Joseph Calleja: The Young Tenor With The Old-School Sound

Oct 19, 2011
Originally published on November 5, 2013 11:48 am

Opera fanatics often trot out the tired old complaint about how "they don't make 'em like they used to" while pining for the great singers of the past. But as an unabashed opera nerd, I can tell you that the sound of the "golden age" is alive in the voice of tenor Joseph Calleja. He's a young singer with an old-school sensibility, and he's just released his third album for Decca Records.

Calleja is from a non-musical family on the tiny island of Malta, and he's an unlikely throwback to great early-20th-century tenors like Tito Schipa and Alessandro Bonci. Calleja has a sun-drenched Italian sound, a vibrato that flickers like old silent movies and the ability to float soft, high notes like few singers can today.

Calleja told me he spent hours with his voice teacher just listening to old, scratchy recordings of the golden-age tenors, trying to soak up the secrets of their style.

"The line they had was absolutely unrivaled," Calleja says. "The Italians call it the linea di canto — the singing line, the legato. If you listen to people like Schipa, it's like being in a dream, the way they approach a phrase and the way they spin it. In some ways, I do try and not imitate but emulate what they did, but give it my own personal touch."

Soprano Renee Fleming has sung on stage with Calleja, and she's a fan of his old-fashioned approach.

"The way he sings is uniquely his," she says. "It's not like other singers who are versed in the typical Italianate style. His is rounder and warmer, but also kind of a soft-grained sound. And I love the fast vibrato; that's my own personal taste. But the reason why his singing is especially beautiful, I think, is because it sounds so natural. He has a rare ability to make things sound easy."

Calleja At The Met

Easy, you might say, is how Calleja found his way to New York's Metropolitan Opera — actually, the Met found him. In 2006, Peter Gelb, the company's general manager, flew to Seattle, where he first heard Calleja. He says he was "knocked out" by the beauty of the voice.

"It's a very unusual sound, kind of a throwback. It has a very warm vibrato to it, and it reminds many people who hear him of singers of a golden age of decades ago," Gelb says. "So I was struck by how gifted he was, and was determined that he would be singing at the Met. And he has been doing so ever since."

One of Gelb's top Calleja moments was his Met performance as Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. The New York Times described the performance from this past April as one of the best roles of Calleja's exciting Met career.

But should Calleja actually be singing at the Met? It sounds far-fetched, but it's a question Philadelphia Inquirer classical music critic David Patrick Stearns has been asking himself. He's a big Calleja fan, but lately he's a little worried.

"I just feel as though he's over-singing," Stearns says. "I kind of felt that way at the Met when I heard him do Tales of Hoffmann. At first I thought, 'Perfect' — that's the kind of medium-weight lyric tenor repertoire that Joseph should be singing — but I thought he was pushing too hard. I think that he was worried about being heard up in the family circle, and God knows that's halfway to Connecticut."

As opera houses go, the Met is huge — much larger than opera houses were just 100 years ago. And the pressure tenors are under to sing the most popular repertoire in the most popular houses is tremendous. It can take its toll on even the best voices. But Calleja, despite any concerns, seems to have a good idea of where his voice is headed.

"I have a very different voice now, at 33 years of age, than when I was 19," he says. "But the trick is you don't force your voice to change. The voice has to change by itself, with correct development and study. If you guide it, it will show you. It will point the way, and you can take it there."

Just where Calleja will take his voice, we can only guess. He's only 33 — young by operatic standards. With luck, we'll continue to enjoy his old-school sound from the past far into the future.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Opera fanatics are known to trot out that old complaint about they don't make them like they used to while pining for the great singers of the past. For NPR's Tom Huizenga, a self-described opera nerd, the sound of the Golden Age is alive and well in the voice of tenor Joseph Calleja. He's a young singer with an old-school sensibility, and he's just released his newest CD.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOSEPH CALLEJA: (Singing in foreign language)

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Joseph Calleja is from a non-musical family on the tiny island of Malta, and he's an unlikely throw-back to great early 20th century tenors like Tito Schipa. Calleja has a sun-drenched Italian sound, a vibrato that flickers like old silent movies and the ability to float soft, high notes like few singers can today. Calleja told me he spent hours with his voice teacher early on just listening to old, scratchy recordings of the Golden Age tenors, trying to soak up the secrets of their style.

CALLEJA: The line they had was absolutely unrivaled. The Italians call it La Linea De Canto, the line of singing, the legato. You know, if you listen to people like Schipa, it's like being in a dream the way they approach a phrase and the way they spin it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TITO SCHIPA: (Singing in foreign language)

CALLEJA: And I think that, in some ways, I do try and not imitate but emulate what they did and give it, of course, my own personal touch, my own personal timbre and my own interpretation. For example, if I do...

(Singing in foreign language)

RENEE FLEMING: One of the things I noticed first when I heard him is how unique his sound is.

HUIZENGA: Soprano Renee Fleming has sung on stage with Calleja, and she's a fan of his old-fashioned approach.

FLEMING: Not only his sound, but his production, the way he sings is uniquely his. It's not like other singers who kind of are versed in the typical Italianate style. His is rounder and warmer, but also kind of a soft-grained sound. And I love the fast vibrato. That's my own personal taste. I really love that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALLEJA: (Singing in foreign language)

FLEMING: The reason why his singing is especially beautiful, I think, is because it sounds so natural. I mean, he has a rare ability to make things sound easy.

HUIZENGA: And easy, you might say, is how Calleja found his way to the stage of New York's Metropolitan Opera - or actually, the Met found him. Peter Gelb, the company's general manager, flew to Seattle in 2006, where he first heard Calleja, and he said he was knocked out by the beauty of the voice.

PETER GELB: It's a very unusual sound. It's a kind of a throwback. It has a very warm vibrato to it. And it reminds many people who hear him of singers of a kind of a Golden Age from decades ago. So I was struck by how gifted he was and was determined that he would be singing at the Met, and he has been doing so ever since.

HUIZENGA: One of Gelb's top Calleja moments was his Met performance as Edgardo in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" last season. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALLEJA: (Singing in foreign language)

HUIZENGA: The New York Times described that performance from this past April as one of the best roles of Calleja's exciting Met career. But some are wondering if Calleja should actually be singing at the Met. Sounds like an idiotic question, right? But it's a question that Philadelphia Inquirer classical music critic David Patrick Stearns has been asking himself. He's a Calleja fan, but lately, he's been a little worried.

DAVID PATRICK STEARNS: I just feel as though he's over-singing. And I kind of felt that way at the Met when I heard him do "Tales of Hoffman." At first I thought, perfect. That's the kind of medium-weight, lyric tenor repertoire that, you know, Joseph should be singing. And I thought he was pushing too hard. I think that he was worried about being heard up at the family circle, which God knows that's half way to Connecticut.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN MUSIC)

CALLEJA: (Singing in foreign language)

HUIZENGA: As opera houses go, the Met is huge, much larger than opera houses were just a hundred years ago. And the pressure tenors are under to sing the most popular repertoire in the most popular houses is tremendous. But Calleja, despite any concerns, seems to have a good idea of just where his voice is headed.

CALLEJA: I have a very different voice now at 33 years of age than when I was at 19.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALLEJA: (Singing in foreign language)

But the trick is you don't force your voice to change. Your voice has to change by itself with correct development and study. If you guide it, it will show you. It will point a way, and then you can take it there.

HUIZENGA: Just where Calleja will take his voice, we can only guess at this point. He's only 33 - young by operatic standards. But with luck, we'll continue to enjoy his old-school sound from the past far into the future.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CALLEJA: (Singing in foreign language)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And now an update to the breaking news we're following out of Libya this morning. Former leader Moammar Gadhafi is dead, though details of how he died are not yet completely clear. In a news conference this hour, Libya's new prime minister confirmed Gadhafi's death. This comes as rebel forces took Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte two months after the fall of his regime. Celebrations are erupting across the capital, Tripoli, and other Libyan cities. Keep listening for updates from NPR staff around the region. We'll be bringing you the latest details and reaction. This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.