Joseph Calleja Exclusive Interview: November 8, 2011
L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Joseph Calleja
Rel. 24 Oct 2011
On Tuesday, October 25, 2011, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with rising-star operatic tenor Joseph Calleja, shortly following the release of his 3rd solo disc on Deutsche Grammophon, entitled, The Maltese Tenor – referring to his identity as a proud native of the Mediterranean island of Malta, and containing a selection of aria and duet gems by Puccini, Verdi, Gounod, Massenet, Bizet, Offenbach, and Boito. In this insightful and entertaining interview, Mr. Calleja discusses in great detail his approach – vocal and aesthetic – toward this rich repertoire, and his well-versed views on the broader lyric tenor literature and the storied singers of the Golden Age. The two also discuss Mr. Calleja’s ideas on vocal production, his proud Maltese roots, and much more. As a special treat, Deutsche Grammophon is offering an Exclusive Stream from the album, Puccini’s “E lucevan le stelle” (from Tosca), for all our visitors; as well as a Video Spotlight on three other new opera stars on the DG roster: bass René Pape, soprano Mojca Erdmann, and coloratura Aleksandra Kurzak. Our feature also includes a 1-Click Joseph Calleja Concert, with full streams for subscribers, and a set of Joseph Calleja videos. Don’t miss this delightful interview with a most gifted singer.
“It’s always going to be my voice that tells me what I should sing, not vice versa. It's not my age, or time, or even my desires; it’s how I’m sounding at that particular moment in my career.”
– Joseph Calleja
Nolan Gasser: Joseph Calleja, welcome to Classical Archives. Your third solo CD for Decca, The Maltese Tenor, has just been released in the United States – so, congratulations first of all. Your first two solo CDs came out in 2004 and 2005, respectively, when you were in your mid-twenties; and you’ve recognized how at that point in your career you still had a ways to go in your growth and development – in particular, needing to spend more time on stage with the roles that inspired these arias. Now, five or six years later, and with multiple leading roles under your belt – at Covent Garden, at the Metropolitan Opera, and at opera houses throughout Europe and the US – how would you characterize the changes in your approach to singing these arias that gave you the confidence to say, "Okay, I think it's time for disc number three"?
Joseph Calleja: I think it's a matter that has multiple dimensions to it: it’s about the different roles and the increased experience I’ve had, for sure; but it’s also so important to grow as an artist – and what allows that is having the right people in your life, both teachers and collaborators. I still work with repertoire coaches and vocal teachers at least 1-2 months each year in the summer, which is very important. Also, one’s physical development is critical: the voice reaches maturity for a tenor anytime between 30 and 45 years old – sometimes even 50, depending on the repertoire you sing. And, of course, the actual experience you have on stage makes a huge difference: the ability to make the roles fit you like a glove. This takes maturity and many years – there are no shortcuts.
Nowadays, with the media access available, if an artist is promising, he’s immediately catapulted to the highest of the heights; and in truth, if you have a special voice and a special talent, that’s pretty easy to achieve. But to stay there is not easy – for that you have to have “world-class talent”, which is rare. Now, I say this with quotation marks – since it’s not due to anything I did that I may have been born with such a talent; it’s thanks to God, to nature, or genetics, or chance, … But if you are born with “world-class talent”, the difficulty is to manage it, to hone it, and control it; and then ultimately to control yourself. That’s why I decided back in those early days not to get lost in my success, and do too many interviews or PR events; even today, when I’m a more prepared artist, these activities take their toll. Anything that takes you away from your studies, and from the rest you need during down time, is time taken away from your stage career.
But it’s a double-edged sword, and you have to be careful: you have to protect your stage career; but then for those who hire you, it’s important to inform the public who you are and what you’re doing. So it’s a difficult animal to control, a tough act to balance – but balance it you must! And if I lean more towards my stage career, then so be it – because at the end of the day, that’s what I’m all about.
NG: Musical talent, as you say, is such a a gift; and if one is blessed enough to have it, that's only half the battle – being able to build and maintain a career takes a great amount of skill, intelligence, and acumen. And it sounds like you are getting some great advice, and looking into your soul, to find a smart path for yourself.
So, we’ll be diving in more detail into your new album; but just prior to doing that –you're currently in New York, where you’ve just presented a CD release concert at Downtown cabaret, Le Poisson Rouge, along with some special guests. Can you tell us a little bit about this event, and what it was like to introduce your new operatic album to a crowd in Greenwich Village?
JC: It was different [laughs]. I’d never sung in such a situation; but at the end of the day it was really cool because it presented opera in a more accessible way. We didn't have any wild orchestrations; we didn't have funny arrangements done to the music. It was just a smart and informal setting; people were dining and drinking – though they were doing it quietly, so there was no harm. And let’s not forget that even 100 years ago people would take food and drinks with them to the theater, and throw parties during a performance – so there’s nothing new there. It was a very intimate way of doing our program, and it worked! I must say that it was a bit tough for me physically, because I had just flown in the day before, and we also had a rehearsal; but this was one of those events that will promote a new album, and at the end of the day, to promote opera. I was, as you say, joined by some great guests: [violinist] Daniel Hope, [soprano] Katie von Kooten, [bass-baritone] Luca Pisaroni, and [conductor] Steven Mercurio. Everyone was in great form, and we were all happy with the results.
NG: I'm sure that the audience was happy as well; Le Poisson Rouge has become a real hot spot for bridging that gap between a popular, public performance setting and classical music is Manhattan – and I’m sure it was real highlight for them. Of course, it’s tough when you have to perform practically just off the plane.
JC: Yes, but it is all just part of the job – sometimes it happens that way.
NG: Okay, so let's focus in on this new album of yours. The album features some of the heavier, more dramatic Italian and French repertoire of the mid- to late-19th century: it contains a number of blockbuster arias from [Puccini’s] La Bohème [“Che gelida manina” and “O soave fanciulla”], Tosca [“Recondita armonia” and “E lucevan le stelle”], [Gounod’s] Faust [“Salut! demeure chaste et pure”] and [Offenbach’s] Les contes d’Hoffmann [“Il était une fois à la cour d'Eisenach”], and others; but also some less, well-trodden pieces from [Arrigo Boito’s] Mefistofele [“Dai campi, dai prati” and “Giunto sul passo estremo”], and even Adorno's aria from [Verdi’s] Simon Boccanegra [“Sento avvampar nell'anima”]. Moreover, while you've performed some of these roles on stage – like Rodolfo in Bohème and the lead roles in both Hoffmann and Faust – some of these roles you still have yet to perform. Can you talk about your strategy in selecting which operas and which arias to sing on this album?
JC: One of the criticisms I received about the album in Europe [the album was first released in Germany on May 20, 2011] – it wasn’t widespread, but perhaps was legitimate – was that there wasn’t anything really new in terms of repertoire; no one discovered unknown gems, and so forth – though perhaps the arias from Boito’s Mefistofele are not too familiar. But at the end of the day, a classical opera singer – unless he is singing modern music – is always revisiting the repertoire that is well known and commonly performed. The reason is that although, of course, there is some great modern music (by which I mean written in the last few decades – I’m not referring to Britten, for example), there is very little that can stand up to the great operatic masterworks of Verdi, Puccini, Massenet, and so forth. I’m sure that if a new opera comes along that is really tuneful, and serves well the drama the way that great operas do, it would be performed, and then would eventually replace the older repertoire – the way that these operas took the place of the works before them. After all, opera didn’t start with Donizetti, or with Verdi, Puccini, or Massenet – it started with composers who preceded them, many of whom are forgotten nowadays by most people.
So, the way that I chose repertoire is by revisiting these great operas, and bringing out the “war horses”, and singing repertoire that really goes well with my voice. There’s nothing on this whole CD that cannot be sung by a full lyric tenor – and even an opera like Tosca is not for a spinto [literally “pushed” – between a lyric and dramatic tenor] but for a lyric tenor; same for Mefistofele and Simon Boccanegra, which I’ve sung on stage. If you look at the how these operas are written, and look at “Dai campi, dai prati” and “Giunto sul passo estremo” [from Mefistofele], it’s clear that they are meant to be sung lyrically. There’s no way anyone can tell me differently – because the music itself says so! Some people say that Adorno [in Simon Boccanegra] should be sung by a dramatic or spinto tenor – it’s completely incorrect. Just look at the Adorno’s first appearances in Simon Boccanegra: it’s like church music in some instances – like the first tenor/bass duet in Verdi’s Requiem.
And just because you’re a lyric tenor, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have that “oomph”, that power to then bring to those dramatic moments. That’s what a lyric tenor is: he’s a bridge between a light lyric tenor and a “lirico spinto” – meaning that it has to have a little of both. This conception that any opera that has a dramatic moment requires a spinto – no! It requires a lyric tenor who has the capability to sing, when required, with dramatic urgency, and with the volume needed for the high notes. A perfect example would be [Beniamino] Gigli; another perfect example would be [Jussi] Björling; and another perfect example would be [Luciano] Pavarotti. They all had lyric voices, but had the extra power to handle the more dramatic moments of opera. This is true too with [Verdi’s] Trovatore, even though it can be sung with a spinto. And remember that Verdi himself said that Rigoletto, Traviata, and Trovatore all have to be sung by the same type of tenor voice.
Of course, what has changed nowadays is that orchestras are tuning almost a semitone higher than in Verdi’s time; they’re also using modern instruments that are clearer and louder; and the orchestras have almost doubled in size. That explains why you often need a heavier voice – just to get through the night. But in my opinion, this sacrifices the many lyric moments of the operas, as in “Ah sì ben mio” from Trovatore [Act III]. This is a beautiful lyric moment, and I’m sad to note that the majority of spinto tenors today – though there are some exceptions – think that because they are spinto they can shout their way through an opera; and that is incorrect.
NG: You’re making some strong statements about the operatic repertoire, and how, in your views, various operas should or should not be approached. It also seems that you’re always exploring where your own voice is, and what repertoire it’s ready to take on; for example, you knew when you were ready to take on the role of Adorno [in Simon Boccanegra]. I thus imagine that you are considering when you’ll be ready to take on various prominent roles in the near future, whether tied to this album or otherwise?
JC: Yes, definitely. [Verdi’s] Un ballo in maschera is the next opera I will sing in about two or three years, it's essentially a longer Duke [in Rigoletto, which Calleja has performed]. Tosca is also probably in the near future; I’ve sung practically everything from it already: I have no problem with “E lucevan le stelle” or “Recondita armonia” or with the soprano-tenor duets [“Mario! Mario! Mario! Son qui!” and “Non la sospiri la nostra casetta”]; there’s only a few dramatic lines near the end – dramatic in the sense of needing a strong stage presence: the inflection has to be dramatic, not the sound. The same is true really of [Puccini’s] Turandot; Puccini himself had in mind [Italian tenor] Giacomo Lauri-Volpi [as the Prince Calaf] – who started as a bel canto specialist par excellence; Puccini chose Lauri-Volpi because of his ability to inflect the phrase – to be tender and all-powerful at the same time.
So, it’s never about shouting; I would classify voices by their color rather than by their volume or size. Obviously, for [Verdi’s] Otello you need a darker color because that’s what the composer wanted. Having said that, though, the tenor also needs to sing “Già nella notte dansa” [from Act I], which is lyrical; and you have to sing “Dio! mi potevi scagliar” [from Act III], which in the beginning has desperation, and is not meant to be heroic. As my teacher [Paul Asciak] told me, “I was a lyrical spinto, but I approached every single opera in a bel canto way. I mean, what is bel canto? It just means “beautiful singing” – that’s all it means! I think that the less we pigeon-hole vocal types, the more beneficial it is to the art form – as beneficial as it was back in the “Golden Age”.
NG: It is certainly clear that you are not only a student of the operatic repertoire, but also a student of the repertoire of past singers. I was struck, for example, how you are not one of those who would never listen to older recordings prior to preparing a role or making a CD; as you rightly say, this is a bit unusual among opera singers – indeed among performers in general. But for you it is natural, and a part of your training – going back to your studies with Paul Asciak, when you would spend hours listening to the masters of the “Golden Age.”
JC: Yes, I think it is downright silly not to listen to what your predecessors did before you; it’s like being a leaf on a tree without knowing which tree you’re on. Certainly, copying and imitating is bad, but emulating – not at all. As Pavarotti would say in his youth, he took [Swedish tenor] Jussi Björling as an example. We all take someone as an example – it doesn’t mean that we want to become that person, or imitate him, or sound or look like him; it just means that we find someone similar to ourselves and learn from him. You see what choices he made in his career, and then study those paths, and try to customize it according to your own voice and your own career; it’s taking someone as a role model. Everyone has a role model: the greatest artists, composers, athletes, etc.; they all had someone they grew up admiring, and tried to emulate them if they had a similar type of talent. We are not re-inventing the wheel here, and I think it’s a pity if someone decides not to listen to what the greats did before him. If you want to learn the craft of opera first and then learn the singers afterwards, that’s fine. But to say outright, “I will not listen to singers who came before me” is just silly.
NG: I wholeheartedly agree; there’s the great saying often attributed to T.S. Eliot, “Talent borrows, but genius steals.” The notion is that when you aspire to become a true artist – whether a performer or a composer – you must first synthesize what the greats have done before you can master your own style or approach: you “steal” those insights that can make you a better artist.
JC: Yes, that’s it exactly.
NG: I'm curious about a few cases in this particular recording; you include some heavily recorded arias – notably, “Recondita armonia” and “E lucevan le stelle”. Can you talk about any particular recordings that you heard of these – or any other arias – that were inspirational for you?
JC: I remember two particular arias recorded on this album for which I have a fond memory: “Dai campi, dai prati” and “Giunto sul passo estremo” [from Mefistofele]. Believe it or not, I started singing these arias when I was 16 years old – I must have known this was in my future [laughs]. My teacher and I were listening to Gigli, Tito Schipa, Aureliano Pertile, to mention a few, and he said, “Listen to what they are achieving: listen to the ethereal quality of their voice, how unforced it is, how free; it’s a “mezza voce” [literally “half-voice”], but when they raise the volume for effect, hear how powerful it is – rather than singing loud from the start and having nowhere to go. I was listening – in those days, on cassette tapes – to these great singers singing these arias, and I must say that it brings back great memories. Of course, I would also get bored once in a while – I mean, I was a 16 year-old who couldn’t wait to sing “Nessun dorma” [from Puccini’s Turandot]! Of course, it wasn’t always easy to understand what they were doing – and in fact to achieve such things should never be easy; it should be hard because of the responsibility we have. We are not saving lives or changing the world, but maybe if we try with our music we are able to change people’s lives a little bit. Music brings solace, and in a way that’s a big responsibility in itself.
NG: Indeed, and someone as influential as Albert Einstein was an avid performer on the violin and the piano, and would often play music as a way to help unlock the theories in his mind; and, of course, music is one of best ways to bridge people and societies – so in some ways, it does change the world.
JC: You’re right – and in the end, music is the most universal language; it's even more universal than mathematics – because you have to know mathematics to understand it; but with music, you don't have to know anything: anyone with a base sensibility can tell if the mood is sad or joyful or funny or virtuous. Music is instantaneous – just think of Steven Spielberg's movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind; what does he use as a communications between the aliens and the humans? A set of notes (hums the theme: d-e-c-C-g) repeated over and over again – in a way, it suggests that music is the most universal of languages.
NG: You're preaching to the choir here, as this is a topic I've spent a lot of time with – that is, on the relationship between music and science, and the intrinsic presence of music in the universe; and that if we ever do encounter intelligent life out there, music will inevitably be a way we can communicate.
JC: Yes, and I'm also kind of a science geek; of course, this would require that the other life form has the same perception to sound waves that we have…
NG: This would surely have to be the case, as the physics of sound waves is universal – whereby the interval of an octave here on Earth would likewise be heard as an octave in the Andromeda Galaxy, since in both places it would arise from a frequency proportion of 2:1… But I think we’re getting a little off topic here [laughs]…
JC: But this is wonderful conversation! This is exactly what I say: we're a carbon-based life form, and we were formed from stars, and therefore we are the aliens in a way… But you’re right we shouldn’t go there, this is like Donizetti meets Star Wars [laughs]…
NG: Well, that’s just fine; after all, John Williams [the film composer for the both Close Encounters and Star Wars] is a great student of the classical music literature – certainly the orchestral tradition of Mahler and Holst, etc. And, part of the appeal of these interviews is that people get to know the artists or composers not just through what they do musically, but also by what their interests are – and knowing that Joseph Calleja is an avid science fan is a great thing… but, indeed, now back to your singing career.
So, during these past five or six years since your last album, you’ve enjoyed a steady rise in your operatic career. You’ve received some wonderful reviews and assessments of your voice, and those who know you have often noted that the timbre of your voice is reminiscent of that “Golden Age” of operatic performances in the 1950s and 60s, and even earlier. At the same time, as you’ve noted, you’re only 33 years old, and still at an early stage of your career. What has this CD taught you about your own voice – where it’s grown from 2005, and where it still needs to go to blossom further?
JC: The CD has definitely shown me, and the people around me, that in general my voice is still evolving. This makes sense because I’m a big guy: I’m 6’ 2’’; and as Joan Sutherland said – usually big bodies produce big voices; meaning that I have a big frame, with big lungs, etc. What it has shown me is that just like a great wine, if God-willing nothing happens to its detriment or I over-sing, my voice can still develop. I am now aware that there are many more possibilities than what is already available – which is already something special at the moment just because I have a wide repertoire.
For me, success is nice, the money’s not bad, but these things are not why I sing. Rather, I sing because of the pleasure I get at night after a good performance: I go back home, I shave and brush my teeth – yes, I do shave in the evening, it’s very relaxing before I go to bed – and I can look at myself in the mirror and say, “Listen, tonight was really great; let’s continue building on this.” Or, by contrast, to say, “Well, tonight – what happened? You weren’t at your best and it didn’t go well; this or that aria could have been better, let’s work on those.” This is art, and I’m always trying to perfect my art, to push my limits further – though not at the expense of the physical instrument itself. And that’s why I sing – because it brings incredible pleasure to myself, and this pleasure can be re-directed to the people I’m singing for.
NG: It’s certainly one of the blessings of being a musician: that it’s such a joyful and uplifting activity, not only for the audience but also indeed for the performer. And how wonderful that you take time to acknowledge that singing is something that feeds your soul as well.
One last question with regard to your new album – it’s called The Maltese Tenor; clearly you are proud of your native Malta, as your country is appropriately proud of you. It was obviously important for you to associate yourself directly with your heritage, and perhaps to give the rest of us something besides the Maltese Falcon with which to associate Malta. I know too that you studied with another Maltese tenor, Paul Asiak. But can you give us a bit more sense of what it is about your Maltese roots that you wanted to convey as such a vital part of who you are as an operatic tenor?
JC: Well, first of all, when we were thinking about a name for the album, people were coming up with outlandish titles, like E lucevan le stelle: Tales of Love and Passion. This could work for some artists, perhaps, but I wanted something more real, more factual, more immediate, and more striking; and I can think of few names more striking than The Maltese Tenor – first, because it’s factual; and second, because critics and journalists all over the world have been calling me this since 1997. So, this is why I went for this title. We always talk about the Italian / Mediterranean sound – the sun in the voice, and all that – and you don’t get any more Mediterranean than Malta! Just look at a map, Malta is smack in the middle of it – it’s like someone placed it there on purpose. It’s a melting pot of cultures – predominantly Latin cultures. It has one of the oldest still-functioning Baroque theaters in the world, built in 1728. So, it’s an old country, with a musical mix of predominantly Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese culture – in that order. So, yes, it’s a testament and tribute to who I am, and although we’re a very small country, I am extremely proud to be Maltese; and despite being an island nation where you can drive from north to south in less than an hour, we have 7,000 years of history – and that’s something to be proud of! We have our identity; we are part of the European Union… it’s extraordinary when you look at the size of the island, it has 1/20th the population of New York!
NG: It is true – we've all heard of Malta, but it is not a place that many of us know. I went online and learned some fascinating things about its rich history: not only does it have strong European roots, but also a long tradition of Arabic influence, as well as Greek influence…
JC: Yes, almost every civilization passed through Malta because of its strategic position: the Byzantines, the French, the Arabs; everyone has been there; even our language shows this – it’s a Semitic language, a cousin of Hebrew; in fact, we have lots of Hebrew words in our language. It’s just such a melting pot. Take myself as an example: my father is of Spanish origin, my mother is of Sicilian origin; but I also have traces of Hungarian blood, among other things. That’s why I like America – Malta is nation created by immigrants, just like America; there are many parallels between our two nations.
NG: And, of course, Malta was also for a while part of the British Commonwealth – which partly explains why your English is so good!
JC: Yes – thank you.
NG: You’ve talked about some of your origins, and the background of your parents; let’s touch a bit more on your early years. You mentioned how you were 16 years old, singing “Nessun dorma”, and working with Paul Asiak. I saw one earlier video, where you stated that when you were younger you didn’t think of yourself as a great singer; but you must have known you had a special gift. Had you been thinking about a singing career, perhaps in pop or rock music?
JC: I actually was a rock singer: a heavy metal singer, actually, when I was 13 or 14 years old. I knew I had a good voice – but between that and thinking I one day could become one of the best tenors in the world, that was a jump. So, I knew I had a special voice, but I didn’t know how special. And also, by my character and my upbringing, I tend to downplay things, and try not to make them bigger than they are – which has both positive and negative aspects to it. But I can say that when I started singing professionally, at age 19, I did not say, “I’m going to become the best singer in the world.” Instead I said, “I’m going to be the best singer that I can be.” Now, if that makes me the best singer in the world, that’s great; but if it doesn’t, that’s okay too – you can’t go beyond your natural limits or potential. And that’s been my basic outlook. I’m very proud of my career because it was done without the help of anyone – apart, of course, from my teacher, my parents, and my family. There was no big agency that pushed me; in the beginning, I worked with a very small agency that nobody knew in London. I’m very grateful to all the people who played a part in my career, but there are no dark secrets: everything was done by the music itself – the way it should be; and I’m extremely proud of that.
NG: As well you should be. Clearly, to become the best singer you can is part of it; but then to establish, maintain, and grow a career – it’s not just talent, it’s also being smart, having the right attitude and perspective, and pacing yourself. It sounds like you’ve had some great training from your parents and teachers on how to handle those challenges.
JC: Well, I'm learning all the time. I’m still young, and have plenty more to learn, and plenty more to grow.
NG: We’ve talked a bit about what has struck the critics so strongly about your voice – your light, elegant timbre; your dynamic control; and the very distinctive vibrato of your voice – which has aligned you in their minds to older singers like Giuseppe Di Stefano, Jussi Björling, and Franco Corelli; as opposed to some more recent, heavier spinto tenors – perhaps like Rolando Villazón or Ramón Vargas. I actually liked what [conductor] Riccardo Chailly said, that you have a voice that can balance that sound from earlier in the 20th century with the musical taste of today. So, were you naturally drawn to these earlier singers – even [Enrico] Caruso – more than to your older contemporaries, or was this something that you and Paul Asiak explored by virtue of what was naturally heard in your voice?
JC: First of all, when were the operas composed that my colleagues and I sing? They were written in the 19th century, which was much closer to the age of when these great singers performed than we are. I think of someone like Caruso who was considered a pioneer by changing just a few small things: like instead of singing the high c in falsetto, sang it using the “voix de poitrine” [chest voice]. But these 30 or 40 years of the “Golden Age” – Gigli, Schipa Corelli, Del Monaco, and the rest; to even suggest that we know better how to sing this repertoire than they did is extremely cocky and arrogant! Some of the greatest conductors and the majority of the greatest singers of all time were working during these years. So, if we want to give the same level of excitement to our audience – to blow them away – that is what you have to study. And, of course, some of the exaggerations of those years we can do without, like Gigli’s sobs and the excessive use of portamento; but if you combine the excitement they created, and the importance this era gave to the voice, and combine it with today’s palette of beautiful staging and sets – that is, if we bring the best of the old and the new, opera can become, literally, mind-blowing.
And there are also contemporaries of mine that I love, like Roberto Alagna – who has few peers from any era, especially in the French repertoire: his Faust, his Romeo [from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, and even his Don Carlo [by Verdi]; and also Juan Deigo Flórez, with his Rossini and Donizetti: you don’t get more old-fashioned than his approach to singing – and I mean that in the best possible way. And yet there are many tenors who try so hard to be modern, with their absolute fixation on darkening the voice as much as possible; I think this is incorrect. Even a singer like Del Monaco, who has a naturally dark voice – he was always trying to sound as bright as possible; his darkness was achieved from his timbre, and not by manipulating his voice to sound that way. And more often than not, with very few exceptions, singers who attempt this sort of thing end up with vocal problems; and it’s to be expected, since they’re using incorrect vocal production.
[Placido] Domingo has been singing for 35 or more years, and has a naturally dark, burning sound; but if you listen to him, you can hear how he’s always trying to lighten up his sound to make it more light and “solar”. He’s never tried to darken his voice or make it sound more like a baritone.
NG: Clearly, you have an aesthetic that prizes the older, lighter, and more elegant style – and yet it's also something that is a natural part of your voice; how nice that the two are so aligned. I’m wondering – are there any particular aspects of your voice that are challenging you these days as you try to reach these aesthetic ideals?
JC: There are two things in my voice that I’m working on: first, a balancing of the registers, which is always a battle for a tenor; and second, to achieve those “pinging” high notes – which I have now in a way I didn’t five or six years ago. Also, for a while I had a common symptom of a young, healthy voice: a very, very fast vibrato. What people don’t remember, thought, is that every major voice for the past 100 years – bar none – had this fast vibrato in their early years: Björling, Corelli, Gigli, Domingo, Pavarotti, even Caruso; the thing was, however, that most of them were not singing professionally when they were 24. The proof is in those rare recordings – like the Italian arias sung in Swedish by Björling when he was 22 or 23 – which I have at home; and I’ve had people say, “Oh my God, he sounds just like you!”
The challenge, though, is that you can’t remove the vibrato by forcing the voice – which many singers try to do; instead, you do it by slow development. That spark of a natural healthy voice is what gives it that “ping” – it’s what gives the voice it’s carrying power and it’s character as well. Of course, if you don’t work on it or learn how to better support the voice, it can become a problem. I hear so many singers who try to remove their vibrato; they force their voices, or shout. They may remove it for a period of time, but then they lose their staying power – they lose volume, and the voice becomes three or four times smaller than it should be, and they lose the facility to sing in the top part of the voice.
It’s a very complicated thing – but it’s just about aging well. It’s like if you have a bottle of Bordeaux wine – 2005 was a great year; but the true potential of an ’05 is not for the next 10, 15, or even 20 years. If you opened an ’05 in 2008, or even now, it might be fine – but it’s premature. But if you wait for 10 years, it’s going to be absolutely fantastic!
NG: Although, a nice thing about opera, as opposed to wine, is that we get to enjoy that tenor voice, even if it’s not quite at full maturity.
JC: Yes, there's no harm in tasting part of the barrel, as long as you don't empty it!
NG: Touché. So, for you the key really is listening to what is natural in the voice, and not forcing something that goes against its nature – as you’ve witnessed with some of your contemporaries.
JC: Yes, that’s right. Now, I have to be honest and say that I have my off-nights too – I have moments when I’m sick, or having an allergic reaction, or am jet-lagged; so, of course, it’s not always easy to do what is best for the voice, even with the best of intentions. Even with the best technique and the best preparation, things don’t always play out the way we want. That’s the beauty, though, of a live performance: we all know how difficult it is, but when we achieve greatness, it’s that much more amazing.
NG: Sure, because, it you were consistently delivering the same quality performance, we might as well just hear a recording.
Finally, Joseph, let’s return briefly to your stage career – which is clearly most important to you. Ever since winning Placido Domingo's Operalia Competition in 1999, you've been in near constant demand, and have taken a pretty logical path for a lyric tenor – starting with Donizetti, Bellini, some lighter Verdi [La Traviata, Rigoletto] and Puccini [Madama Butterfly, La Bohème], and then began moving to such heftier roles as Faust and Adorno in Simon Boccanegra. Based on this album, and our conversation, it sounds like you’re ready to tackle some even heavier roles, like Mario in Tosca – and I see that you’ll be performing the role of Nadir in an upcoming performance of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers in Berlin this December. Any other roles that you’re anxious to see enter your repertoire?
JC: The answer I’d give would probably be: none – and I’ll tell you why. It’s always going to be my voice that tells me what I should sing, not vice versa. It's not my age, or time, or even my desires; it’s how I’m sounding at a particular moment in my career. And so I try not to entertain these kinds of thoughts. Of course, I’d love to sing Otello some day – who wouldn’t? But I don’t want to hurt myself by trying to imagine singing music that perhaps I’ll never sing. Instead, I concentrate on what I’m singing right now, on my immediate repertoire. As for upcoming roles: I’ll sing soon Tosca for sure; [Massenet’s] Manon is also in the near future; but [Puccini’s] Manon Lescaut is still at least 10 or 15 years in the future.
Now, you might ask me, “But wait, you just told me that it’s the voice that decides; how can you say that you’ll sing Manon Lescaut in 10 or 15 years?” I use time as an potential indication, not as a sure thing – as some artists do: “Okay, so if I’m singing this now, so in 6 years I’ll be ready for that.” No, in 6 years you might be ready – you wait and try it, and then if you’re ready, you book it. That is the philosophy I use – again, I treat time as an indication of when I might be ready. But I don’t commit myself until I have sufficiently grown as an artist – I’ll try it with a piano, or in a small setting: and if it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
NG: So, if you were offered by the role of des Grieux in Manon Lescaut by the Met or Covent Garden in three years time, you’d say, "No, I can’t make that commitment"?
JC: In fact, I was just offered the role of des Grieux by the Salzburg Festival, and I said “no” – because my voice is not yet ready for that.
NG: Well, how wonderful to be in a position where you can listen to your voice, and to your intuition, and turn down a prestigious role that you’ll indeed want to take on some day. Clearly, you’re taking steps to follow Domingo’s lead, to still have a vibrant singing career in 30 years time.
JC: Yes – well, actually, Domingo is not an example I use; he is inhuman, and I mean that in the best possible way: Domingo has done things in his career that would have destroyed another tenor; but because he is Domingo he has gotten away with it. Now that I’ve worked with him [in the 2009 Covent Garden production of Simon Boccanegra], I can tell you that he has inhuman strength, and has the ability to recover that us mere mortals don’t have; and I really mean this, I’m not just blowing smoke. Domingo is someone who I admire and is the stuff of legends; but I would definitely not emulate him in the vocal choices he’s made – just because they worked for him, doesn’t mean they would work for 999 out of 1000 singers. You’d have to be Domingo – with his kind of vocal strength, and his extraordinary intelligence – to get away with them.
NG: Well, I have no doubt that he is looking at you with great confidence for a long and very bright future in opera. Thanks so much, Joseph, and congratulations again on your new album.
JC: Thank you so much – it was such a pleasure.
Universal Music Group’s Deutsche Grammophon and Decca are label homes not only to the brilliant young tenor Joseph Calleja, but also to several other outstanding operatic singers – who are making their mark in recent recordings and on operatic stages around the world. Classical Archives proudly spotlights three such singers – German bass René Pape, German soprano Mojca Erdmann, and Polish coloratura soprano Aleksandra Kurzak – featuring a promotional video for each of their latest UMG recordings.
The attached video promotes his latest release, Wagner, dedicated to arias from Die Meistersinger, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Tannhäuser, and the Ring Cycle – with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin. The CD was released on October 4, 2011.
The attached video promotes her first DG release, Mozart’s Garden, which features Mozart arias from Zaide, Idomeneo, Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflöte, and Le Nozze di Figaro; as well as arias by Salieri, Paisello, JC Bach, and others. Ms. Erdmann is joined by Andrea Marcon leading the orchestra La Cetra. The CD was released on October 4, 2011.
The attached video promotes Ms. Kurzak’s first Decca release, Gioia!, which includes coloratura arias by Rossini, Mozart, Puccini, Donizetti, Verdi, Bellini, Johann Strauss II, and Polish composer Stanislaw Moniuszko. She is joined by Omer Meir Wellber conducting the Orchestra de la Comunitat Valenciana. The CD was released on September 13, 2011.