Warm Up: Joseph Calleja Keeps His Feet on the Ground (or the Elliptical)

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Traditionally, tenors are seen as the most fastidious of operatic personalities—particularly when they reach the theater on a performance night: Caruso’s pre-show ritual was a famous routine of gargling salts, a of vaporizer bicarbonate of soda and glycerin, a cold water gargle, nasal sprays and throat swabs, followed by a strong Egyptian cigarette.

However, Joseph Calleja is one tenor breaks that mold. “We’re not saving lives,” he explains from his hotel in New York (he launches his latest album, The Maltese Tenor, at (Le) Poisson Rouge tonight). “We might be making them easier by bringing joy to people, but I don’t have this vision of opera like it’s the most important thing.” And while Calleja is all business and art onstage, he’s considerably more low-key, even a half-hour before. Read on to find out what keeps him grounded and fresh.

The Fit Tenor Sings
The day before a show I do 30 minutes on the elliptical machine. You try not to do too-heavy circuit training workouts or heavy weightlifting workouts; it will leave lactic acid around your body and that’s not ideal the day of performance. You want to feel fresh and not tired as much as possible. But easy cardio, like enough to get the circulation going, not only doesn’t tire you but it circulates the blood around your body, it helps with relaxation, it helps the healing process, it does everything.

My cousin is my personal trainer. He has moved to a different place, but we still talk about routines and I have since also got another personal trainer here in New York which really helps to maintain a decent shape. From my heaviest weight, [I’ve lost] 25 kilos, which is about 55, 60 pounds. I still have 15 to go.

Running to the Classics?
I have to get one of these iPod Nanos so I can listen [to music at the gym]. I just carry headphones sometimes, when I can remember, and then I just plug them in the device at the gym and watch some TV that the cardio machine is plugged into. If there’s nothing, I just do my workout and I just think and be, in a way, unplugged.

Già la Mensa è Preparata
When I’m singing, I’m always careful. You have to be healthy throughout the season—of course, in summer I eat all the stuff I can’t eat when I’m singing. Even though I study, even though I’m working out, in summer you let go with the barbecues, you let go with the wine, because you don’t have performances. When you’re singing and have professional commitments, you can’t do that.

The Finer Diner
By that I don’t want to give the impression that I have crazy requests or weigh my foods, no. I just eat normally, but I try to go easy on the processed foods, on the spicy foods and on the carbs, not just because of the weight issue but also because foods like pizza can give lots of heartburn in my case. And they get heavier on the stomach; it takes a lot to digest. I just try to eat normally. If I have the choice, probably some chicken or meat and some spinach and carrots or peas, very basic stuff for two reasons: they’re digested quickly and you can find them pretty much anywhere. When I have an apartment, I cook for myself because it’s terribly easy, when I’m in a hotel I have to order out. When the food in a hotel is too spicy, I’ll just get some sushi, which is a good alternative.

I usually wake up to not a huge breakfast but a big breakfast. I would have some fruit, probably an omelet and a hot chocolate, because the sugars inside they just prep you up. Some singers say the milk gives you phlegm, I don’t have that problem with milk; it doesn’t really effect me that way.

Mental Break
I’m reading just at the moment a Dan Brown novel. It’s really entertaining; it’s called Deception Point. When I have to go to 20 different cities in the past six weeks as I’ve been doing, it’s really good entertaining fun that doesn’t have too much psychology about it. Believe it or not, I’m a very sensitive person and if I’m reading sometimes heavy stuff, it actually effects my mood. And I sometimes try to keep regular fun reading sometimes.

Ease Up on the Warm Up
When I’m in good voice, I actually don’t like warming up too much. Enough to get the blood flowing and enough to warm up my throat, but not really half an hour or an hour of scales, like some singers do. My voice is very natural, so I don’t have to fight a lot when I’m well. When I’m unwell, I have to work a bit harder to get rid of the junk that’s in my throat.

Words to Live By
I have a very pragmatic and down to earth view of what I do. I primarily do it because, of course, I love the music, but also I was born with this talent. I don’t have this kind of vision like some of my colleagues that this is the whole world. I try to look beyond that, and I think that outlook helps me keep my feet planted on the ground and not to take myself too seriously. I do take my art very seriously, I do take my singing very seriously—but not myself.