Malta Diary Treading the boards to international fame – Malta’s tenors
Lying less than 100 kilometres from Sicily and hence in close proximity to the Italian Peninsula it stands to reason that Malta has a traditional love of lyrical music, opera, operettas and classical music in general, corollaries to an immense admiration of tenors.
Famed international tenors Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Benjamino Gili (still regarded as the purest and best tenor ever), Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza have always been household names – but alongside these stand two Maltese immortals who also achieved international fame and deep reverence in Malta…the late Oreste Kirkop and Joseph Calleja with Calleja today being classed almost on a par with Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras.
Oreste Kirkop was born in 1923 in Hamrun into a large family, being the fifth of ten children. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, at the age of 16, Oreste whiled away time spent in air raid shelters by singing to a captive audience to resounding applause and encouragement to develop his singing career – which he did by taking lessons from Maltese tenor Nicolo Baldacchino.
He made his operatic debut at the picturesque Manoel Theatre in Valletta and appeared in concert with established Italian lyrical singers Tito Gobbi and Maria Cagniglia and after further encouragement in 1950 moved to London to try his talents on a wider audience. Word of his tenor tones spread and by 1952 he was singing lead tenor roles with Sadler’s Wells and made an appearance in a leading role on BBC Television.
By 1954 he was being hailed “the new Mario Lanza”, attracting Hollywood promoters, producers and directors and made his debut at Covent Garden as The Duke in “Rigoletto” and later featured as Rodolfo in “La Boheme”.
The lure of Hollywood proved too strong and he was signed up on contract to Paramount Pictures the studio which in 1956 released “The Vagabond King” with Oreste in the lead role of Francois Villon starring opposite Kathryn Grayson. Paramount lined up another production with Ginger Rogers, but Oreste Kirkop hesitated.
Nevertheless he starred in operatic productions in Las Vegas and the Hollywood Bowl and made several appearances on NBC Television.
Still only aged 35, the road to international stardom beckoned but unexpectedly in 1958 he quit Hollywood and returned to Covent Garden and suddenly announced his retirement at the age of 37 when he returned to Malta and married.
At the time medical reasons were quoted for his sudden retirement after serious medical advice that he had chronic heart problems and was in danger of suffering a serious heart attack on stage.
However, much later Oreste Kirkop fully explained his retirement. He was basically a family man and the lure of the Hollywood lifestyle as well as a disruptive life on stage away from his home did not suit his family temperament and had caused him a quick retreat from the scene. In fact, he lived to 74 and died on 10th May 1998, still married to his Therese and having raised two daughters.
Still only aged 37, Joseph Calleja has superseded the fame of his forerunner Oreste in an era where electronic communications have revolutionised the music industry in general. Oreste could only be heard on records, radio or his film or in a theatre. With modern development, Calleja can be seen and heard in every home at any time.
Born on 22nd January 1978 in the central Malta village of Attard, Calleja started his singing career aged 16 under the direction of another well-known Maltese tenor Paul Asciak who although not as famed a celebrity as Kirkop and Calleja is well-known in Maltese households.
Calleja’s career took off on the boards of the Astra Theatre in Gozo in 1997 when still aged 19 he appeared as MacDuff in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth” and in that same year won the prestigious Belvedere Hans Gabor Competition. A year later he went one step further when he won the Caruso Competition in the home of opera, Milan and a year later still he was a winner in Placido Domingo’s Operalia International Opera Competition.
Success followed success and in Europe, besides La Scala in Milan, Calleja has performed at Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera, the Teatro Real in Madrid, Frankfurt, Deutsche Opera in Berlin and the Opera National du Rhin in Salzbourg as well as in opera houses in Barcelona, Munich, Amsterdam and many other places.
Subsequently, his fame spread to the US where he has performed at the Metropolitan in New York, the Houston Grand Opera, the Washington National Opera, the Seattle Opera, the Lyric Opera in Chicago and the Los Angeles Opera.
Despite this enormous international reputation, Joseph Calleja has not neglected his home base adulation. In Malta he annually hosts a Summer Festival on the Floriana Granaries attended by many thousands and also gives a Christmas/New Year concert. It is not at all unusual for him to pop up in some small Maltese theatre rehearsing youth productions and singing a few bars with them and last year he astounded the congregation when he popped up at Naxxar to sing during his young daughter’s First Holy Communion.
The first Granaries Concert took place in 2009 and annually since then he has performed in tandem with Michael Bolton, Dionne Warwick, Riccardo Cocciante, Hayley Westenra, the late Lucio Dalla, Ronan Keating, Gigi D’Alessio, Zucchero, Snoop Dog and Rebecca Ferguson.
In 2012 he was awarded a Doctorate in Literature Honoris Causa from the University of Malta and was appointed Malta’s Roving Ambassador for Culture and Brand Manager for the national airline Air Malta.
He has given private concerts to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip as well as US President Barack Obama. In 2011 he was the featured soloist during the Nobel Peace Prize presentations in Stockholm and has won a string of international awards in various countries and at various international festivals.
One of his greatest triumphs was to feature as lead tenor at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2012 at the Last Night of the Proms where he brought the house down with his rendition of “Rule Britannia” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” but before singing these he removed his outer cloak to reveal a sizeable Maltese Cross on his tee shirt.
A rosy future certainly beckons. His engagements diary is filled right up to end 2018.
The pity is that Oreste Kirkop died in 1998, the year after which Joseph Calleja made his first debut in Gozo and could not formally hand over the mantle of success to his glorious successor.