Championing a love of opera

The Three Tenors concert, featuring Nico Darmanin, Alan Sciberras, and Cliff Zammit Stevens, takes place next month. Spearheading its success is Catherine Tabone, CEO of Valletta Cultural Agency and avid opera-lover. She shares the journey that led to this passion.
The Three Tenors with Catherine Tabone. Photos: Bernard Polidano

Catherine was born into a family of tenors.  Her paternal grandfather Fedele Tabone, a tenore di grazia, was the voice for whom Maltese composer Carlo Diacono wrote the solo tenor parts of his sacred music. Although she never met her nannu, who passed away in 1931, his exquisite tenor voice was luckily inherited by her uncle, Ġużeppi, whom she fondly recalls singing well into his old age.

Following on her family’s musical footsteps, Catherine joined the Żejtun choir under the direction of organist Joe Caruana in 1992 when she was 10 years old.  At the time, the choir frequently participated in many village feasts, singing both secular and sacred pieces which varied from ‘The Humming Chorus’ from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and the ‘Va Pensiero’ from Verdi’s Nabucco to Carlo Diacono’s Messa in Mi, his Laudate Pueri and Nisi Dominus, which she performed together with the Cappella Diacono, first under the direction of the composer’s son Frankie Diacono, and later of Dun Ġwann Galea. 

“This is when my passion for opera blossomed.  I recall spending every cent of my pocket money to buy Pavarotti’s cassettes from the Valletta market and tuning in to every radio programme that featured opera.  I think I must also have read all the books the Belt is-Sebħ Public Library had at the time about the subject, including biographies of legendary singers such as Maria Callas’,” she says. 

Today, she is utilising her love of opera and knowledge of sacred music to promote these artforms through her work in the cultural sector.  Over the years, she spearheaded various productions, including a memorable performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura in Rome in December 2016, in which the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra joined the choir of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and four international soloists to great acclaim.  

As CEO of the Valletta Cultural Agency, she was the driving force behind a sold-out production of Mozart’s Requiem, also performed by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and the choir of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia at the Church of St Dominic in Valletta last year.  More recently, she set up a collaboration between the Valletta Cultural Agency and Teatru Manoel which saw four successful performances of Puccini’s Tosca at the Manoel Theatre, in which world-renowned tenor José Cura sang the leading role of Mario Cavaradossi.  

Possibly, her proudest operatic production to date, though, is Carlo Diacono’s L’Alpino, which was performed twice in concert version and which she is working towards staging in its entirety in the future.  These are just a few of the productions she was actively involved in.

Opera is a topic which Catherine never tires to speak of, but it is not easy, she says, “to find people with whom to have an informed conversation”.  Nonetheless, Catherine strongly believes that interest in opera has greatly increased in Malta over recent years, and she attributes this to the internationally-renowned tenor Joseph Calleja.  

“Before, it was very difficult to be taken seriously if you were to say that you wanted to become an opera singer.  I personally encountered this scepticism when expressing my aspirations in the mid-1990s.Wveryone told me that thinking of such a career was complete nonsense.  Back in those days, opportunities for opera singers in Malta were scarce, and it was practically impossible to obtain financial assistance for vocal studies.  It is only thanks to Joseph Calleja that all this changed for the better.  Rightly so, many know Joseph through the widespread acclaim he has received in some of the world’s greatest theatres, but I feel he deserves equal recognition and respect for this important shift he brought about and for the opportunities he has made available,” Catherine says.

When asked about her favourite tenor, she says she finds it impossible to provide a simple answer.  “My interest in the tenor voice now spans three decades, during which I have listened – live and on recording – to a plethora of voices.  Naturally, I am very interested in interpretation, but vocal technique is also a fascinating subject for me, and I can spend hours listening to arias not for the ‘way’ but for the ‘how’ they are sung.  Possibly, my greatest fascination, though, lies with a tenor’s vocal colour and harmonics.  These are the factors which make it impossible for me to easily answer your question, since I appreciate different tenors for different things.”

After a bit of pressing, Catherine agreed to reveal some names. “Naturally, my list includes Franco Corelli, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Mario Del Monaco.  Of course, I also love Luciano Pavarotti for the sheer gorgeousness of his velvet voice.  Most will have heard of these great interpreters, likewise, of Enrico Caruso, Tito Schipa, and Beniamino Gigli, who incidentally – and with good reason – was my tenor uncle’s favourite. Yet, two of the voices which resonate most with me are undoubtedly those of Giacomo Lauri Volpi and Franco Bonisolli.  

“Lauri Volpi could convincingly and effortlessly switch between exquisitely singing belcanto roles such as Arturo in Bellini’s I Puritani and Raoul in Les Huegeots by Meyerbeer, and effectively interpreting dramatic characters such as Manrico in Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’ and the title role of Verdi’s Otello. Bonisolli – often remembered for his colourful character – I love for the sheer power of his voice and for his effortless delivery of ringing high notes.  He also has some brilliant live recordings, which include the rarely performed cabaletta from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, the aria O Souverain from Massenet’s El Cid and Je Crois Entendre Encore from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles.

Following on these lines, Catherine tells us that next on her agenda as CEO of the Valletta Cultural Agency, is a production that she holds very dear.  June 28 will see the third edition of The Three Tenors, during which Nico Darmanin, Alan Sciberras, and Cliff Zammit Stevens will perform a selection of operatic arias together with a number of cross-over songs, much loved by audiences worldwide, accompanied by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and with the participation of local singer Chiara. 

This event will not only provide an enjoyable evening and an accessible encounter with opera to a varied public, but will also serve as an important platform for local talent. “Malta is an island which produced many wonderful tenor voices over the years.  Opera aficionados are definitely familiar with Oreste Chircop, Paul Axiaq, and Andrew Sapiano, to name but three, but we are lucky that the younger generation has some very special gems to offer.  Alan, Cliff, and Nico, each with their distinctive vocal characteristics, represent what talent, hard work and commitment can achieve.  It is a pleasure to be once again collaborating with them, and I look forward to seeing St George’s Square filled to the brim with an audience enchanted by their voices!”

For further information on The Three Tenors contact the Valletta Cultural Agency on info@vca.gov.mt / 21242018.

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