“Everything you hear about me is true!” laughs Joseph Calleja, nestling into an armchair. The Maltese tenor is in high spirits following opening night of Tosca at the Royal Opera, sharing outrageously funny stories and reflecting on how his voice is developing. He made his role debut as Mario Cavaradossi just last summer at Grange Park Opera and he reflects on how well it fits his voice as we settle down to talk about Puccini’s writing for the tenor voice.

Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca) and Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi) in Tosca
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

“The first year of singing a new role,” Calleja begins, “you get tired afterwards, but this didn’t happen with Cavaradossi. It was spot on. Even migrating it to a big house like Munich in the autumn [where he sang opposite Anja Harteros’ Tosca] was a big test but it worked.” He surprises me, however, by confessing that Rodolfo in Bohème is a tougher sing. “There is nothing in Tosca which taps the spinto part of the voice except for the “Vittorias” in Act 2. The big scene with Marcello in Act 3 of Bohème has very heavy orchestration. A good full lyric Rodolfo can definitely sing Cavaradossi. Of course, a lirico-spinto dramatic tenor can do it as well but I think with less success because there are so many lyrical moments – the diminuendo in “E lucevan le stelle”, the beautiful lyrical singing in duet: in my opinion, it’s a role written pretty much for a full lyric tenor.”

Calleja had been flirting with Cavaradossi for twenty years, singing the arias and duets in concert from an early age. “I always had the high notes but sometimes they tended to become white and to lose a bit of focus, a bit of the squillo that the voice had.” Which of Cavaradossi’s two arias is technically more challenging? “Without doubt “Recondita armonia”. You’re just on stage, you’re not warmed up and it’s terribly written, mostly on the passagio. Puccini goes from D to F on “ma nel ritrar costei” then As, then he throws an interval to the B flat, which I have easy, but it takes a lot of hard work to do it consistently. Of all the opera, that’s the moment that worries me most.”

Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi) and Anja Harteros (Tosca) in Tosca at Bayerische Staatsoper
© Wilfried Hösl

Many tenors hold on to the cries of “Vittoria!” in Act 2 for as long as they can and I ask Calleja if it’s a tenor ego thing. He admits to timing his somewhere between Luciano Pavarotti and Franco Corelli. “With Corelli, it was a clarion show of trumpet, but even with a voice like his, we must remember that this guy has just been tortured for a long time. It is his last gasp of strength that takes everything he has left in him. He lets out this scream of delirium, of pain, and then he collapses. It’s also in the music – he goes from a high B flat down to low Fs on “L'alba vindice appar” then goes up again for “Carnefice!”. It is the genius of Puccini that he portrays in the music a man who, when he has an outburst, has to recharge. It’s not “Di quella pira” which is relentless, or “Esultate!” . It’s so realistic. Tosca is like a movie.”

In Act 3, I wonder exactly when Cavaradossi realises it’s not going to be a mock execution. “You’re going to make me fight with the director!” he confides. “The one thing in this production with which I am at loggerheads is that Cavaradossi tears up the safe conduct pass when Tosca gives it to him. He realises too soon. To me, the time he knows is when she tells him “Ma prima...ridi, amor...prima sarai fucilato... per finta” (But first... Oh, laugh at this, my love... First you will be shot, in play and pretence). In this production – and it’s only my taste, so it doesn’t mean it’s the word of God – I think it comes too early and it kills a bit the last section of the drama.”

Ekaterina Metlova (Tosca) and Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi) in Tosca at Grange Park Opera
© Robert Workman

Another of Calleja’s great Puccini roles is Rodolfo in La bohème. Indeed, he sang in the final run of performances of John Copley’s celebrated Royal Opera production alongside Anna Netrebko’s Mimì. Some tenors transpose the aria “Che gelida manina” down a semitone. Is that high C really so scary? “I’ve sung it both ways, 95% of the time with a high C, 5% with a B natural. I’ll shock you by saying that, with my kind of voice, it’s more difficult to do the lower version! If you crack that bloody C! Pavarotti cracked it at The Met in a live broadcast and he never sang it in key again. Considering the rise in tonality from Puccini’s time, a high C then is like a B natural now, so nowadays, we’re basically singing a high C sharp! Whether it’s psychological or whether I concentrate more, when I sing it at the higher key it does sound more exciting.

Joseph Calleja (Rodolfo) and Anna Netrebko (Mimì) in La bohème
© ROH | Bill Cooper (2015)

Calleja’s also sung Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, but admits it’s not a grateful role to sing. “There are two roles which I hate: Pollione in Norma and Pinkerton in Butterfly. Pollione is more difficult and people don’t care what a bastard role it is – it’s all about the soprano! It’s badly written for the tenor for the most part. I like singing Pinkerton, but I still hate the role because he’s a horrible character. It’s not just about the mistreatment of women, although that’s part of our shameful history. There’s no real attempt at redemption. I don’t mind people who make certain mistakes as long as they make them right or at least try to fix it.”

We reflect on the differences between Puccini’s writing for tenor and Verdi’s, where Calleja concludes that, “In Puccini you can hide, in Verdi you cannot! I’m not saying you can hide in Puccini all the time, but in Verdi there’s this Donizettian bel canto line. I get pissed off by people who think they know about opera saying ‘Ah, Trovatore has to have a dramatic tenor’. Verdi wrote Rigoletto, Traviata and Trovatore for the same type of tenor. What these people are completely forgetting is that singers had an incredible freedom in Verdi’s time. Caruso wrote letters about lowering an aria by a tone, or how he would crack certain notes. Nowadays we have reached the other side of the spectrum where we can’t cut or change anything.”

Kristine Opolais (Cio-Cio-San) and Joseph Calleja (Pinkerton) in Madama Butterfly
© Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper

In Puccini, there’s a larger orchestra to ride over, which Calleja describes as a double-edged sword. “With Puccini, if you don’t sing well, you’re dead within minutes because the moment you force your voice it diminishes in volume quite drastically. The high notes are the money notes, but the important part is the middle voice – for confirmation of that, talk to Plácido Domingo. I’ve known Plácido since I was 18 years old and his top notes, it’s no secret, were not always there. It wasn’t just the high C that was variable but the B natural and B flat sometimes. When it worked it was glorious, but what he built his career on mainly was an incredibly healthy production of his beautiful, unique, burnished, golden bronze quality middle voice. I’ve read in his autobiography that, around my age, he was cracking so much that he paid doctors to listen to him in performance to analyse what the problem might be.”

In time, Calleja says he will sing Luigi in Il tabarro and Calaf in Turandot. “Giacomo Lauri-Volpi sang Calaf yet he started, like me, in Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. He had this thrilling voice but he wasn’t a spinto – he was a full lyric with a clarion top – so some day, Calaf for sure and even Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut in five, six or seven years. “Donna non vidi mai” is a lyrical aria. Just listen to Giuseppe di Stefano! If he had been disciplined around the passagio he could have been the most thrilling Des Grieux. At its peak, his was the most beautiful tenor voice ever; it may be blasphemy, but even more beautiful than Caruso’s!

“Caruso you can imitate, Jussi Björling you can imitate, but Di Stefano had a timbre that has not been replicated. Björling and Di Stefano were great friends. Björling had higher notes and could go above a C, but then Di Stefano would say, ‘Ah but Jussi, can you do this?’ and he’d sing a high C with a diminuendo which Björling couldn’t do! This is what singing is all about and it would be sad if singing becomes homogenised.”

Calleja puts his success down to technique and discipline but also making the right mistakes, “because you learn so much from them. I sang Bohème way too early. I was 20 in a 5000-seat house!” Continued study is crucial. “In the summer I usually fly back to Malta and study with Vincenzo Scalera or James Pearson from the Wiener Staatsoper, working on technique and new repertoire. Sometimes you pick up bad habits, so a teacher is important. I cringe when I hear some colleagues say they don’t need to study with anyone anymore. That’s impossible for one simple reason: an opera singer can never hear himself quite correctly. Recordings don’t do it. If recordings were sufficient, nobody would go to the opera any more! The irony is that we never hear our voice the way you do, so it takes humility to go back to your coach or teacher or guru and become the student again.

“The older I grow – a sensitive topic as I turn 40 next week! – the more you appreciate good advice. This world is replete with people who have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to voices, especially with Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Everybody has an opinion. In London and Germany, at least you still have the culture of the critic who knows what he’s talking about and who is not so prone to bias and who says it as it is.”

Joseph Calleja
© Simon Fowler | Decca

On evidence of the opening night of Tosca, Calleja’s tenor still has its golden quality, but his vibrato is now noticeably less fluttery. I ask him how much his voice has changed. “It’s a paradox – a lot and not much! Everything is still there, but it has gained in volume and power in the top register and has become meatier. My teacher always told me that if I looked after it, my voice was going to be one that develops very late. I’ll give you the perfect analogy: a 1982 Bordeaux. I love wine – which I cannot drink when I’m singing! – but when you have a great vintage, some wine critics say that this wine is to be enjoyed between its 30th and 50th year.” He warms to his theme. “Keep it in a cool cellar at the right temperature, with no sudden temperature fluctuations, shielded from vibrations, shielded from bright light. It’s the same with the voice: shield it from irresponsible behaviour, from bad roles, from too much talking, drinking, smoking and, if you’re lucky to be healthy, then this is a voice which should develop into my fifties. Vibrato in a young singer is the trademark of a healthy voice. If you go to every great tenor of the past and get hold of the pirate recordings – Björling, Caruso, Domingo, Pavarotti, Corelli – they all had a lot of vibrato.”

Finally, I ask, if he were to wake up as a baritone for the day, which role would you sing. Calleja’s response is immediate. “I’ve thought about it already for many years. If they will let me – in some obscure theatre in Malta where nobody will hear it – I would love to sing Macbeth. I love Shakespeare. I love Verdi. Macbeth incorporates the singing and the acting. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it! I can picture in my head when I did Macduff here at Covent Garden and Thomas Hampson was singing Macbeth. When he did the banquet scene with the apparition of Banquo I watched his face and for a split second I thought – against rationality –  that he was really seeing a ghost, he was so immersed. It is such an incredible opera because it mirrors the text so well.”