There’s lots of jokes flying around about Anthony Callea at the moment, nasty stuff about him being a warbling homunculus or the type of Sicilian midget the Mafia prefer to use as police bait, but I reckon he’s luckier than that. Given his taste in torch songs this first single could well have been some melismatic garbage in the vein of Human Nature, but thankfully the managerial gods have allowed him to step out with a deeper totem. On the strength of his standout performance of The Prayer during Australian Idol, they’ve gone with the bi-lingual ballad, and it’s a great moment for Australian music.
It’s always staggered me that the massive percentage of our population with Mediterranean ancestry have never properly brought any of their bel canto tradition to bear on our pop music. Anyone who’s had a holiday in Rome knows the potency of a great Italian pop ballad overheard in the course of daily life and finally, with Callea, we’ve got our own. Well, via Andrea Bocelli of course.
The clip for The Prayer is a simulation of the recording, set in a studio which looks like it’s housed in the cellar of a Cinquecento villa. Callea performs with a stone wall as backdrop, which lends the vibe a sombre, even a vaguely liturgical air. Combine this with lingering shots of the mixing desk and sumptuous gapes at the lavish orchestra and you have a perfect commercial blend of the rustic, the high-end, and the brand new. I guess you would call this a ‘serious’ aesthetic, presumably chosen to validate Callea as an important soul-interpreter and to make the point that ‘the voice’ is the thing. Well it is, and the The Prayer itself is so sigh-inducing, so moving (in a forget-the-mind type of way) that touristic panoramas of the Bay Of Naples or Sydney Harbour are quite unnessecary.
The essence of the bel canto tradition is a full, rich and broad tone and of course although Callea has a long way to go to rival the popular vocal artistry of a Claudio Villa or the continental fame of a Paolo, his wonderful voice fits all those categories. Hopefully ‘his people’ keep him headed in this direction and that somewhere along the line he finds a mentor who stresses the importance of emotional integrity in the interpretation of a song. Otherwise, by the look of his serrated fringe, Callea could very quickly descend into pure Robbie Williams syrup. I’m hopeful though. I figure we’re far enough down the track of globalisation to embrace the fact that the ultimate power ballad has to be sung, at least in part, in Italian. It has, after all, always been the language of love, and given our cultural mix in Oz we have the potential to export our own bel canto as successfully as we do our own wine.
So forget the jokes about Callea’s record company feeding him the human growth hormone and concentrate on the fact that a lot of great singers have been idiopathically short statured. Prince, of course, comes to mind, as does Bono, and Randy Newman, but I prefer to remember the greatest bel canto exponent of them all, the very short Beniamino Gigli. Now there is a singer Anthony Callea should be aspiring to. – Gregory Day.