03/17/2011 04:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Maltese Tenor

Joseph Calleja on the shores of Malta (credit: Johannes Ifkovits)

The Mediterranean island of Malta has been in the news frequently in recent weeks, mostly in the role of haven for refugees of the crisis in Libya. The news touched off crazy memories of my one visit there when I was a student living in Vienna in the early 1980s. I arrived in Malta by boat late at night with such a high fever that I was practically delirious. I had no money in my pocket and only scraps in the bottom of a jar of peanut butter for food. It was a stormy, wind-swept night, and as I walked around a square by the boat terminal I remember an Australian couple grabbing me by the arm, pulling me on a bus and saying, "You can't stay here. It's very dangerous. There's some political shit that just happened and there are soldiers on the street. We'll take you into town." All I remember after that was waking up the next morning in a hotel room with a stunning, panoramic view of the sea. My clothes were soaked through, not only with rain but also with sweat. My fever had broken, but there was no sign of the Australians.

That night in Malta remained a great mystery to me for more than two decades, but that changed a few days ago when a tall, broad-shouldered and extremely energetic tenor named Joseph Calleja came to visit us at our offices. He has been a client of my company's for a few years now, but I had never met him (his work at my company is overseen by my colleague, Sean Michael Gross). Having now spent a few hours chatting with Joseph on two separate occasions, I know I'll never forget him. He's colorful, and passionate about many subjects including world politics. He's also enormously funny -- an amazing storyteller with a vibrant back-story that includes a large cast of family characters (nearly 40 first cousins) including a colorful uncle who runs the best fish restaurant in Malta. It may be a small island, but in the mind and life of Joseph Calleja everything about Malta looms large.

"There was a very difficult and dangerous political situation at that time, and it almost seemed as if the island was on the verge of a sort of civil war," he explained when I told him about my Malta mystery. "Malta was akin, in some respects, to a communist country, and I remember a few people losing their lives as well." He spoke very quickly about what had happened in his home country back then, about the Labor Party and the Nationalists and the faulty election reminiscent of Bush-Gore, explaining all of the intricacies of Maltese politics. The speed of his lesson in Maltese political history rivaled the speech of any fast-paced New Yorker I've ever met. His voice has that characteristically bright peal of a tenor, and he speaks with the lyrical fluidity of an Italian even as he speaks clear, crisply articulated English (Malta was long a British colony).

I ask him what his favorite places in New York are now that he's been coming here over the past five years. "At the moment it's Morton's -- the steakhouse." He stops for a reflective pause. "The first five years I've come to New York to work at the Met have been such busy times for me, and it took me a long time to get adjusted to the pace and all the noise. I'm rebuilding my house in Malta, and the sound of silence there is so powerful -- so far away from what New York is all about. But I'm really excited about New York these days. Now I want to do the Little Italy tour. I love The Godfather!"

He's not kidding about that. He loves to quote lines from the Godfather films, knows tons of trivia about them (such as when a Fiat appears in a flashback scene set in 19th-century Italy). "Have you ever met Robert De Niro?" he asks me. "Just once, but briefly," I tell him. I can't tell if he's impressed or disappointed. But there's more than New York's steakhouses that Calleja loves about the Big Apple, something deeper that genuinely seems to move him. "It's probably the most successful place in the world in terms of multiculturalism actually working. People of all different backgrounds and religions live together here in a way they don't anywhere else. Why is that the case?"

There are similarities between opera and baseball that aren't always apparent, but when a singer has a few big nights at the Metropolitan Opera it can be the equivalent of a baseball player rising to a much higher level of fame by getting a few big hits in a playoff series. "Yes, I suppose you could say that I just had a defining moment at the Met this season." I read him a bit from the amazing reviews of his recent performance as Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, a role he'll encore this Saturday, March 19 and which will be simulcast into theaters worldwide as part of the Met Live in HD! series. He smiles broadly but with a humble sense of self-awareness. "I had successes in three operas in a row, and I think it cemented things for me here in New York. I did two signature roles in La Boheme and Rigoletto, and now this Lucia, which has received very positive reviews. Edgardo is a extremely hard role, so I'm very happy with the response, but I'm not one that gets drunk on his success. 'You're only as good as the last performance' is a cruel dictum, but it's true nonetheless. Usually I'm less than happy with what I do, and always want to do better, but last night I can honestly say I was pleased with what I achieved. And this was very gratifying."

The presence of his beautiful raven-haired Maltese girlfriend in New York has added more sparkle to his smile this time around, and he's been acting as her tour guide during this, her first visit here. Earlier this week, for example, they took a helicopter ride around the island. I ask him what else he's been doing while in town. "Working out with a trainer, for one. I'm strong, but I'm really working on things to improve my endurance." Apparently, he was quite the sportsman back in Malta, competing on a European level in his teens.

And he's happy to keep talking with you, so I keep feeding him questions like coal being shoveled into a hot furnace. He talks again about his extraordinary passion for film. He talks about his love of books, a quality he shares with his "bookworm" mother (Don Quixote is right by his bedside table, and next in line for reading), and of all things sea-related: "I fly-fish, I snorkel, I do some Scuba, charter a yacht and enjoy good food and drink."

As he leaves our office I ask him one more question about how he feels about people watching opera in movie theaters. "Like anything in the relationship between opera and modern media, there will always be positives and negatives. What's negative is the fact that audiences are not really getting the 'live' effect of opera, which is what it's all about in the first place. But I have to say, the filming is so well done, with the zooming and everything, that it's the second best thing to being there. If people are moved, I think it will get more people into the theater. And that's a very positive thing."

I look forward to spending more time with Joseph Calleja. I know I could learn plenty from him about opera, but also about various aspects of The Good Life. In the fall, he'll be back in New York for more performances at the Met. That's also when Decca will release his album of French and Italian opera arias. Guess what the title of the album is? You got it: The Maltese Tenor.