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Joseph Calleja the latest tenor to pay homage to Mario Lanza on CD

Joseph Callej(as Rodolfo opposite AnnNetrebko as Mimi 
Lyric Operproducti“Lboheme”) has released 
CD Mario Lanzcovers. | Dan Rest~Lyric OperChicago

Joseph Calleja (as Rodolfo opposite Anna Netrebko as Mimi in the Lyric Opera production of “La boheme”) has released a CD of of Mario Lanza covers. | Dan Rest~Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Updated: April 23, 2013 1:27PM

La forza del destino! The devil led Joseph Calleja down the road of fate and right to the music of Mario Lanza.

“I was a typical teenager, listening to rock music — Nirvana, Metallica, Slayer, Iron Maiden,” recalled Calleja, the Maltese-born tenor currently co-starring in Puccini’s “La boheme” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. “Then one day my uncle yelled at me, ‘Could you please stop listening to the devil’s music?’ He put on a tape of the film ‘The Great Caruso’ and immediately I thought, ‘I want to do this.’ Mario Lanza introduced me to opera. It was a life-changing moment for me.”

Before there was Josh Groban or Andrea Bocelli, Lanza was classical music’s first crossover superstar. In just a decade, the Philadelphia native made a meteoric rise, starring in seven films and selling millions of records before his tragic death at age 38. Calleja, one of opera’s reigning contemporary tenors, follows in a long line of legends, including the holy trinity of Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and the late Luciano Pavarotti, who cite “The American Caruso” as an inspiration. Like Calleja, they embrace Lanza’s artistic credo: “I sing as though my life depends on it. I sing each word as though it were my last on Earth.”

For “Be My Love: A Tribute to Mario Lanza” (Decca), Calleja channels Lanza’s larger-than-life spirit on the tenor’s best known songs such as “Because,” “Serenade” and the title track, which catapulted Lanza to stardom in 1950. “Along with a beautiful voice, he was blessed with charisma and good looks,” he said. “Mario Lanza had to be one of the most complete singers ever.”

Though classically trained, Lanza excelled in all genres, from Broadway (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”) to Neapolitan tunes (“Marechiare”) to Latin pop (“Granada”). “The passion and conviction he brought to his singing was extraordinary,” said Calleja, breaking into the chorus from “The Loveliest Night of the Year,” which Lanza popularized in “The Great Caruso” (1951). As Calleja vocalized, unleashing a torrent of mellifluous sound, the walls of his Lyric dressing room seemed to vibrate. Calleja, 35, has sung more than 30 leading roles in the world’s top opera houses (including Lyric, where he made his house debut in 2007 as Alfredo in Verdi’s “La traviata,” and to which he returns next season in a new production of this work).

During Lanza’s lifetime and after his death, many would dismiss him as just a Hollywood hunk who didn’t have the chops to make it in the opera world. “A great voice is a great voice, whether on the screen or on the stage,” Calleja said. “Lanza had a true operatic voice. ‘The Toast of New Orleans,’ which introduced ‘Be My Love,’ is one of my favorite films. In it, Lanza basically plays Lanza. Some might say he was schmaltzy or sugary. But that is what makes these songs special.”

Though he’s best remembered for signature tunes such as “Be My Love,” Lanza made his greatest artistic mark in the operatic repertoire, which he extensively recorded. In his first session for RCA, he recorded “Che gelida manina” from “La boheme,” and the disc won Operatic Recording of the Year honors from the U.S. National Record Critics Association in 1948.

Coincidentally, ‘Boheme’ is one of Calleja’s favorite works. “‘La boheme’ is still lovely,” he said. “It will never get old for me.”

Lyric’s production also reunites him with a longtime colleague, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. “Of all the sopranos, Renee Fleming and Anna are my favorites. They are special because they raise my game onstage. Anna is a wonderful person, and she has a Rolls Royce of a voice. She has that X factor. We bring out the best in each other.”

Some might view “La boheme” as a simple little melodrama: Boy meets consumptive girl, they fall in and out of love, they part. Months pass, they briefly reunite, girl gets muff, dies.

From the tenor’s point of view, “‘La boheme’ is not simple at all,” Calleja said. “It’s about big emotions — love, jealousy, loss. Few have matched Puccini for [emotion]. He was the first Steven Spielberg of the opera. And ‘La boheme’ cries cinema.”

Which brings us back to opera’s first star of the movies, Mario Lanza. “Opera singers also are showmen,” Calleja said. “After all, what is opera singing but the giving of emotions? And this is what Lanza did best.”

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