Icilio Calleja was a Maltese tenor. There are many stories about his true nationality and they have been repeated in dictionaries and
biographies but without any reliable supporting evidence (that he was Spanish; Spanish/Jew; Italian; Egyptian; Greek and even British
The Maltese researcher and musicologist Mr. Emy Scicluna has investigated the origins of this singer and has all the necessary evidences
about his family. "Calleja's grand-father was born in the small town of Zebbug on the Island of Malta. A cook by profession in the
employ of a Maltese noble family, he decided to leave Malta, and together with his wife and children emigrated to Alexandria. His
son Giovanni, who later became one of the Directors of the Anglo-Egyptian Bank, married a young lady by the name of Concetta Polito
who had come to Alexandria from Corfú.
In 1882 the British attacked Alexandria and the newly married Giovanni with his now pregnant
wife decided to get out of Egypt. They were undecided whether to travel to Malta or to Corfú but to keep the wife happy, Corfú was
the chosen destination. Their child was born on the 25 June, 1882 and was registered in the baptismal records of Corfú with the names
of Antonio Federico Icilio Calleja, destined to become one of the world's leading tenors. In an interview published in 1924 in the
Italian newspaper "Il Piccolo" of Trieste, Icilio Calleja explained how his family had moved to Alexandria and later to Corfú but
declared that his family came from Malta, and that he was proud to be Maltese."
The Calleja family returned to Alexandria and at an early age Icilio showed his love for singing. As in the case of many famous singers in the early stages of their career, his aspirations were not shared by his father who insisted that his son should enter university. Therefore, Icilio Calleja was sent to Paris where he studied law for four years and graduated from the University of La Sorbonne.
Back in Alexandria, Calleja studied singing (his) with Luigi Calise who classified his voice as "a baritone". In 1904 he sang in some concerts. His success convinced his father and Icilio Calleja was finally sent to Milan to study with the well known maestro Marco Foà who understood that Calleja possessed the unmistakable timbre of a sound tenor voice.
Calleja made his debut as Canio in "Pagliacci" at the Teatro Verdi in Florence with Emma Carelli as Nedda, on 2 June 1906. After making an audition for Giulio Gatti-Casazza and Arturo Toscanini, the young tenor made his debut at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, on 3 March 1907, as Hagenbach in "La Wally" with Eugenia Burzio, Pasquale Amato and Nazzareno de Angelis. The opera was conducted by Toscanini.
At about this time there must have begun his relationship with the already famous soprano Eugenia Burzio. They became lovers and she certainly protected him and obtained for him important contracts.
There followed engagements in Mirandola and Ferrara. In this latter city he obtained an enormous success in the role of Vassili in Giordano's "Siberia". He sang again at La Scala on 19 March 1908 as Don Alvaro in Verdi's "La forza del destino" with Ester Mazzoleni, Luisa Garibaldi, Pasquale Amato, Nazzareno de Angelis and Arturo Toscanini. He was so nervous that the performance was a total failure and the opera was not given again in that season. ("Every time he opened his mouth the gallery jeered and whistled; Toscanini was so furious he stalked off the podium and declined to finish the performance." (Michael Scott in "The Record of Singing", 1980).
However, Calleja kept on singing in other important Italian theatres, increasing his repertoire: (Riccardo in "Un ballo in maschera", at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo; Radames in "Aida" at the Teatro La Fenice di Senigallia).
On 25 February 1909 Icillio Calleja sang at the Teatro Khedeviale (Cairo) "Aida" with Eugenia Burzio. He (obtained) scored a great personal triumph and was enthusiastically acclaimed by the public.
The composer Romano Romani chose him to sing the role of Feodor in the première of his new opera, "Zulma", again with Eugenia Burzio, at the Teatro Goldoni at Livorno on the 30 November 1909.
In the following two years, Calleja added two new roles to his repertoire: Walter in Catalani's "Loreley" at the Teatro Verdi in Florence and Federico in Franchetti's "Germania" at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa (1911).
In the Autumn of 1911 he joined a touring company singing all over the United States, from New York to San Francisco, Dick Johnson in Puccini's "La fanciulla del West".
In those years his greatest success was as Sansone (the opera was always sung in Italian). He had sung it in Modena and in 1912 at the Teatro Ponchielli in Cremona. The critics were enthusiastic in his reviews: "Calleja un tenore magnifico, dalla voce squillante, e dall'accento appassionato … abbiamo ricevuto l'impressione che fosse risorto il re dei tenori, Francesco Tamagno!"
He obtained a contract to sing in U.S.A. with the Chicago Grand Opera Company for the 1912-1913 season. The Company started its season in Philadelphia and Calleja sang the following performances:
31 October 1912 (opening night): Aida: Cecilia Gagliardi, Eleonora De Cisneros, Mario Sammarco and Cleofonte Campanini, conductor.
08 November 1912 Aida: Same cast, but Anafesto Rossi as Amonasro.
11 November 1912: Aida: Same cast of 31 October.
16 November 1912: Pagliacci: Alice Zeppilli, Titta Ruffo, Armand Crabbé and Ettore Perosio, conductor.
The Company started its season in Chicago, and Calleja sang:
28 November 1912: Pagliacci: Zeppilli, A. Rossi, Crabbé: Ettore Perosio, conductor
05 December 1912: Pagliacci: Same cast, but Titta Ruffo as Tonio.
12 December 1912: Aida: Gagliardi, De Cisneros, Sammarco: Campanini, conductor
21 December 1912: Pagliacci: Helen Stanley, Armand Crabbé: Perosio, conductor
28 December 1912: Aida: Same cast of December 12, but Carolina White as Aida.
30 December 1912: I Gioielli della Madonna (role Gennaro): Carolina White, Mario Sammarco, Cleofonte Campanini, conductor.
With the Chicago Company, Icilio Calleja sang also in New York, Baltimore and Cincinnati.
It seems to me that Calleja was never satisfied with this season in Chicago. Perhaps the stiff competition was too much for him
as the company had already two great Italian tenors in its roster: Amedeo Bassi and Giovanni Zenatello.
Back in Italy, he sang at the Teatro Margherita in Cagliari, "Sansone e Dalila" and "Zulma". At the Teatro Carlo Felice in
Genoa he sang, in 1913, "I gioielli della Madonna".
Milan wanted to celebrate the centenary of Verdi's birth and Calleja was summoned to La Scala to take the title role in "Otello".
The opera had not been presented at La Scala since Francesco Tamagno had created it, 26 years earlier. The cast included soprano
Linda Cannetti and baritone Mario Sammarco. The conductor was Tullio Serafin. In later performances Claudia Muzio took the role
of Desdemona. The first performance took place on the 18 November 1913. In all, Calleja sang 16 performances of "Otello" that season.
On the 10 February 1914 he sang again at La Scala, now in the role of Hanno in the opera "L'abisso" by the composer Antonio Smareglia.
He sang the seven performances with Claudia Muzio, Tina Poli-Randaccio, Emilio Bione and Serafin.
He sang during the Autumn season of the Teatro Regio in Parma, on the 15 October 1914 with "Otello". (The two first performances
in October 4 and 6 had been sung by tenor Umberto Chiodo). He sang six performances with Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi and Luigi
Montesanto. The conductor was Giuseppe Podestà. The other performances took place on October 18, 20, 24, 29 and November 1st. After
his triumphs in Milan and Parma, Calleja sang "Otello" at the Teatro Real in Madrid with Anna Fitziú , Luigi Montesanto and José
Segura Tallién sharing the role of Iago, and a young tenor called Antonio Cortis singing the role of Cassio. Conductor was Gino
Neri and Calleja sang five performances (December 2, 5, 8, 13 and 30). In Madrid Icillio Calleja sang also the role of Pollione
in "Norma" (two performances 20 and 28 December 1914) with the Argentinian soprano Juanita Capella, Mexican mezzosoprano Fanny
Anitua, Italian bass Gaudio Mansueto and Spanish tenor Antonio Cortis as Flavio. Conductor was again Gino Neri.
These were his years of glory. Calleja sang "Otello" at the Teatro Grande, in Brescia (December/January 1915) and then in Spain,
at the Gran Teatro del Liceo, in Barcelona (on April 4, 7, 17, 20) with Ida Quaitti, José Segura Tallien and conductor Edoardo
Mascheroni. Calleja did not feel quite well and the theatre director had to ask for the benevolence of the public, since "the
tenor was indisposed". It seems that he did not recover since the scheduled "Pagliacci" for April 13th with Ida Quaiatti,
Domenico Viglione Borghese and Matías Morro was cancelled and the opera was not sung in that season. Back in Italy he sang
"Otello" at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples (10 performances from January 1st 1916 with Linda Cannetti and Olga Paradisi sharing
the role of Desdemona, and baritone Giacomo Rimini. The conductor was Guido Farinelli) and at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome
(5 performances on April 6, 8, 10, 12 and 16 in 1916 with Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi and Giacomo Rimini).
It seems that he obtained rather mixed reviews:
"He has some powerful high notes but it is not enough to shout and still less to speak Otello, there is a greater need to sing it. And moreover Calleja's voice seems unequal, lacking smoothness and disagreeably thick. The same inequality is apparent too in his acting, happy and appropriate in certain points; inexpressive and grotesque at others." (Musica e Scena, 10 April 1916)
On the 26 December 1916 Calleja was called to inaugurate the season of Teatro alla Scala in Milan. He sang in the 5 performances the principal role of Cortez. The other singers were Ester Mazzoleni, Giuseppe Danise, Gaudio Mansueto and the young tenor Francesco Merli in the role of Alvaro. The conductor was Ettore Panizza.
A curious detail is that on the 16 October 1917 Calleja sang again at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, but as "baritone". He was Carlo Gérard in "Andrea Chenier"·with soprano Amina Albani and tenor Fortunato De Angelis. Later, at the Teatro Sociale in Brescia he sang the role of Tonio in "Pagliacci".
In 1919 he appears singing again "Otello" at the Teatro Bellini in Catania and he sings for the first time in Valletta (Malta) at the Theatre Royal in the 1919-1920 season. The opera was "Sansone e Dalila" and there were performances on December 29 1919, and January 1, 2, 4 and 9 in 1920.
In 1920 he sang (I assume for the first time) a Wagnerian role: Siegmund in "La Walkyria" at the Politeama Chiarella in Turin. The same year he was Sansone at the Teatro Verdi in Trieste. He also sang this role at Teatro La Fenice in Venice, seven performances of "La Walkyria" on November 6, 7, 10, 13, 14, 24 and 27. He sang "Tristano e Isotta" at the Teatro Dal Verme, in Milan.
In 1921 he was Tristano in "Tristano e Isotta" at the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia and at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan. In 1922 he was Tristano at the Politeama Fiorentino in Florence and returned to the San Carlo in Naples to sing Siegfried in "Sigfrido" with Elena Rakowska, Vida Ferluga, Luciano Donaggio and Tullio Serafin as conductor. He sang 7 performances from the 19 December 1922. He also sang his famous role of "Otello" at the San Carlo, from 20 January 1923, with Bianca Scacciati and Francesco Cigada, conducted by Tullio Serafin. There were 15 performances of this opera, but he had to share the role with tenor Julian Brunet. Also in 1923 he was Tristano at the Teatro Donizetti in Bergamo and Hagenbach in "La Wally" at the Comunale in Bologna.
He returned to Malta to sing in the land of his ancestors, at the Theatre Royal in Valletta, "Otello" on the 12, 14, 18 and 21 March 1923. It was a season in which success and deep emotion were mixed.
In 1924 he sang Tristano and Sigfrido at the Teatro Verdi in Trieste and in 1925 Sigfrido at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna.
After 1925 his engagements seem to have been less frequent and his last performances took place at the Teatro Regio in Parma where he inaugurated the season singing the main role in "Sigfrido" on 25 December 1927. The other four performances were on 1, 4, 7 and 11 January 1928. The other members of the cast were Maria Llacer, Luisa Silva, Alessio Kanscin, Enrico Contini and conductor Franco Ghione.
He returned to Alexandria (Egypt) and there he spent the last years of his life with his family. Icilio Calleja died in his sleep on the 18 November, 1941.
A beautiful portrait of Icilio Calleja can be seen at the Museum of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.
Icilio Calleja recorded 22 acoustic sides, between 1909 and 1918 , for the Fonotipia, Pathé and Columbia labels with operatic arias and ensembles from Aida, Otello, Germania, La Fanciulla del West, Andrea Chenier, Pagliacci, Isabeau and the patriotic song "Inno di Garibaldi" by Alessio Olivieri and Luigi Mercantini.