Joseph Calleja, a Maltese tenor in his mid 30s, has a voice unlike any other in opera today. Critics point to a rapid vibrato combined with an appealing sweetness as well as that unique "ping" that comes through on the high notes.
Sitting back in the WQXR Café recently, just moments after his performance of two vocal standards (see below), the burly singer surmised that his voice is reaching a new level of maturity. "I think that the voice has matured as of late, in the last couple of years, as it should," he said. "The tenor voice develops between the ages of 30 and 35 and it’s in its in its first prime. Then you enjoy the prime until you’re 55."
Calleja recently assumed the title role of Charles Gounod's Faust at the Metropolitan Opera, and is also enjoying the buzz generated by "The Maltese Tenor," his third solo album of operatic arias. As the old-Hollywood reference of the album title suggests, some find Calleja's vocalism has a classic, golden-age character. He doesn't deny that he has modeled his approach on singers from the early and middle part of the 20th Century.
"The press is partially right," he explained. "When were these operas written? What I sing was written between 1850 and 1925 or 1930. Obviously, if I want to sing these operas the way the composer wanted them to be sung, which is, I presume, the quest and the target of any conductor and cast, then you have to go and see what these [earlier singers] did. At the same time you try and dispose of the exaggerations and liberties they took."
Calleja rattles off a list of singers who have influenced him including Enrico Caruso, Giuseppe DeStafano and Jussi Bjorling.
Yet Calleja's first exposure to opera through watching the 1951 film "The Great Caruso" starring Mario Lanza, the tenor who waded deep into popular territory in the 1950s. He went on to buy albums by the Three Tenors, Andrea Bocelli as well as more traditional operas. Calleja said his next recording will, in fact, be a tribute to Lanza. "I don't know if I would be an opera singer had I not watched that movie," he said. "Mario Lanza was a catalyst. I always had a good voice but he made me realize it's an operatic voice."
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text: Brian Wise
Joseph Calleja & pianist Alan Hamilton Perform "O Sole Mio"
Joseph Calleja & pianist Alan Hamilton Perform Puccini's "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca