When Joseph Calleja sings Macduff in the revival of Phyllida Lloyd's production of Verdi's Macbeth, he will be revisiting a part he first sang in the Astra theatre on the tiny Maltese island of Gozo. It will be great to do it again, he says, "and fingers crossed for my one big aria". As the acclaimed possessor of a uniquely sweet and even tone, this young tenor need have no fears, but how he got to where he is now makes a discreetly remarkable tale.
His first ambition was to be a lawyer, and his early success was in sport: he played basketball for Malta, and was national champion in discus, shot and javelin. He sang in the school choir but felt frustrated when others got picked for the solos, and when, at 13, he chanced to see a film with Mario Lanza, he became fired with ambition to emulate him. He bought all the tenor CDs he could find, which meant Andrea Bocelli and the Three Tenors, and was propelled by an aunt - impressed by his "Nessun Dorma" - to nurture his voice. He joined a good choir, started to take piano lessons, and by extraordinarily good fortune found a teacher, Paul Asciak, who was so astute that he intermittently studies with him still.
"Every day after school he coached me from four till nine in the evening, and he was very careful. He wouldn't let me even listen to the three tenors - he wanted to clean my voice out. He treated me as though I was a baby learning to walk: for the first six months, all I did was scales and breathing exercises. After a year, he said I had a major voice."
Placido Domingo thought so too, when Calleja entered his Operalia competition, even though a bout of legionnaires' disease knocked him out at an early stage his career then took off like a rocket. That Decca should entitle his latest album The Golden Voice embarrasses him slightly, but the label really is accurate: this is bel canto in its purest form.
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