“Good tenors like Oreste Kirkop,” asserted the late Emy Scicluna, “are a rare breed”.
Born a hundred years ago, on July 26, 1923, Kirkop was the sixth of Jean Chircop’s and Fortunata Panzavecchia’s 10 children. In his early 20s, mentored by Nicolò Baldacchino, he began taking on Italian lead roles and appeared in Cirillo’s Figlio del Sole. Additionally, he guested with visiting Italian companies, singing with La Scala’s Tito Gobbi and Maria Caniglia.
One pivotal night, on December 23, 1948, as he was sitting in the Manoel Theatre watching Verdi’s Rigoletto, the Italian singing the role of Duke of Mantua was taken ill. There and then, Kirkop was invited to continue the part. Shaking off initial nerves, he ended up stealing the show with his rendering of La donna è mobile, finishing on “a beautifully sustained, ringing top note” that stunned the audience.
In July 1950, the Malta Society of Arts awarded him a £45 scholarship to study in Milan. In England, subsequently, he toured with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and appeared in London at Sadler’s Wells. The critics were impressed – “an echo of Caruso,” they said.
Hollywood soon came knocking. Escorting leading ladies of the day, he became a television celebrity (hosted by Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Zsa Zsa Gabor among others), he sang ‘straight’ opera in Las Vegas and played the Hollywood Bowl to crowds of 20,000.
Returning home, he married a Maltese girl, Therese, in 1963, and had two daughters, Anita and Susan
In 1956, opposite Kathryn Grayson, Cedric Hardwick and Rita Moreno, Kirkop created the role of François Villon in Paramount’s film version of Rudolf Friml’s Broadway operetta The Vagabond King.
He found himself among the ‘Songsters of the Year’, rubbing shoulders with Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Howard Keel, Judy Garland, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Returning home, he married a Maltese girl, Therese, in 1963, and had two daughters, Anita and Susan. In 1997, the Malta Society of Arts presented him with their Gold Medal.
Claiming French, Scandinavian and Italian descent, Kirkop, like his younger brothers (the jazz combo Frank Kirkop and his Hot Tuners), was a first-generation musician, a force-of-nature all-singing ‘rock fighter’ brought up on the streets of Ħamrun and Valletta and in the hand-to-mouth caves honeycombing war-ravaged Malta.
Charles Camilleri put him my way in 1983 through an assortment of archive tapes and acetates (he never recorded commercially) which we remastered at Abbey Road Studios, releasing a fund-raising charity LP for Id-Dar tal-Providenza. Working on this material, ironing out the warps of time, took one back to a Golden Era. A grand stella del Mediterraneo.
The Malta Society of Arts is also celebrating a centenary – its 100 years at Palazzo de La Salle. For more information, visit artsmalta.org.