Maltese pride at the Proms
As the 6,000-strong crowd at the Royal Albert Hall in London enveloped him in raucous applause, tenor Joseph Calleja’s eyes began to mist over.
Malta’s most famous export had just performed a flawless rendition of Giacomo Puccini’s aria Nessun Dorma at one of the world’s most famous classical music festivals.
And Mr Calleja’s performance on Saturday night, as the star attraction on the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms, did not go unnoticed by his audience, who clapped, whooped and hollered through repeated encores.
Compatriots cheering him on from behind their TV sets probably reserved their loudest cheer for later on, when Mr Calleja peeled off a Team GB tracksuit top to proudly reveal a black t-shirt imprinted with a large, white Maltese eight-pointed cross.
This was his fourth performance at the BBC Proms, a yearly eight-week bonanza of classical concerts held at the Albert Hall.
But, unlike the three previous times, this year Mr Calleja was asked to headline the Proms’ prestigious closing night – the first tenor in 30 years to do so.
The honour was not lost on Mr Calleja, who, in the build-up to the big night, said he was “extremely excited and honoured to be headlining”.
If Mr Calleja had any butterflies in his stomach, he hid them well, singing arias by Verdi and Massenet to go with his rendition of Puccini’s classic.
The concert then shifted into its second half, which was more pop-inspired than the first half’s classical tinge.
Mr Calleja took to the more casual set-up with gusto, reappearing in a sports tracksuit like the ones worn by British Olympic athletes before springing the Maltese cross t-shirt on the crowd.
The tenor had been cagey about his plans for the night’s performance, jokingly promising “not to bring a Maltese falcon or Maltese dog on stage”.
Mr Calleja’s mainly British audience roared with approval as he sang the opening notes of Rule, Brittania, before joining him as a chorus of thousands.
Renditions of You’ll Never Walk Alone and a duet of Leoncavallo’s Mattinata with the famous violinist Nicola Benedetti followed.
By the end of the night, Mr Calleja was throwing baseball caps adorned with Maltese crosses into the crowd.
His performance was universally acclaimed by the international music press, with critics saying the Maltese tenor was in top form and one of the evening’s highlights.
Back in Malta, social media networks and the timesofmalta.com comments section were abuzz with praise for Mr Calleja’s performance – and his patriotism.
“He is one Maltese who is not afraid to say, ‘I am Maltese’”, one reader commented.
“A perfect cultural ambassador for Malta,” another wrote.
Earlier this year, Mr Calleja was appointed Malta’s first cultural ambassador.
It is a role he is sensitive to, having said in interviews that the Maltese “are very proud of me and I try not to disappoint”.
Judging by the euphoric response to his latest performance, Mr Calleja is in no danger of doing that.
And with sales of his latest CD topping music charts across Europe, Malta’s home-grown tenor looks set to continue to go from strength to strength.