LONDON (Reuters) - Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja's homeland is small, but his fan club stands to grow exponentially when he joins America's soprano sweetheart Renee Fleming for a broadcast from Jerusalem and sings Verdi's "Requiem" at a BBC Proms concert in London.
"My best has just started now," Calleja, 33, told Reuters, still basking in the glow from a concert in the Maltese capital Valletta where he sang opera and crossover hits, including the theme from "The Godfather" movies, for an audience of 9,000.
That's slightly more than will see him sing Verdi's roof-raiser with Russian glamour soprano Marina Poplavskaya in London's Royal Albert Hall Sunday, but a fraction of the audience for the Jerusalem concert on July 28, to be broadcast to almost 500 U.S. cinemas.
It is another major achievement for Calleja who is young for a tenor but already is being compared to greats like Luciano Pavarotti or Beniamino Gigli -- even though Calleja doesn't find the comparisons particularly helpful.
Pavarotti, he said, came into his prime at a time when LP and CD recordings were money-spinners -- before piracy and the Internet killed off sales -- and opera still got an occasional airing on commercial television instead of niche art networks.
"Of course I'm flattered when someone says you remind me of Luciano -- I'd be a liar if I said a compliment like that doesn't give me pleasure -- but from saying that to saying you're the next one after him is a whole different kettle of fish. You'd have to be a little bit crazy to even have the expectation to fill his boots."
Calleja says he got the opera bug from the movies -- specifically, the 1951 bio-pic "The Great Caruso," with Mario Lanza playing the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso who rose from Neapolitan street singer to superstar.
"'The Great Caruso' is probably why I'm an opera singer today," Calleja said, adding that the fact the movie shows Caruso swigging wine to lubricate his vocal cords added to the allure of singing for an impressionable 13-year-old.
The son of a successful businessman, Calleja, in his telling of his own bio-pic, could well have become a lawyer had it not been for the Caruso movie an uncle had on videotape, Pavarotti CDs an aunt in England had and that he heard on holidays, and the lucky coincidence that Malta has a richer musical culture than its tiny size and remote location would suggest.
The passion for opera landed him in his mid-teens in a Maltese choir which performed in what Calleja figures now was a so-so production of Verdi's "Rigoletto," but at the time it fired his imagination.
"I loved the smell of the stage, the smell of the woodwork, the smell of the costumes -- I loved all that even though it was only a small theater in Valletta" -- albeit one of the oldest opera houses in Europe, the burly six-footer said.
Because he wanted to learn what "the funny black dots" were in the vocal parts, Calleja started taking piano and theory lessons from a teacher who set him to work on "Baa Baa Black Sheep" when the upstart had his mind set on "Nessun Dorma." On the second lesson Calleja felt relaxed enough to sing, and the teacher realized he'd better send him to a specialist.
Calleja auditioned for Paul Asciak, a Maltese tenor who'd sung with Maria Callas and Dame Joan Sutherland, and who immediately took him on.
"After two months of coaching me, he called my father behind my back and said your son has a world-class talent. My father was a little taken aback...and (Asciak) told him, 'Don't tell him anything yet, we'll give it a few more months, but I think I've struck a diamond in the rough here.' Six months later they told me -- on my 16th birthday."
Now Calleja sings in the world's great opera houses, the Metropolitan in New York, Covent Garden in London, opposite the likes of Anna Netrebko and Fleming.
He and Netrebko made headlines recently when they said they would not participate in a long-planned Metropolitan Opera tour of Japan, because of the uncertainty about radiation from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. The tour went ahead without them, but Calleja, noting a history of thyroid problems in his family, and conflicting information about the radiation leaks given out by the Japanese government, sticks to his guns.
"If I have a thyroid problem six years down the line how would I have known, since it's triggered by even low amounts of radiation? ... I mean there are some comments online that you're cowards (Calleja and Netrebko) but I have two young children and financially at least they depend on me...I'm 33 and if I were 75 I would have gone, things would have been different."
Similarly, he thinks he made the right decision in taking a five-year gap year in his recording career. His new album, "The Maltese Tenor," a selection of French and Italian arias released by Decca in April in Europe, and coming out in the fall in the United States, soared to the top of the German classical charts.
Calleja said the slow but steady approach has helped him to improve his voice, which some critics said had too much vibrato, and to keep it in good condition -- unlike some singers.
"This is probably why in 14 years of my career I have never had a vocal crisis, never had an operation. And I think that's what has happened to a majority (of singers) but when I can't deliver what I feel I should deliver to my audience I cancel and give that chance to someone else.
"Singing for me is a matter of pride -- like a winemaker who wants the best results from his vines."
Reporting by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato