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‘We are a nation of immigrants’

Ahead of his eagerly awaited concert at the Floriana Granaries on Thursday, world famous tenor Joseph Calleja opens up to Patrick Cooke about spending time away from his children, making his Hollywood debut and why he thinks it unfair to label the Maltese as racist.

Tenor Joseph Calleja, who will be performing at the Floriana Granaries on Thursday, talks candidly about immigration, hunting and his career.Tenor Joseph Calleja, who will be performing at the Floriana Granaries on Thursday, talks candidly about immigration, hunting and his career.

Anyone who has met Joseph Calleja in the flesh can attest that he has an imposing presence. Even on Skype he fills the screen, and his deep tenor’s voice resounds around the room.

For a man who travels the world to meet a full calendar of performances, Mr Calleja is refreshingly gregarious and generous with his time. And despite being away from Malta for much of the year, there is no doubting that he leaves his heart here when he goes.

Dubbed “the Maltese tenor” by the international media, he says “it has become impossible for me to separate Malta from Joseph Calleja.

“I did not say I was from Italy. It was a choice that has its pros and cons, but it’s a choice I will stick by and I’m very proud of.”

Mr Calleja is a megastar of the opera world, his status confirmed last September when he became the first tenor in 30 years to headline the Last Night of the Proms, which was broadcast live on the BBC and watched by millions.

Buying into the spirit of the occasion, Mr Calleja strutted on stage that night wearing a British Olympic tracksuit, only to peel off the top to reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with the Maltese cross. He chuckles at the memory.

“I originally wanted to dress up as a knight. But my manager thought it might cause problems because people may have associated it with the crusades,” he smiles.

The Maltese tenor returns to the Proms on September 5 for an evening of music celebrating Verdi’s 200th birthday.

Two days later, he will mark the Last Night of the Proms with British pop star Bryan Ferry in an open-air concert at Hyde Park.

“Ten months a year I travel the world and sing in the greatest opera houses night after night. Almost invariably I have a knife in my back or in my stomach – sometimes in both places. Sometimes it’s just nice to have fun and not die,” he says.

On July 14 he sang in front of 600,000 people on the streets of Paris, surely he does not still suffer from nerves?

“I made my debut when I was 19 in Gozo at the Astra Theatre. My teacher, Paul Asciak, told me I would suffer from nerves. Afterwards I told him it was nothing I couldn’t handle.

“He smiled at me knowingly and said: ‘You wait. You’re young and no one knows you, wait till you make a name for yourself and every time you open your mouth people will expect the best of the best’. That is what is happening now. When you don’t match expectations people are disappointed. There are those nerves and they get worse and worse as time passes by.”

For Mr Calleja, crossover concerts with popular music stars such as Brian Ferry and Zucchero, who will be performing with him in Malta on Thursday, expose opera to a wider audience.

“If people are not exposed to opera already and think it is boring and something for the elite then opera will die a very slow and painful death. But if we opera singers assume responsibility as ambassadors for our art and go to these big events and show people how great opera is there is a future. The era of waiting for the audience to come is over. We have to reach out,” he says.

I originally wanted to dress up as a knight for the Proms. But my manager thought it might cause problems

Although he considers himself very fortunate to be doing a job he loves, Mr Calleja finds it hard to be away from his young children, Xandru, 6, and Clara, 9.

“Thanks to my family in Malta and my wonderful nanny and mother, we give them as much of a normal life as possible. They are happy. And when I’m in Malta I do make time. I decline a lot of invitations in Malta to be with my children.

“My late father was a businessman, a lovely man, but I didn’t see much of him because from 5am till 8pm he was at work. I think I’m even more present in my children’s lives than he was in mine.

“Anyone who attended sports day at San Andrea School at the end of May would have heard me shouting during my daughter’s 100 metres race, which she won. I don’t have a problem with leaving my ego on stage.”

Mr Calleja made his Hollywood debut this year in James Gray’s film The Immigrant which includes Joaquin Phoenix in its cast. According to the Hollywood Reporter, he “magnificently impersonates” the great opera singer Enrico Caruso in his cameo role in the film.

It was Mario Lanza’s performance in the titular role of the film The Great Caruso that first pricked Mr Calleja’s interest in opera, so the offer to appear in the production was too good to refuse.

“I do believe in the theory of chaos but when certain things happen you do start wondering. I recorded an album as a tribute to Mario Lanza and in the same period I’m recording, James Gray contacted me to portray Caruso in the film. I thought it was a joke. In turned out Gray had heard me perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.”

The film deals with the dreams and exploitation of immigrants trying to build a life in a new country. Does Calleja think these themes are particularly relevant to Malta at this time?

“Yes. I did try to do a small concert at a detention centre to raise awareness. I didn’t manage to do it this time but it’s something I would love to do.

“We are not a nation of racists or more xenophobic than anyone else. Of course we have those elements in society. But generally speaking it would be unfair to label the Maltese as such. We are a nation of immigrants,” he says, pointing out this his mother is of Sicilian origin and his father’s surname is probably Spanish.

“People label everyone who is concerned about immigration as racist – I don’t think it’s fair. I have travelled the world, lived long enough in many countries to take out my garbage, and as much as multiculturalism can be a wonderful thing, when there is a clash the results can be horrific.

“Malta is a very small place and we have to be careful. We have to make sure that the rights of immigrants are fully adhered to and they are given all the assistance possible – after all most of these people are fleeing life-threatening situations. They want to build a better life, like we Maltese did in the past. At the same time we have to have our national interest and national security at heart. It’s not an easy task. I don’t envy the Government.”

Mr Calleja is asked how he would have responded if the Government had gone ahead with its plan to deport a group of newly arrived Somali asylum seekers to Libya earlier this month. Would he have felt the need to speak up?

“I really don’t think for a minute that the Maltese authorities were going to push these people back without due process. I stand to be corrected – I am not in contact with anyone who is dealing with this issue. But I would like to think if repatriation were to happen, it would happen with due process and in accordance with human rights legislation.”

The tenor points out that he has spoken up in the past on issues affecting Malta. In May last year, he took to Facebook to condemn the way Malta was portrayed in a German TV show on illegal hunting that was screened on RTL TV station.

“It portrayed Malta as a nation of bird killers, and I found it unfair. Yes, there is illegal hunting in Malta and it’s absolutely atrocious, but I don’t believe that every single hunter behaves that way.

“Everyone immediately said I was with the hunters. I’m not; I’m just not an extremist. Hunting happens all over the world.”

He recalls being shocked at seeing an article about a shot marsh harrier on timesofmalta.com that had generated some 600 readers’ comments, while an article about dead children in Syria had hardly any.

“It does beg the question what is happening in our society. The 600 comments should have been on the Syria story. You cannot even compare the tragedies. I’m not saying this to be sensationalist but I really felt physically sick that day.”

But if conservationist groups such as Birdlife raise awareness of illegal hunting and the problem still persists, surely it would be much worse if the perpetrators knew no one was watching?

“I’m sure most of what Birdlife does is positive. I’m sure if no one is watching there will be more offences. It’s the same for everything in society. There is incredible awareness now [about hunting] so why hurt the country by blowing things out of proportion? Not everyone is a hunter so why hurt them as well?” he asks.

Staying on the issue, Mr Calleja is asked if he would support a referendum on spring hunting, which is being proposed by NGOs and Alternattiva Demokratika.

“Hunters have become a minority. But if European hunters have the right to hunt then why shouldn’t Maltese hunters have the right? Is there a European country where hunting is banned?”

It’s pointed out that hunting in spring is banned across the EU, but Malta applies a derogation based on local circumstances.

“I definitely don’t disagree with a spring hunting referendum. But to ban hunting outright would be against Maltese hunters and European hunters.”

Moving on, Mr Calleja is asked if his role as Malta’s official cultural ambassador could be utilised more effectively.

“Yes. I am singing in the top European capitals week after week. Invariably very influential people are in the audience who discover Malta through me.”

He is happy to be used for more embassy events around Europe, and he is constantly trying to woo TV crews and journalists to visit Malta. He thinks his profile should be exploited as much as possible.

“There is no expense for the Government. I don’t receive payment. I do have a diplomatic passport but that’s it. I’m very happy to do it. Actions speak louder than words.”

Would he find it easier to promote Malta if a state of the art opera house was opened soon in Valletta, instead of the roofless theatre incorporated in Renzo Piano’s controversial design?

“That is a very hot topic with me. What Malta needed wasn’t an opera house. It needed a multipurpose hall that would have been suitable for opera. The location in Freedom Square would have been perfect had the Parliament not been built the way it was. I have enormous respect for former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, but this is one decision I will never understand.”

He believes a multipurpose venue on the site of the bombed out opera house would have generated lots of interest around Europe and beyond.

“Malta has a story to tell that not many people in Europe have heard. In 1942 Malta was the most bombed place one earth. The fact that the opera house was partly destroyed and now it’s re-emerging would have been an incredible PR story.”

Last month, Mr Calleja took time out of his busy schedule to launch his children’s foundation with Bank of Valletta.

“This foundation is not here to compete with other NGOS who are doing a great job. We’re there to fill the gaps. It’s not about photo opportunities or exposure for me,” he says.

“I will making a donation, BoV will, and there will be events where the proceeds go the foundation. We are in the process of finalising the board. The people on the board have impeccable reputations and are respected by the whole strata of the population.”

Having recorded his most recent album, Amore, in Malta, he is excited about the prospect of performing at the Granaries in Floriana on Thursday.

For the first time ever, the standing is area of the concert can be accessed free of charge thanks to an agreement between promoters NNG and the Government.

“This is a smart move by the Government and I thank them for helping make this concert accessible to everyone. The whole thing will be filmed in an incredible way and shown on foreign TV stations. Maltese artists will be performing, as will the philharmonic orchestra. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. Yes, I will be promoted – but a big chunk of me is Malta.”

Joseph Calleja will be performing on the Floriana Granaries, along with Zucchero and other guests, on Thursday. A few seated tickets are still available from http://nngpromotions.com .

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