October's themed month explores the world of international competitions through the eyes of some finalists of top competitions around the world. We kick off our series with Joseph Calleja, winner of Operalia's CulturArte Prize in 1999.

Joseph Calleja © Simon Fowler
Joseph Calleja
© Simon Fowler

Why did you decide to apply to compete in Operalia? How much international experience had you had by this time?

The first time I applied I was 19 years old and I was accepted to compete in Hamburg. I passed the first couple of rounds but I then fell very sick with a lung infection. Plácido called me up personally to tell me I would be in the final had I not fallen sick and he asked me to apply again for the 1999 Operalia in Puerto Rico of which I was a prize winner. My experience at that very young age was limited to my debut performances of Macduff (Verdi’s Macbeth) and Leicester (Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda). 

Whilst some singers thrive on competitions, others find them terrifying. What was your experience of competing in Operalia? Was it similar to your experience of competing in other competitions?

They are important to be noticed by people who matter. I did the competitions at a very young ago; indeed I was 21 years old when I sang in my last competition, which was the Premio Caruso in Milan. I remember being justifiably nervous but not terrified by competitions.

Which piece did you choose to perform in the final? Why did you choose this repertoire?

It was my teacher, Paul Asciak, who chose “Che gelida manina”. He thought that this piece shows off the lyricisim (and potential) of a young tenor voice.

The jury for Operalia famously includes casting agents from top opera houses. Did you receive any casting opportunities as a direct result of competing in Operalia?

Certainly. It was a very important step in my career and helped put me on the map.

What memories do you have working with Domingo?

I have “‘known” Placido since I was 19 years of age and I was privileged to work with him several times both in opera and concert. He is a charismatic artist with an evergreen voice that showed the world that Peter Pan is not fiction but reality. My best memory of him was during a notes session, held by Jimmy Levine, after a Boccanegra rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera. It just occurred to me that in that room there were three legendary giants of opera: Levine, Furlanetto and, of course, Domingo and I was probably assisting to one of Jimmy’s last working sessions on an opera he was conducting.

What was the biggest way in which Operalia helped you to develop as a singer?

I think development is up to the singer and his or her career choices. What Operalia does is give a young artist the much needed exposure.

If you were competing in Operalia today, what would you choose to sing?

Probably the same repertoire I had done back then.