For tenor from Malta, a star-making role?

AP News
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Posted: Nov 27, 2009 12:00 AM

There's something about the honeyed sweetness of Joseph Calleja's voice that seems to evoke memories of a golden age, as if this young tenor carried within his vocal cords a secret passed down from bygone generations.

"Nobody sings like that anymore," said Craig Rutenberg, director of music administration for the Metropolitan Opera. "His voice is just so intrinsically beautiful, with a very old-fashioned vibrato. It's sort of like sunshine to me."

Since Calleja began performing professionally in his native Malta in 1997, when he was barely 19, he has appeared in many of the world's leading opera houses and recital halls. He has developed a repertory of two dozen roles and recorded two well-received solo albums.

It's striking how often reviewers reach for historical comparisons when describing his voice. Some have praised it as the most thrilling lyric tenor sound since Luciano Pavarotti; others invoke the names of legendary singers from earlier eras: Jussi Bjoerling, Beniamino Gigli, even Enrico Caruso.

Yet despite his abundant gifts, Calleja, as he freely acknowledges, has been a work in progress. He has struggled at times to put together the elements of his voice _ high notes, color, breath control, dynamics _ into a complete package. And his efforts at acting have sometimes been rudimentary.

Now, at the age of 31, he is taking on his highest-profile assignment yet, preparing a new role, the title character in Jacques Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" ("The Tales of Hoffmann") at the Met. The new production, directed by Tony-winning Bartlett Sher, opens Dec. 3 and will be broadcast live to movie theaters around the world in high-definition on Dec. 19.

A triumph could give Calleja a final push toward international stardom _ and make him perhaps the best-known export from his tiny island nation since a certain elusive falcon of fiction and film.

Anything less than a big success and he's likely to continue being viewed as just one more among a crop of talented young tenors on the current opera scene _ or, perhaps worse, as a promising singer who overreached by taking on a role for which he wasn't ready.

But if Calleja is nervous about the stakes, it wasn't evident during a morning rehearsal earlier this month, nor in an interview during the lunch break that followed.

"When I started to study the role in June, it was like a ready-made suit," he said between bites of a tuna sandwich. "It fit the voice incredibly. And that's good, because I don't want to go on stage and look like I'm doing it for the first time. I want to BE Hoffmann."

The possibility of his undertaking the part first came up last March in the office of Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager. Rolando Villazon, who had been announced for the role, was having vocal problems and seemed likely to withdraw. He soon did, one in a series of casting changes that have beset this production.

"Hoffmann" was Offenbach's only serious opera after a lifetime of writing successful operettas, and he hadn't quite finished it when he died in 1880. Adapted from romantic tales by the early 19th century German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, the opera makes Hoffmann the main character in his own story, reliving three love affairs, all doomed in different ways, and losing a fourth love at the conclusion.

Vocally, the role is particularly demanding. Much of it lies fairly high in the tenor range and requires considerable power to cut through the orchestration. And it's long _ Hoffmann is on stage virtually the entire opera.

In this production the focus on Calleja will be especially strong because of another casting change. Originally, superstar soprano Anna Netrebko was to have sung all four of Hoffmann's loves, but then decided to drop two of the roles; they'll be sung by coloratura Kathleen Kim and mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova.

If Calleja has a lot riding on success, so do Sher and the Met. It's his first time back with the company since his acclaimed production of Rossini's "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" three years ago, and expectations will be running high.

For the Met, it's the third of eight new productions that Gelb is offering this season _ and the record so far is decidedly mixed (pans for Puccini's "Tosca," raves for Janacek's "From the House of the Dead"). Like "Tosca," the "Hoffmann" is replacing a popular older production, so critical knives will inevitably be sharpened in some quarters.

Sher's vision for directing the work is ambitious and is requiring Calleja to develop some new acting muscles. His interpretation is inspired by the sense of alienation in the writings of Franz Kafka and also by his fascination with Offenbach the man. The composer was born a German Jew, then moved to Paris and converted to Catholicism, but was never fully accepted by French society.

Sher sees Hoffmann, like Offenbach, "always on the outside looking in. It's tricky, because the central figure ends up being very passive, and you have to figure out what he's really looking for in all these women."

Calleja is up to the challenge, Sher said. "It's really not a question of talent," he said, "it's a question of time to get him to really dig into the character, break it down."

The tenor is feeling more confident about his dramatic credibility these days, having recently lost 45 pounds off his 6-foot-2 frame.

"I had really turned fat," he said. "But now I'm working out every day, except when I have a performance. Let's be frank ... to be a good actor, 50 percent is looking the part. It would be very hard to portray a romantic poet when you're 300 pounds big."

Calleja loves to talk about the influences that have formed his style and sound, and when he does, one name stands out above all _ his first and only teacher, fellow Maltese tenor Paul Asciak, for whom he auditioned when he was 15.

"I kind of knew I had a talent because I had been singing since I was a kid, in church, school choirs, rock bands," he said. "My sister jokes about it, how many times she used to scream to shut me up, now she can't believe people pay to hear me singing."

He became Asciak's only pupil. "I was very dedicated and intense," he says," sometimes too intense, because I lost much of my teenage years."

Asciak, now 86, recalled his astonishment when he first heard Calleja's voice _ its "fresh, pure and velvety" timbre in the lower register and "lightness and flexibility" when higher. It reminded him of some of the "Golden Age singers, a school of singing I have always greatly admired but now seems almost lost."

The term "Golden Age" can be subjective, given opera lovers' tendency toward nostalgia. For Asciak, it describes a period in the late 19th and early 20th century when many singers, including Caruso, had direct links through training or performing with the great Italian opera composers, especially Verdi and Puccini.

Asciak, who sang in Europe throughout the 1950s, has his own ties to that Golden Age. He studied in Rome with Luigi Ricci, who had worked with Puccini. And he performed with Tito Schipa, the lyric tenor who in 1917 had created the role of Ruggero in Puccini's "La Rondine" _ a role Calleja will add to his repertoire in Frankfurt, Germany, next March.

Asciak said he did his best to instruct Calleja in the ways of the old singers. Since Malta's Royal Opera House had been destroyed during World War II, opportunities for his student to attend live performances were limited. "So I had to talk to Joseph about opera," Asciak said in an e-mail response to questions for this article, "and introduce him to recordings of some of the great tenors of the past."

Calleja said he adopted what he could from the style of these singers _ among other things, "the ability to diminuendo any high note to a whisper."

And their vibrato, that rapid, slight variation in pitch on a given note that creates an uncommonly warm tone _ the sunshine that Rutenberg hears in Calleja's voice.

Calleja takes great pride in his Maltese heritage and still makes his home there. He recently separated from his wife, soprano Tatiana Lisnic, with whom he has two small children.

For an island nation of fewer than 400,000 residents, Calleja said, "we're a very cosmopolitan society." He grew up speaking three languages _ English, Italian and Maltese, which has Semitic origins.

Yet few Maltese have made it prominently onto the world stage in recent years, and Calleja is keenly aware of the pressure that puts on him.

"I'm viewed in my country as an ambassador, an object of tremendous pride," he said. "Obviously, if I mess up, it's going to be very disappointing for many of my fellow citizens."

Each of the last several summers he has given a concert in Malta (this year with pop star Michael Bolton), and he's campaigned hard but so far unsuccessfully for the nation to build a full-scale performing arts center where opera productions could be staged.

Although Calleja knows that when he steps onto the Met stage he will in a sense be representing his homeland, there's something else that will motivate him even more powerfully: the sheer visceral thrill of singing and of feeling an audience respond.

He recalled his recent performances in Puccini's "La Boheme" in Vienna, his last engagement before flying to New York for "Hoffmann."

"People were crying backstage," he said. "Other than my children looking up at me with adoring eyes, I cannot imagine anything as beautiful as singing and creating that electrical bond between you and the audience."