The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Is Joseph Calleja — “The Maltese Tenor” — the next Pavarotti? | October 23, 2011

By Jacob Stockiinger

We are coming into Opera Time in Madison. Next weekend sees the University Opera’s production of Puccini‘s evergreen “La Boheme” for three performances. And the week after that, the Madison Opera gives two performances of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”

So it seems a good time to talk about –what else? — opera.

Ever since famed Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti (below) fell ill and then died, the opera world has been wondering who will be The Next Pavarotti. 

Being named The Successor to such a superstar seems, at times, like the kiss of death or  the curse of King Tut.

First, there was Salvatore Licitra (below), who actually substituted for Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere to critical acclaim. His career started to take off, but the shadow of Pavarotti seemed to haunt him and disappoint his listeners. He needed to be himself. Then, alas, he died last month at age 43 after a motorbike accident in Sicily.

Then there was the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon (below). He too sounded very promising. But his career got ahead of him. He hurt his voice and apparently experienced some emotional, nervous or mental problems while coping with his accelerated career. You don’t hear a lot about his these days, though one hopes that will change for the better.

The latest is Vittorio Grigolo (below), an Italian who is movie handsome (unlike Pavarotti) and who seems bold with the singing and acting talent to go with his looks. But it really is too early to tell. Even Pavarotti wasn’t Pavarotti this early in his career. Besides, Grigolo strikes me more as an Ezio Pinza or Mario Lanza type, which is no small achievement.

If you are looking for me to name Jonas Kaufmann (below), the young German tenor, you will be disappointed, I think he may well be the single most important tenor voice to emerge in the past 20 years, or more, after Pavarotti and Domingo. But his specialty is not the Italian lyrical style and “verismo” repertoire, though he can sing it just fine, as his latest solo CD demonstrates. He is fabulous at everything, singing and acting. But it is especially Wagner and meatier German roles that show him off to his best advantage.

These days, the candidate seems to be Joseph Calleja (below), who is being marketed as The Maltese Tenor because he hails from the small island of Malta in the Mediterranean. (CORRRECTION: ORIGINALLY I SAID THE RUSSIAN WRITER ANTON CHEKHOV RETIRED AND DIED IN MALTA. BUT A READER POINTED OUT CORRECTLY THAT HE RETIRED TO YALTA AND DIED IN GERMANY. MY APOLOGIES TO ALL FOR THE INACCURACY. I REGRET THE ERROR.)

At this point, I have no way of predicting where his career will go. But on the basis of his latest album from Decca – his fourth (below), proving that he is no upstart — he has the necessary magic in his voice.

When he sings the opening track, from “La Boheme,” I get the kind of goose bumps that only Pavarotti – not even Placido Domingo – can give me in the greatest arias by Puccini, Verdi and others.


I think the NPR classical blog meister (check out “Deceptive Cadence”) Tom Huizenga puts his finger on it when he talks about the quality of Calleja’s old-fashioned but deeply appealing vibrato and how it takes us back to the Golden Age of great tenors, including Caruso and Bjoerling.

But it also has to do, as it did with Pavarotti, with the tonal quality and effortless ease Calleja shows in the high note range where, I am convinced, our human nervous system is programmed to respond in an almost an emotional, almost bestial way. That is where tenors break your heart and bring tears to your eyes.

Anyway, here is a link to Huizinga’s outstanding review that features several sample tracks so you can see if he has The Right Stuff.

Listen for yourself to his work (including a Pavarotti trademark aria, at bottom).

Decide if you like him and what he does to you.

Then tell me what you think of The Maltese tenor.

And whether you think he might indeed be The Next Pavarotti?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. Luciano Pavarotti was very handsome, his talent transcended his looks. He was his own choir of angels.

    Comment by Annie L. — September 13, 2017 @ 8:24 pm

  2. Just a comment regarding your observation:

    “I think (Kaufmann) may well be the single most important tenor voice to emerge in the past 20 years, or more, after Pavarotti and Domingo.”

    Incredible as it seems, both Domingo and Pavarotti “emerged” in the late 60’s and early 70’s. So with occasional highs and lows (minor pun intended), a hazard for any singer, they both delighted us for almost 40 years (!) and it looks like the indestructible Domingo might even roll on into his 80s, singing Wagner and “Boccanegra” no less!

    Comment by Marius — October 24, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

    • Marius,
      Thanks, as always, for reading and replying so intelligently.
      You make a fine point worth remembering.
      We should be grateful for so many years of great tenor singing.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 24, 2011 @ 8:24 pm

  3. What a beautiful voice! something about his sound reminds me of Gedda and Bjorling….
    The speed and width of his vibrato creates a feeling of passion without blowing out the voice.
    It reminds me of Price singing Madama Butterfly…she either consciously or instinctively changes the rate of vibrato in the later aria, which is incredibly moving.

    Comment by Eva Wright — October 23, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    • Hi Eva,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      I agree. there is something beautifully old-fashioned about his voice.
      Makes you want to hear more, no?

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 23, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

  4. Anton Checkov retired to Yalta, and died in Badenweiler, Germany.

    Comment by Mary Jones — October 23, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    • Hi Mary,
      I checked and you are absolutely RIGHT and I am dead WRONG.
      I apologize and will change the blog next.
      Please excuse the mistake and deep thanks for catching it.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 23, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

  5. Kaufmann and Callejja are too different to make any reasonable comparison and the only reasonable thing to say is to like one more than the other.

    I like them both: sometimes I feel romantic, other times, heroic.

    I think either of them will/would be a good Walther in “Meistersinger.”

    Comment by James Nimmo — October 23, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    • Hi James,
      I too tried to say they are very different, though both are still tenors.
      I suspect you are right about the role, though I suspect Kaufmann would have an edge.
      Thank you for reading and replying so thoughtfully and constructively.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 23, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

  6. It is a nice voice. Doesn’t have the warmth or the ease of an good Italian tenor. It is a funny quality. Maybe not quite on the breath so it does not follow an easy line. The high notes are there but sound forced, not spun out on breath. For me, it will be fun to see him sing and to see where he goes professionally, but he will never be my favorite tenor.

    Comment by kathryn hoyt — October 23, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    • Hi Kathryn,
      I find him more satisfying than you do, though I also do not find him quite up to Pavarotti.
      But I do agree he is not at his peak yet and it will be interesting to see if he has staying power and where his career takes him.
      And us.
      Thanks for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 23, 2011 @ 11:48 am

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