and secure artist than they did ten years ago. With mock horror he quickly adds that he will definitely be more nervous than he had been when, as an uninitiated young singer he had faced the public for the first time. The conversation becomes somewhat technical at this point as we discuss that, in the earlier operas, Verdi seems to have given the principal role to a baritone rather than to a tenor. Nabucco, Attila, and Macbeth are examples of this – perhaps because the tenor voice is too bright to be acquainted with an anti-hero the likes of a Nabucco or an Attila or, for that matter, a Macbeth. Joseph agrees, but he also points out accurately that Macbeth is blessed with one of the most beautiful laments that Verdi ever wrote for the tenor voice. Given that the tenor part is not so extensive in this opera, he goes on to tell me that it is not one of his signature roles as La Bohème or Rigoletto are. However, the fact that it is the first role he ever sang makes it very important for him, and he has a very special place for it in his heart.

It does not take a genius to realise that Joseph is a very busy man. Flitting across six countries in two continents in as many months, singing roles in operas as diverse as Thaïs, Macbeth, and La Traviata, with a few concerts thrown in for good measure, apart from twice replacing Rolando Villazon at the eleventh hour, I could not help commenting on the demands that such punishing singing schedules make on him. With a barely perceptible touch of childlike complaint that makes him so charming, he agrees wholeheartedly, and says that discipline, sacrifice, nerves, and insecurities have become a diet he has grown used to and learnt to digest with reasonable ease. No sooner has he said this than the child in him is taken over by the mature adult that he is and he admits that he is finding it increasingly difficult to stay away from his young family for such long periods. He also adds that he hates being away from Malta for long stretches of time. With a ringing pride in his voice, he says that he just needs “our sea, and our people to recharge my batteries”. It is as simple and as telling as that.

At this point I could not help but point out to him that, although in tenor terms he is still a baby, as it were, he has effortlessly scaled heights that are such stuff as dreams are made on, as the Bard puts it. He is very quick to tell me that he never expected to achieve so much in so little time. Yet, these achievements, amongst which is an exclusive contract with the giant recording company Decca, have not stopped Joseph from dreaming to reach further major goals. However, Joseph’s feet are firmly rooted in solid ground, and he knows all too well that managing to stay at the level he has reached in the present will help him tread on the unsteady ground of the future with more security, and assurance. Being very down to earth he says that there will naturally be many ups and downs. However, he is confident that experience and rigorous commitment to his art will enable him to ride the waves when the going gets tough.

Despite his young age (he is only 28) Joseph has already managed to build a vast array of operatic roles, ranging from the bel canto types in Donizetti and Bellini, to the more lyrical Verdi and Puccini, with a host of other quasi-impressionistic roles in French opera of the late nineteenth century. I also mention that he is equally proficient singing Lieder and the symphonic repertoire. In fact, Joseph will be flying out to Denmark the day after the second performance of Macbeth to sing the tenor part in Verdi’s Requiem. Switching from an opera to a concert in a day cannot be a very easy task, and I tell Joseph that there must be a very strong musical and intellectual preparation when he is gearing up to sing not only different roles and parts but also different genres. Joseph readily agrees, pointing out that preparation is the key to success. In fact, he tells me that right now he is working with the chief repetiteur from the Vienna Statsopera here in Malta on new repertoire while revising and further bettering roles he has been singing for years. He astutely observes that there is always something new to learn, especially from ‘old’ pieces one has been singing for a long time. He also confirms that he always approaches a working session with the aim of learning something new rather than adopting an air of complacency that can come so naturally when one is tackling pieces one has sung so many times.

Time passes, yet it seems as if I have just started my conversation with Joseph. Realising that I have been perhaps too demanding on him, I ask him whether he has any special message that he wishes to convey to the hundreds of patrons who will be flocking to Teatru Astra to hear him sing for them. He laughs in that natural, spontaneous way of his and says that, although it may sound a cliché, he admits readily and disarmingly that he is really and truly in love with Malta and Gozo, with the islands’ culture and, more importantly, with their people. Parting on a high pitch trembling with the emotion and excitement that is the musical equivalent of a cadenza, Joseph says that having the ability to thrill the Maltese audience during a night at the opera or at one of his concerts is a privilege that he respects and treasures.

Such is the simple greatness and the great simplicity of this man. I do not really care that there is no asparagus on the steppes of the Caucasus in the dead of winter. What matters is that, come rain come shine, Malta has its very own Joseph Calleja. Come and hear him sing. You are not likely to forget the experience once you have responded to it.

Tickets can be obtained from:

Teatru Astra: 21550985; [email protected]
Anthony D’Amato, St John’s Street, Valletta: 21234348
Gozo Information Office, South Street, Valletta: 21227313