As a kid growing up on the tiny island of Malta, Joseph Calleja was always singing something — nursery rhymes, pop songs. He even grooved to heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden (still does, actually). And then one day he watched a movie that would change his life — The Great Caruso, starring American tenor Mario Lanza.
"When he launched into 'Tarentella Napoletana,'" Calleja recalls, "I absolutely was amazed at the sound quality of his voice, and I was hooked since then."
These days, Calleja sings in the best opera houses and enjoys the career of an opera star — although he doesn't think of himself that way. Maybe that's why he's hosting this record release party and concert for his new album, The Maltese Tenor, at one of Greenwich Village's hippest music clubs, (Le) Poisson Rouge. He's invited a few friends, too — violinist Daniel Hope and fellow opera singers Luca Pisaroni and Katie Van Kooten, as well as an orchestra and conductor Steven Mercurio.
Calleja's sound — marked by a warm, flickering vibrato and the ability to float soft high notes to the rafters — sets him apart from other tenors today. Just a few notes and you know it's him singing. But while his sound is his own, Calleja has at least partly modeled it on such great tenors from a century ago as Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Tito Schipa and Alessandro Bonci.
"In some ways I do try and not imitate but emulate what they did," Calleja says. "You can immediately recognize their ethereal style of singing. Everything is floating on the breath. That's what the Italians call cantare soffiato, singing on the breath. They make it sound effortless, but it isn't. And that should be the prerequisite for anyone who wants to sing bel canto, the ability to spin those kind of phrases but also to bring them down to a whisper."
VERDI: "Forse, la soglia" (Ballo in Maschera)
DVORAK: "Song to the Moon" (Rusalka)
MASSENET: "Porquoi me reveiller" (Werther)
PUCCINI: "E lucevan le stelle" (Tosca)
BIZET: "Au fond du temple" (Pearl Fishers)
PUCCINI: "O soave fanciulla" (La Boheme)
MOZART: "Madamina" (Don Giovanni)
DI CAPUA: "O Sole Mio"
Video directed by Doron Schächter/(Le) Poisson Rouge; Audio engineered by Kevin Wait/NPR