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Maltese tenor seen as budding superstar

Joseph Calleja

Joseph Calleja

Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja is a "likely candidate for tenor superstardom", according to The Sunday Times (of London) Culture magazine.

In an article in the upmarket British magazine, Hugh Canning asks who will eventually replace opera stars Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras. And he names three tenors: Mr Calleja, 32-year-old Mexican Rolando Villazon and 35-year-old German Jonas Kaufman.

At 27, Mr Calleja is the youngest of the three and in Mr Canning's words "the Benjamin of a youthful trio of tenor totty". The three, he says, seem predestined to shine in the age of DVD opera recordings. "All are young, good looking and more than presentable actors, with voices of distinctive, lyrical timbres," he says.

Although "very happy" and satisfied to hear about the praise, Mr Calleja also regards it as an added responsibility. Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras are "such a big thing" they are almost a "pop phenomenon", he said.

"It will take a lot of time, maturity and career years for anyone to be able to say whether I have what it takes," he said when contacted at his London home.

Mr Calleja said he prefers to continue concentrating on his career without focusing on whether he is going to be the next big tenor, adding that this could backfire. The other two nominated for tenor stardom by Mr Canning are older than him and therefore are a few years ahead, he said.

Despite being humble about his career, Mr Calleja believes he is on the right track.

He started singing when he was 16 having been discovered by tenor Paul Asciak under whose guidance he still remains. Two years ago he signed an exclusive four-year contract with record label Decca.

When contacted yesterday, Decca president Costa Pilavachi said there was no question that Mr Calleja had the potential to reach the top.

"We first saw him three years ago while singing at the Royal Opera House. One of our producers went into the studio with him to get a voice test and we were all absolutely thrilled with his voice. He reminded us of the golden age of tenors," he said.

Mr Pilavachi said Decca was immediate in offering him a contract, adding that it was probably the first time the renowned label had offered a contract to someone so young. He said even Pavarotti - also signed with Decca - was in his late 20s when he got his first record deal but Mr Calleja was just 25 at the time.

The Decca president described Mr Calleja as "a very intelligent and serious person" with "an incredible voice" who is building his career slowly.

"He is old fashioned in the right way," he said.

Asked about the comparison to Pavarotti, Mr Pilavachi said it was always very dangerous to compare a young artist to a legend of the past. He said Mr Calleja's voice and repertoire were similar to those of Pavarotti but Decca saw him as the first Joseph Calleja rather than a second Pavarotti.

"Every great artist is unique," he emphasised.

Although Mr Canning admits that it would be wrong "to predict that these singers will 'replace' Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras" among opera lovers, he says the young three have "heart-throb potential" for a younger audience.

The opera critic says that out of the three "tenorinos" - he calls them that since the "original" three can still sing - the Attard-born tenor's "is perhaps the dodgiest bet". Mr Canning said he first encountered the Maltese tenor in 1999 at the Wexford Festival, where he had a small role in I Cavalieri di Ekbu.

"Even in a supporting role, Calleja garnered glowing notices, and they were even better when he returned to the tiny Irish theatre to sing the tenor lead in Adolphe Adam's Si J'étais Roi," he said.

Mr Canning said Mr Calleja had also sung the Duke of Matuna in Verdi's Rigoletto, which was one of Pavarotti's early sensations, for both Welsh National and the Royal Opera, and Alfredo at Covent Garden two years ago.

On Monday, the Maltese tenor returns to Covent Garden to play the lovelorn Alfredo Germont in Verdi's La Traviata. Mr Canning said Mr Calleja will give a song recital at St John's in Smith Square next month and has been signed to play Macduff in Verdi's Macbeth at Covent Garden. "Ears will surely be pricked to see if this appealing young voice has developed since last time round."

This was not the first time that Mr Calleja received praise from the British media. When his debut album Tenor Arias was launched last year, it received rave reviews as soon as it hit the UK's music shelves.

Called "remarkable" and "extraordinary," the album was voted Classical CD of the Week by The Sunday Times Culture magazine, and The Western Mail gave it four out of five marks. The Observer had described the tenor as a rare discovery.

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