Paul Asciak has had scores of achievements, dreams dashed, faced joy and personal tragedy.
A friend left at my door a big, young, callow young man, whom he begged me to hear. His name was Joseph Calleja and the rest is history
“One who has never known disappointment and suffering could never sound too convincing when singing anything. Few opera singers were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Very few have not had to struggle hard to survive, and it tells in the voice,” he says, on the eve of his 90th birthday.
Today opportunities seem greater, travelling less arduous, communications in this age of hyper-developed technology makes things easier.
“Yet, apart from having God-given talent and the right coaching, an aspiring singer has to be prepared to make sacrifices, be careful what to eat and drink, be physically fit, determined and persevering,” he says.
The hard work never stops: it is an on-going life commitment as long as the voice holds out.
Encouraged to develop his tenor voice, Asciak studied with the well-known Maltese tenor Niccolò Baldacchino and in 1946 made his Malta debut as Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. By then he was already married to the former Rina Ricci and the father of two children.
Some years later when chosen to sing in recital with famed soprano Maria Caniglia, the latter was so impressed with his voice that she encouraged him to further his studies, promised to find the right contacts for him and was to be as good as her word.
Asciak went to Rome in 1950 on the first of a series of visits. He studied with Alberto Paoletti and later worked with Luigi Ricci, Gigli’s accompanist. His Italian debut was at the Politeama di Catanzaro. Being one of the top prize-winners in the Concorso per Giovani Cantanti Lirici he could take the role of Radamès in Verdi’s Aida staged by Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera at the Spoleto Festival.
“I had been in good company in that competition,” he recalls, “because as fellow prize-winners there were the likes of Franco Corelli and Anita Cerquetti, who were to carve a great operatic name for themselves.”
Meanwhile his family had grown to number four children. He sang several other leading roles in Italy. However, post-war Italy, despite having helped him gain experience, was not the place where the money was. He had a family to support and this made him move to the UK where he was to remain for some 10 years, during which he also sang a lot in Ireland.
From 1952 he was a member of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, both as tenor soloist and guest soloist, and sang alongside the then hardly known Joan Sutherland. He was also on tour several times with the Welsh National Opera, Dublin Grand Opera and the Carl Rosa Opera, right up to 1961.
Asciak also appeared several times on BBC television and ITV. In most opera houses the trend was to sing in English, “….and this was an added task I had to face, to learn my repertoire from scratch, in English!”
Meanwhile, apart from regular visits in summer to spend time with his family, Asciak also sought opportunities to sing in Malta. This he did always to great acclaim and enthusiasm, in Carmen, Ernani, Pagliacci, (at the Orpheum) Il Trovatore (Radio City Opera House) and finally in Otello (Argotti Gardens).
In 1959, after a scheduled three performances as Manrico in Il Trovatore, an extra performance was put on to a packed house.
It was to be the very last opera performance at the Radio City. In 1960, he was ready to sing Otello and did it, at Floriana’s Argotti Gardens to public and critical acclaim. He sang to Piero Cappuccilli’s brilliant Iago, who was then 34 and was to become one of the greatest of Verdian baritones.
However there were other hurdles to deal with.
“Long stretches of time away from my family meant I was not really seeing my children grow up. My wife was, understandably, never at ease with this situation and perhaps it was too much to expect continued, unqualified support. I decided to retire and come back to Malta. I did that my peak, at 38, having said farewell to opera in 1961.”
Any regrets? “On the one hand yes, of course I had regrets, but it was imperative to see to my family’s needs, and not just the material ones. Retiring to Malta, I still kept in touch with music and matters vocal.”
Along the years, he headed the department of music, was director of music at St Edward’s College, representative in Malta of Trinity College of Music, London and general manager of the Manoel Theatre.
There was a touch of personal tragedy during this time. Asciak’s only daughter Marion succumbed cancer in 1986, aged 40.
“There is nothing more terrible than burying one’s own child,” he says and the chalice was still to fill up when some time later his wife Rina fell ill and eventually he lost her too.
Life went on and things extraordinary were to happen too. In 1990, at well past 66, while in Bydgoszcz in Poland, recruiting a cast on behalf of the Manoel for a performance of Otello, the tenor failed to show up and by the time he did, all the first act had been rehearsed with Asciak taking the leading role from memory. Unrehearsed as he was, by all accounts he did very well after he had not touched the role for almost 30 years.
Asciak enjoyed good health except in his late 60s he needed a heart by-pass operation. This gave him a new lease of life and even now he looks considerably younger. Then a major development in his life came about in the late 1990s. Asciak had never really devoted much time to teaching. He did provide advice to a number of aspiring local singers, but his reticence regarding long-term commitment to teaching was well-known to connoisseurs.
His friend Lawrence Borg rang his doorbell and left behind my door “a big, young, callow young man of just 16 or 17 whom Lawrence begged me to hear”. His name was Joseph Calleja, and the rest is history.
Asciak auditioned him and sensed immediately that the boy would go far, very far indeed.
“I sought to pass on to him what I had learnt and what pitfalls to avoid and how to gear every aspect of his life to the well-being and development of his voice.”
Calleja is now a world-class singer and is obviously a source of great satisfaction to Asciak who has been the younger tenor’s only tutor. He still consults him and seeks his advice.
Asciak is now happy in a second marriage for both to his devoted B[eatr]ice. They have travelled far and wide together, among other reasons to follow Calleja’s performances.
“But no more transatlantic flights, because they are far too stressful,” Asciak says.
Asked what advice he would give aspiring singers, he says: “This is something which demands great sacrifice. Never get married and start rearing a family before one is well-established as a singer. Learn to walk before you can run, heed good advice when this is given, use your brains and never accept roles for the sake of ambition and exposure if these are not suited to your voice. Even with suitable roles, overuse is dangerous. After all there is to it is a pair of special, small vocal cords. They are delicate and damaged beyond repair it is adieu career.”
Spoken firmly and very lucidly, and of course one could not but wish Asciak Ad multos annos.
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