Joseph Calleja is one of Malta’s most internationally renowned opera singers. Often compared to Italian tenors Pavarotti and Gigli, his is the voice of a generation. Born and raised in Malta, Calleja travels the world but keeps coming back to the island for its beauty, culture and burgeoning music scene. Here, he opens up about opera in Malta, his love for his home and his top tips for visitors.
How did your passion for Opera first come about?
I’ve loved singing since I was a child, and from a young age I joined my church and school choirs. At the age of 13, my friends and I formed a rock band. I loved singing this genre of music until I discovered operatic singing through American tenor Mario Lanza. As soon as I heard opera, it was the only music I wanted to sing.
You were born and raised in Malta, before travelling the world as a singer. What keeps you coming back to the island?
I have travelled extensively and found nowhere quite like Malta, where so much history, beauty and architecture is crammed onto a tiny island. Ultimately though, what makes Malta truly great is its resourceful and hardy people.
Did you find that growing up in Malta aided you as an aspiring singer?
I wouldn’t say that growing up in Malta helped me become an opera singer as such. Opportunities to sing or study opera in Malta were very limited, but I took them all. I was lucky to meet the best person who could have taught me there, Paul Asciak.
Malta is increasingly becoming a hub for music and culture. Tell us about the island’s flourishing music scene.
There is an ongoing renaissance of culture in Malta. In the operatic scene alone, we have around 20 aspiring opera singers. I take great pride in supporting many of them through the BOV Joseph Calleja Foundation. The country’s economy is also booming with an increase in tourism going hand-in-hand with an ongoing upgrade of the local infrastructure. Valletta has never looked better and, arguably, Malta has never enjoyed such a diverse cultural scene as it is today. This is all very encouraging, but we haven’t reached our full potential yet. What’s missing is the building of a multi-purpose theatre.
What are your top tips for first-time visitors to Malta?
The ideal time spent in Malta is around two weeks. This will allow you to immerse yourself in the culture and truly live the Maltese experience. If time is an issue, the following are unmissable experiences.
Benjamin Disraeli described it as a ‘city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen’. You can easily explore Valletta in half a day. Don’t miss the Manoel Theatre and St Johns Co Cathedral with a splendid Caravaggio inside. Two top restaurants here are Da Pippo and La Superba.
Malta’s oldest city, Mdina, is also unmissable. The cathedral square is spectacular, peppered with all the beautiful palazzos of the nobility from a bygone era. Don’t miss the view from the bastions!
For the romantics, go for a stroll in Birgu. Again, the architecture is spectacular and there are excellent wine bars and restaurants in the area. Check out Tal-Petut Restaurant for excellent and authentic Maltese fare.
Malta is an archipelago of three main islands. A visit to Malta’s sister island, Gozo is a must. The old city, Victoria, has just been given a facelift and is looking glorious. Dwejra is also must-see, as is Xlendi, and the small hamlet of Marsalforn. When hungry, go to Tmun Mgarr or Ta’ Frenc on the way to Marsalforn.
Exploring Malta’s coast is also a must. Charter a small boat and ask the skipper to take you to all the secret spots this island has to offer. Better still, enrol with one of the excellent diving schools and discover Malta’s crystal clear seas and the many wonderful diving spots!