On a balmy summer evening in 1934, the emotional voice of Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso wafted from a gramophone in Strada Teatro, Valletta, drawing children to the spot like the Pied Piper's flute. One 11-year-old boy sat mesmerised on a doorstep, his head resting in his cupped hands, as he dreamt of one day following in the huge footsteps of this operatic giant.
"When Caruso died, everyone was playing his music and a neighbour of ours was fortunate enough to have a gramophone. Each night he would open the shuttered windows and put it on the windowsill to share the music with the rest of the street," Asciak says, recalling how the seed of his passion for opera took root.
"My mother would be preparing dinner and whenever I heard the music I'd rush out and just sit there, lost in the world of opera. I wanted to imitate Caruso, but I never got there, nor reached his pinnacle," he adds with a sigh.
Looking up, his blue eyes sparkle through the brown-framed bifocals as he turns his attention to his new CD, which is being released tomorrow to coincide with his 85th birthday.
Entitled Paul Asciak: A Portrait, the CD is a collection of live recordings from the 1950s, which has been put together for the first time by the Michael Storrs Music of London.
"It's a very happy moment. These are old soundtracks that used to be recorded from the audience. With today's technology the team has managed to remove the hiss to bring out the freshness and clarity of the voice. It's quite a mixture of emotions - while thrilled with the end result, at the same time you want to cling to its authenticity."
The CD will go on sale in Covent Garden in London and the Statsoper opera house in Vienna; quite an achievement for a man whose career was a short, albeit intensive, one, spanning over 15 years until he retired in 1961 to dedicate time to his family.
Throughout his operatic career, Asciak performed in the company of renowned singers like Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, Anita Cerquetti, John Pritchard, Eric Kleiber, Sir John Barbirolli, and Sir Charles Groves.
Retiring at just 38 is one of his grievances, but in those days he had to focus on the priority of caring for his wife and three children, because he realised that if he pursued his career he would completely miss out on his offspring's upbringing.
At the time, he was based in London and due to commitments could only fly back to Malta for two months once a year, which put pressure on everybody.
"I felt I had to choose. I worried that if I persisted and returned home once my career ended, my children would ask, 'Who are you?' It was extremely hard, but I'm glad I did it," he reminisces.
He was blessed with a voice that proved it could still hit the notes some 30 years later, when he had the chance to perform his last encore.
"When I was 66, I was general manager of the Manoel Theatre and flew to Poland to engage an opera company for an open air season in Malta. During the dress rehearsal for the first night of Verdi's Otello, I was asked to replace the tenor in the lead role after he failed to show up," he recalls.
"People were already filing in and, to avoid cancelling the performance, I did. I didn't remember all the lines, but I kept going and it went down well. It was a very happy moment, and I was realistic that it was just a one-off."
Recalling the hardest decision of his life, he says how after years of treading the boards with opera's crème de la crème, and holding his own in leading roles, he returned to Malta in 1961 to a startlingly different reality with the Education Department, and sharing his vocal technique and interpretation with young students.
His teaching injected young people with the courage to pursue their studies abroad and many look to him as their mentor. However, it was only 15 years ago that Asciak discovered a rough diamond in the form of a 15-year-old boy, called Joseph Calleja, who turned up at his door for an audition.
"Like all the ones before him, he came to me singing a repertoire of arias, such as Nessun Dorma, which they should be singing at the peak of their career, not at the beginning. I thought he would be like all the rest, but once I heard his voice, I discovered his timbre, which was fascinating.
"After I heard Joseph, and heard him over and over again, I established his qualities. My problem and concern was trying to figure out a way not to ruin him, and work on enhancing his talents until he moved on to somebody else.
"I would sit him down and make him listen to my cassette collection of operatic music to determine whether he was a baritone or a tenor. He had the qualities of both - the pitch of a tenor, but the timbre was a baritone. All young men want to be tenors, because they're the ones who woo the ladies and are the heroes - Joseph wanted to be a tenor," he says, his face wrinkling into a smile.
"He would absorb everything, then as an exercise he'd have to sing excerpts from it," Asciak says, unconsciously letting go and singing a few Italian notes in a soft, controlled, yet at times wavering, voice.
Does he still sing?
"No, no, just in the bathroom at times. I sing some of the tunes I used to perform with a sense of nostalgia," he says, lowering his eyes shyly.
Does he become frustrated that he cannot project his voice the way he used to?
"Yes, but I have to accept that my strength is no longer there, even though the voice is... the voice is the last thing that dies, because when we're about to leave the world, we just sigh and let go.
"But Joseph has everything. It's amazing. God blessed him with everything, both in his professional and personal life - he's intelligent with a good memory, he's got the looks, the height, and two beautiful talented children. I feel very proud when I see what he's achieved."
How does he feel when he hears people hail Calleja as the next Pavarotti?
"I hate it. No critic in Malta has had the presumptuousness to say something like this. Foreign critics are just being sensational. He'll never be a Pavarotti; he's a Calleja!"
The mention of Pavarotti's name, however, forces Asciak to ponder the loss of an era, with the recent demise of the opera legend.
"An era has died with him. Singing needs to be refined with dedication to plenty of time studying; something most young musicians don't seem to have time for nowadays.
"Reaching a pinnacle is not enough, you need to study to continue growing. The secret to protecting a good voice can be compared to a savings bank account. Once you sing with interest, the sum will remain there, but once you start eating away at your original amount, you start losing out on interest."
His counsel to those starting off is to first seek advice from somebody who can establish their future potential, then focus on studying and creating an environment where their voice can flourish.
"Try to steer clear of smoky bars in Paceville, avoid drinking and smoking, and if it's cold outside wear a scarf. It's a life of sacrifices. When I once told Joseph this, he quickly replied, 'what if I study hard and then I don't succeed... I would have lost my youth'. He had a point, but his persistence paid off and I still tease him about it to this day."
Asciak was born to a "humble family" in Valletta on January 28, 1923, the eldest of four children, to a mother who was bent on seeing her three sons enter the priesthood.
The young Asciak had a good, disciplined upbringing and his mother would wake him up early each day to help out with the 5 a.m. Mass in Latin at St Paul Shipwrecked Church, Valletta. His brother would follow for the 5.30 Mass.
His voice was discovered in this church by the organist who pricked his ears when he heard the boy sing during Mass. He alerted Asciak's mother, who immediately dragged him to St James' Church, Valletta, to join the 90-strong choir where the renowned Carlo Diacono was maestro di cappella.
The choir went on to make the first recording of sacred music in Malta by the German recording firm Odeon. Asciak still treasures a copy of the 1932 recording, which featured two compositions by Mro Diacono's Con Che Fedente Affetto and the Ave Maria.
He fell in love with the opera and started taking it seriously, determined to pursue his dream. At 19 he began taking singing lessons with tenor Nicolò Baldacchino at Ħamrun, until these were disrupted by hostilities.
During World War II, the 20-year-old Asciak was stationed at Ta' Qali, as a foreman of works. Despite it being one of the dangerous hotspots for bombs, he has a few fond memories of the war.
"I would meet up other musicians who played the mandolin and guitar - I played the accordion - and we'd walk through the streets under the light of the moon singing Neapolitan tunes. We often walked all the way from Lija to St Paul's Bay and most times the people would walk behind us enthralled. In those days there wasn't much to do and it helped lift their spirits during the war," he says.
"Most of those friends have died and I have been left on my own. I miss that period of my life, but you cannot remain young forever and life moved on to better memorable moments," he quickly adds.
He married his fiancée Rina in 1945, one year before his career took off, and made his debut as Turridu in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana at the Radio City Opera House in 1946.
In January 1950, after being coached by Mro Luigi Cantoni, Asciak took the role of Radames in Verdi's Aida with the visiting Italian Opera Company Impresa Cantoni at the Radio City Opera House.
In the same year he was invited to sing with the visiting famous Italian tenor Tito Schipa and the renowned Italian soprano Maria Caniglia. When she returned to Italy, she sent him a telegram urging him to fly to Rome, where she could put him in touch with professionals.
With a wife and three children it was not easy to pack up and leave, and on top of everything his wife never shared his passion for opera, and was not keen on his departure. However, Asciak was reluctant to forego this one-off opportunity and fully aware that it would be hard to support a family while training abroad, but blessed with a determined nature, he packed his bags and left in March 1950.
In 1951 he went on to win the Concorso per Giovani Cantanti Lirici and was granted a bursary for voice and histrionic training under the guidance of Mro Luigi Ricci and Riccardo Picozzi at the Teatro dell'Opera, Rome.
During his stay in Italy, Asciak sung numerous roles in various cities throughout Italy, until he left for London to join the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Company.
There he appeared over 50 times in various roles such as Melot in Tristan und Isolde, the Tenor Singer in Der Rosenkavalier, Flavio in Norma, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly and Radames in Aida, apart from other operatic roles with various companies until he retired in 1961.
Back in Malta, he never remained idle as he attempted to improve the level of music and the arts in Malta. Tragedy struck his family when his daughter died at the age of 40, and his wife never recovered from the trauma and died some years later.
After a period of mourning Asciak was lucky to meet his second wife Bice, 70, who is an opera buff and whom he describes as "a formidable woman".
He is proud of his children and spends his day surfing the Internet for news on the opera world, checking his website, reading, and listening to music by Frank Sinatra and Italian tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano.
Now that he's turning 85, how does he feel?
"Like everybody else, I don't wish to leave this world. I'm in no hurry to leave. I just don't want to fall ill and become dependent on people. I'm very independent," he says.
"I keep busy and always have something to do, except I'm trying to take it easy these days to avoid injuring myself. That's my trouble, I can't stop and I have kept going at the same pace, but then I suffer the consequences the next day and I feel wiped out.
"We're all born with a different disposition. I was always on the go, forever full of energy, which today is slowly fading. Even though my body does not have the youthful energy, my character doesn't allow me to sit back and do nothing."
Adjusting his fern-coloured felt hat over his bald patch, and putting on his black coat, Asciak extends a firm handshake, smiles warmly and walks off into the chilly morning to catch up on some errands in Valletta before meeting friends for lunch.
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