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Recital Evokes Bel canto-Era Beauty
Joseph Calleja, tenor
Kevin Miller, piano

Jennifer Kreingold
April 2015


Celebrity Series of Boston Presents: Joseph Calleja
New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall
April 17, 2015
Boston, Massachusetts

Within the beautiful walls of New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, with its ornate interior and elegant stage, was an audience of aficionados awaiting the recital of 36-year-old, Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja, accompanied by the accomplished and sensitive pianist, Kevin Miller.  While not every seat in the house was filled, the excitement of the audience filled every crevice of the theater, and when Calleja stepped on stage, this reviewer and her companion were momentarily transported into another time, a time when opera singers and Classical singers sang with physical ease and emotional understanding; a time when the most important goal of Classical art was to move the soul and not “impress the audience” with vocal aerobatics.  

Mr. Calleja performed a range of pieces in various languages, from his opening song in Russian, Mignon’s song (“No, Only One Who Knows”) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), to “Ah, la paterna mano” from Verdi’s Macbeth.(1) His capability to change emotion and character from one piece to another was commendable.  Along with having a voice like spun-gold, most impressive was Calleja’s ability to evoke the appropriate mood, emotion, and passion.  For example, the haunting subtle melody of Mignon’s Song (Tchaikovsky) immediately switched into a brightly colored rendition of the well-known and often-performed Italian chamber songs, “Alma del Core” by Antonio Caldara (1670-1736) and “Nina” by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736).  As a teacher of singing, I appreciated the sensitivity and directness with which Mr. Calleja sang the Neapolitan songs.  He didn’t make them more than they are, but his voice and demeanor invited you in to listen more closely to the story, especially in “Nina” when the singer is trying to coax Nina out of her slumber and sings: “svegliate mia ninetta. . .” up a minor scale. These songs may be less dramatic than a Verdi aria, but they communicate basic human emotions in a beautiful and accessible way, such that they are the staple for any young singer’s development.   

These delightful numbers were followed by Massenet’s “Pourquoi me reveiller” from Werther and Offenbach’s “Il etait une fois a la cour” from The Tales of Hoffman.  The second half of the recital yielded the more vocally impressive qualities of Calleja’s voice with S. Donaudy’s “Vaghissima sembianza,” Francesco Tosti’s “Ideale”, F. Cilea’s “Lamento di Federico” Verdi’s “Ah, la paterna mano” from Macbeth, and ended with G. Puccini’s “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca.  The smitten audience demanded five encores, and it was clear that Calleja was having a lot of fun as at a certain point he came off the stage and began walking through the audience singing.  Hearing his voice up close, this reviewer got a deep sense of the potential of this purely bel canto voice, just proving there is absolutely no need of false amplification; a powerful, clear, and dark (“chiaro oscuro”) quality reminiscent of such greats as; Luciano Pavorotti and Enrico Caruso. With such a golden voice and lyrical capability, however, the world would benefit from singers like Mr. Calleja performing more of the strict Classical repertoire, including German Lieder (Art Songs), rather than limiting his performances to mostly Romantic composers. (2)

While American audiences are understandably excited by hearing a performance of such quality singing and interpretation, imagine how much more effective it would be to hear a singer employ his artistic skills and beautiful voice to uplift the thinking of the audience, and challenge them to educate their emotions. That is, after all, the real purpose of art—to address the mind of people—so they can participate in a celebration of true creativity.  And that is what can change the world for the better. Many great musicians today, because of the culture of money and power, often feel the pressure of pleasing an audience, when the only standard for great art is the composer’s intention, and the judgment of history. 

The overly-romantic quality of most 20th century music, and the raising of the pitch standard for tuning in the 20th century to make music more bright and appealing, is one indication of the problem of the culture today.  Mr. Calleja himself indicated in a blog on his website,(3) when discussing the problems of singers’ vocal health, saying “Pitch is the other issue.  Nowadays we perform the whole 19th century repertoire around a semitone higher than intended as displayed here by operatic legend Piero Cappucilli.  It is interesting to note that Cappucilli is doing the comparison between A 432 and A 440.(4)  Situation is worse today with many opera houses tuning up to A 444 and sometimes even beyond!” 

In her introduction to Friedrich Schiller: Poet of Freedom, Volume 2, author Helga Zepp-LaRouche says, “. . .it is not the things of the mind which move history, but rather the emotions underlying thinking, which determine both the method of thinking, as well as the objects thought about. In this respect, the two emotions of Agape and Eros may be considered to be the two fundamental motive forces of all human action and structures of thought. It is either the love of humanity, Agape, which inspires an epoch as its general orientation, or it is self-deification, Eros, with all of the emotions which issue from it, which dominates the spirit of an era. And if one looks back, it may easily be established, that all progress in the history of humanity always depended upon the action, often of a single person, moved by Agape, regardless of whether this "action" was a cultural, political, or religious work. As soon as the work of this individual has begun to take effect upon his contemporaries, or even upon many successive generations, we see that the moral character of the people was improved. And, vice-versa, it was often the influence of a single person, whose self-love was displayed as a model by those wielding power, who cast the human species back into barbaric conditions once more.”(5)  With this Classical approach, and with the artistic talents of Messrs. Miller and Calleja, the immortal composers will look down from their lofty heights, and smile.


(1).Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) composed Macbeth for an 1847 premiere in Florence, Italy, and was revised and expanded for a Paris performance in 1865.  

(2)Werther, composed by Jules Massenet (1810-1880), premiered in 1892 in German and in French in 1892.  The Tales of Hoffmann is an “opéra fantastique” by Jacques Offenbach, premiering in 1881 in Paris.  Stefano Donaudy (1879-1925) composed 36 Arias in Ancient style, first published in 1918 by Casa Ricordi which have recently returned to the recital stage.  Pablo Tosti (1846-1916) wrote songs and arias in English and Italian, mainly for operatic singers, though no operas.  Francesco Cilea’s (1866-1950) opera L'Arlesiana premiered with Caruso in 1897.  Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) composed many popular operas, and although he was called a successor to Verdi, the two Italian composers represented very different schools of thought. Verdi was in the Classical tradition, and was not a Romantic composer.


(4). It was at the famous Schiller Institute Conference in April 9, 1988 that the Tuning Demonstration was done by
baritone Piero Cappucilli, Soprano Renate Tebaldi and others.   A similar demonstration was made at another conference of the Schiller Institute in 1996. 

(5).   Friedrich Schiller: Poet of Freedom, Volume 2,  “Poetry and Agape, Reflections of Goethe and Schiller” p. xix.