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Interview: Joseph Calleja



Joseph CallejaAs most opera lovers know by now, the imminent ROH Simon Boccanegra stars Placido Domingo in the baritone title role, but the production is also remarkable in that Joseph Calleja will be making his role debut as Gabriele Adorno.

Calleja is one of the hottest young tenors around and chatting with him at the ROH, I find this 32 year old unaffected and easy-going, with a disarming tendency to talk up others before himself.

I asked him first about his feelings about singing with Domingo, in the role in which the latter made his own debut: “Whether he sings tenor, baritone or soprano, Plcido will always be the great tenor: he has a truly special voice, with a facility towards the middle register, which allows him to venture into this repertoire. For me, just to have him by my side and watch him work, is a dream come true, and what is really remarkable is the freshness he brings to everything.”

Calleja is no stranger to appearing onstage with near-legendary singers, having sung with Rene Fleming and Anna Netrebko, but as he says, “At this level, you are not competing there is no sense of that, because these people have nothing to prove, anyway, and the atmosphere is always one of collaboration. For myself, I prefer to sing with those who are, you might say, a notch or two above me why? Because then it raises my game! There is always a sense of a competitive edge of course, but what I really enjoy is the feeling of, one might say, colleagues feeding off what each brings to the work.”

He was also full of praise for “Maestro Pappano,” whom he describes as one of those people you just have to look up to, with such a feeling for singers he attributes this to the conductor’s having played for his father as a child the “living legend” of baritone Ferruccio Furlanetto, and the “emerging partnership” of himself and Marina Poplavskaya “the big columns of opera, paired with the young pretenders, you might say quite an exciting thought!” He describes rehearsals as having “a great synergy” “It is my role debut, I am trying to absorb as much as possible from everyone.”

Joseph is especially associated with the role of Alfredo, one reviewer commenting that he ought to throw in an off colour performance once in a while, because he was in danger if being so good in the part that he would be doing it forever. I have previously remarked that his Alfredo is that rare creature, a wholly romantic and impulsive being: “Yes, that is how I see him definitely a sympathetic, passionate character and that’s very much how I am in life! ‘Parigi o cara,’ for example, shows us Verdi writing absolutely for a tenor someone who doesn’t know exactly what to say, so he says the first thing that enters his head!”

He believes that the golden age through which his now 88 year old teacher lived, is due for a revival as “there is so much emerging talent around now, especially in the tenor department” and that singers of his generation must “go slow” in building their careers, and “give back importance to voice interpretation is all very well, but voice is paramount, and if we are smart then maybe we will be able to have the best of both worlds blending beautiful singing with the more disciplined, organic style of today.” He is scornful of the notion that opera singers must be glamorous, but at the same time, “You don’t need to be 300 pounds to sing opera fat does not sing, but you don’t have to have a six-pack either. You have to look believable, and if you want to really take a ‘modern’ approach, what you should really do is go to what the composer wanted, rather than the supposedly old-fashioned style with portamento, sobbing and so on.”

His rapturously received CD ‘The Golden Voice’ which he is at pains to point out does not refer to his own tone but to the era of the music demonstrates his already wide repertoire, including French music in which I consider him sublime: he has a des Grieux in the future, and a new recital disc is in preparation. His Hoffman at the Met was a huge success, and he was especially happy with the broadcast, since the wider appreciation of opera is a subject dear to his heart. Indeed, he is evangelical when it comes to broadening the audience, with an active enthusiasm which is shown in such ventures as annual Summer concerts in his native Malta, bringing together classical and popular music “because opera is not for the elite, the very few it is for everyone to enjoy. At one time, you used to find, say, workmen in Italy arguing passionately over who had the better legato out of Gigli or di Stefano and I would like that to come back!”

Future plans include his new recording of French and Italian arias, he is at the Met for the Duke and Bohme, and then back to London asked which opera house, if any, he sees as his second home, he says “They are all temples where so many great ones have gone before, so it’s impossible to choose one, but I must say that the idea that London audiences are not warm, is nonsense I had such a fantastic reception last time for Traviata.” It’s fairly safe to assume that we will be just as enthusiastic this time around, and for those who can’t get to see the production of Simon Boccanegra in the house itself, there will be free screenings via the BP ‘Summer Big Screens’ programme on 13 July 2010 and it is also coming to the BBC Proms on 18 July 2010.

Joseph Calleja sings Gabriele Adorno in the Royal Opera’s revival of Simon Boccanegra from 29 June 2010. Antonio Pappano conducts and the cast includes Plcido Domingo, Marina Poplavskaya and Ferruccio Furlanetto. BBC2 will screen a performance on 10 July 2010.


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