Attention shouldn’t faze Joseph Calleja – the Maltese tenor has been applauded by thousands, had his name in bright lights and his portrait splashed across the internet.
Two decades of fame and a lifetime of plaudits, however, could not prepare him for the gusts of oppobrium that whirled past him last spring, when a video of him speaking to protesters outside a Henley & Partners gig in London spread across social media.
“I am used to being praised,” the talented Mr Calleja tells Times Talk. “I’m not trying to portray myself as a do-gooder – I have plenty of negative traits – but I have a lot of empathy, and I hate upsetting people”.
Upset people he did, though, with his pavement chat earning him insults and boycott calls from a faction of Maltese society.
Mr Calleja feels the criticism was unwarranted – “I had a very civil exchange with the protesters and afterwards they even invited me out for a beer” – and makes it clear that it was not all well-intended.
“The fact that a group of people have unilaterally decided to become judge, jury and executioner of anyone who doesn’t agree with them... I think it says much more about them than the people they attack”.
It clearly rankled.
"The criticism bothered me, but my skin's grown thicker now," he reflects.
When Mr Calleja is not filling opera halls and concert venues, his time is taken up by his charitable foundation, which helps talented musical talent from underprivileged backgrounds make the step up into a professional career in the arts.
“We try to help real talent in Malta – we don’t take the mickey,” he is quick to clarify.
It a role Mr Calleja treasures and which he feels there is room for a lot more of.
“Governments are spending less and less in the arts, which is why it is corporate responsibility to invest in institutions which promote the arts,” he says.
There was very little time in Mr Calleja’s 2018 schedule, however, for Valletta 2018. Despite him being a cultural ambassador for Malta, he was nowhere to be seen in Valletta’s European Capital of Culture artistic programme.
“You should ask the organisers,” he says with a smile when asked about his absence. “I was always available, but there were things in the background which didn’t allow me to take part. But I’m not bitter about it”.
His Valletta 2018 absence will barely make a dent in his career, which has outgrown his motherland and now sees him flying the Maltese flag on some of the world’s biggest stages.
It has also forced him to correct some misconceptions about Malta, he admits.
“I was at the Metropolitan Opera and they were asking whether we were dodging daily bombings, if it was safe to go out on the street, things like that. I was incredulous".
Watch the full Times Talk interview in the above video
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