Young tenor at cross roads
By Alidë Kohlhaas
When you meet tenor Victor Micallef, you can't help but be charmed by his open smile, his infectious laugh, and his boyish good looks that are enhanced by a high forehead, framed in black curly hair. This is a young tenor on the verge of a big decision. Will he become part of a group of tenors that will travel all over Canada, the USA, and perhaps Europe, to entertain thousands with a cross-over repertoire reminiscent of Andrea Bocelli's, or will he continue to concentrate on being an opera singer as part of the Canadian Opera Company (COC)?
Micallef, a member of the COC's Ensemble Studio for the past two years, has also appeared in several of the company's mainstage productions. He and I met just days before he headed to Italy. The 30somthing Torontonian, born here of Maltese immigrant parents, has all of the attributes of a future heartthrob. There is also something of the charming innocent about him. Although he learned some Maltese through his parents, he is not fluent in the language. Yet, he laughingly admits that he never knew until well into high shool that a paljazza was known as a dishcloth to everyone else. I can relate to that. When out of my home, I often have to struggle with having to remember that no one else will know that an qaqocc is an artichoke, one of my most favourite foods. That is a Maltese word that has insinuated itself into my vocabulary and just won't leave.
Micallef has a silky smooth tenor that, nevertheless, packs considerable power. Musically, his voice and inclination is perfectly suited to Verdi, Puccini and all of the Italian opera repertoire. He admits he is less successful in the Mozart repertoire, although he sang - to mixed reviews - the role of Tamino in the Magic Flute, and in the past, Arbace in Idomeneo. This is not so much because he speaks no German and that he has a fairly good command of Italian. It is the range of his voice and the way he feels and attacks music that makes the Italian repertoire a better medium for him.
His trip to Italy will take him to master classes with the grand dame of opera, Regina Resnick. It will be his second time that he has won a grant to study with Resnik, who is now in her 80s and divides her time between New York and various European countries as part of a European Union workshop program, of which she is director of vocal and interpretive arts.
The first time Micallef received a grant, it took him to study in the tiny northern Italian town Casalmaggiore - not far from Mantua - as part of an Oberlin College Lieder and Opera Workshop. This time around he will be in Treviso, which is located north of Venice, on an Edward Johnson grant.
There is excitement in his voice as we speak because he knows that on his return home to Canada, he will have to decide which way he will turn his career. We are sitting in an outside café in downtown Toronto for our conversation. Micallef is obviously torn between his commitment to the COC and this, perhaps, promising career of being part of what may be called "the Canadian Tenors" or "the Four/Three Tenors", an idea hatched in Victoria. He had just come back from there, having been flown out by the organizers of the enterprise, one of whom is Selina James, the former vocal teacher of world-renowned Canadian tenor Richard Margison. As part of the deal there would also be a recording contract with recording sessions in studios in Vancouver and Sweden.
Micallef is obviously both excited and bewildered by the demands this career change would mean - if he goes ahead. "Obviously, I will have to have a good manager," he admits, the lack of which seems somewhat astounding as one would have thought that this would have been an already established relationship for someone in a rising musical career. "The next step, right now, is talking to an artistic lawyer. The contracts are very elaborate." Then, as an afterthought, to underline his concerns, he says, "It might cost me a lot of money." This, of course, is something to be considered, since he is only at the beginning of his career and money does not flow in large quantities at this stage.
Then there is the other major consideration: "The COC would like me to make up my mind about what I want to do. I am involved with so many things there." One of the projects he is involved in is the Zellers Ensemble Studio school tour in October of Dean Burry's Isis and the Seven Scorpions. He is also signed up as the understudy for Faust, as the Coachman for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, as the Young Servant in Elektra, as Gaston in La Traviata and as Alfredo's understudy in the same opera, and as an understudy of Rodolfo in Luisa Miller.
His experience in Victoria was clearly stimulating. "They flew me out to Victoria and we stayed at the Empress Hotel. We actually sang for some investors there." It seems these investors were quite thrilled with the outcome of the recital in which appeared five tenors, but ultimately only three were chosen, Micallef being one of them. One can understand that this is heady stuff for a young singer, which means a difficult decision to be made soon. Apparently, the organizers of this new project did a two-year pilot study and are convinced it will work.
So, how did this young man get into singing? It all started with a piano his father bought for his older sister, who ended up not liking it. It interested him, however, and he began to play the instrument by ear, but eventually studied it through the Royal Conservatory of Music program. Then his father heard him sing at home. "He went to the priest at St. Paul's (the Apostol Roman Catholic Church) and told him that I can sing. The next Sunday Father Jimmy Zammit had me singing." As an aside, St. Paul's is the Maltese community's church, located on Dundas Street near the Junction. At one time this area was a thriving Maltese community, although now most of the new generations have scattered across the GTA and Canada.
When Micallef began to sing he had a soprano voice. Sadly, his father never heard his son sing professionally. "I never studied voice until after my father died." He stopped studying piano and at 17 began to study voice instead. After graduating from high school, he auditioned for music studies at the University of Toronto U of T) and at the University of Western Ontario (Western). "I got into both, but I was pulled toward Western. There was something about the place," he says. "Call it warmth. It was a very comfortable setting." He studied there for three years and received his BA in voice performance and then completed his studies at U of T, from which he received his diploma from the opera school where he studied with Patricia Kern. Then he ended up in Italy where he not only studied, but also worked under such famous conductors as Claudio Abado, Georges Prêtre and Symon Bychkov. The Canadian Ambassador to Italy, who also doubles as Canadian High Commissioner of Malta (it being not only part of the EU now but also being a member of the British Commonwealth) then also invited him to perform at a special concert in Malta.
His Italian experience was an eye-opener. "In Europe only the big houses survive now. A lot of the young singers are leaving the profession." Among other things he discovered that many young Italian singers give up very early in their careers because Italians are no longer interested in opera. He recalls one particular instance while singing in Eugene Onegin in Florence that the house was practically empty. As a result, the conductor asked those who were scattered throughout the hall, to come to fill the front rows to give the performers a sense of an audience. "I really had tears in my eyes when I saw that." Similar things happened in other locations where he sang and that is how he learned how tough it is in Italy for young singers now. What he said did not come as a surprise. A recent study I read about classical music radio stations in Europe showed a marked decline throughout the EU, and showed that Italy did not have a single station dedicated to classical music. Young Italians simply aren't interested in 'culture'.
Should he decide to chuck his current contract with the COC, he feels he can still continue to grow in opera and return to it at a later stage. "A couple of people told me 'as long as you keep the quality of your voice and keep the level of voice up, you can do it.' As I see it, many great singers have gone that route, take Fanning (baritone John Fanning). Then he ended up at the Met (Metropolitan Opera of New York)." He was told that as "long as there is a balance in your musical) diet" it can be done. "I hope, that if this goes ahead, it may bring some people into the theaters to decide to go to see opera."
Why does he want to keep on singing?. "I hope to touch people, to give them that chill factor (up the spine). I wish for that all the time. I have to become inspired before I can inspire an audience."
All photos Copyright © CamKohl Arts Productions
A Note: Micallef opted to join the Four Canadian Tenors.