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Coming from a small island without a great opera tradition, tenor Joseph Calleja’s love of opera was inspired by a film starring the great Mario Lanza.
Joseph Calleja has every right to be surprised by his success. “There is a lot of music on an amateur level in Malta, but it does lack professional singers,” says the Maltese Tenor.
“There’s no conservatoire because the place is so small and there is no demand. After all, we are only 200,000 people, so I had to start from scratch, jumping from one stone to another.”
Since his debut at the age of 19 on Gozo, the charming island neighbouring Malta, the 26-year-old Calleja has won prizes at major European singing competitions and performed at many of the world’s greatest opera houses before striking gold with an acclaimed debut album, Tenor Arias on Decca.
His success is all the more remarkable when you consider he met and performed with opera singers for the first time at his debut in 1997.
“I was 19 and I thought I had the biggest voice in the world. But when I heard them, I thought: ‘My God, my voice is so small!’” he recalls.
By then Calleja had been singing for around seven years, his passion for opera sparked by the fantastic Mario Lanza in the film The Great Caruso.
“I was at my uncle’s house – he put on this movie and Lanza’s enormous character jumping from the television screen really drew my attention. I tried to imitate him and I lost my voice for two weeks!”
As a youngster, he listened to as many great singers as he could: Gigli, Björling, Carlo Bergonzi and, of course, Pavarotti.
“I haven’t modelled my voice on anyone specifically, but Pavarotti’s recordings from the ’70s are just fantastic – mind blowing.”
It took a special teacher to turn a keen teenager into a mature artist. Paul Asciak, with whom Calleja still studies, was one of the pioneering singers in Welsh National Opera in the ’50s.
“He deserves 80 per cent of the credit for where I am. He gave me advice on the whole issue – how to treat agents, everything. He saw my talent and he wouldn’t let me ruin it – after all, I was 14 and I thought my voice was God’s gift to opera.”
The young Calleja, though, still had barriers to battle through. A shotput and discus champion as well as a national basketball player, he had a tough image to live up to: “I didn’t tell my school friends at all, but my basketball mates started singing in an opera style every time I came in to train,” Calleja laughs, blushing at the memory. “They were just taking the mickey out of me.”
But as the cliché goes, he’s pretty much had the last laugh. Straight after his 1997 debut, he won the Belvedere Competition in Vienna and in 1998, the Caruso Competition in Milan. 2004 was a year of debuts including the Bayerische Staatsoper Munich as Rodolfo in La Bohème, Covent Garden as the Duke in Rigoletto and, of course, a thrilling CD of Italian arias.
With the benefit of experience, the realities of the classical world have tempered Calleja’s youthful infallibility and he knows how lucky he is to perform for a living.
“My ultimate aim is to achieve the full potential of my voice. If that makes me the best tenor in the world, I’m not complaining, but it’s not the main goal.”