This is the first time I have seen Anthony Callea perform live. And what a great way to see him. Anthony Callea at the top of his game, singing with a world class symphony orchestra; performing two hours of some of the world’s greatest number one hits. It was an enthusiastic sell-out crowd, filling Hamer Hall to the brim. The concert, “Aria Number 1 Hits in Symphony”, was to launch the album Callea has just made with the MSO for Sony music. The program was made up of the singer’s favourite number one ARIA hits, plus some other favourites which don’t appear on the album.
Anthony Callea has a commanding stage presence and a natural ability to inhabit each song and make it come alive. He undercuts the serious nature of some of the material with lighter moments and off-the-cuff patter between songs. Without these touches, things could have become quite emotionally dark at times. His choice of songs and the way he interpreted them belies his light-hearted chats. There were moments such as “Bleeding Love” which were incredibly moving, and I found myself transported to the very heart of the piece. It takes a true artist to create such chemistry using nothing but heart and voice.
It’s been 13 years since Anthony Callea first came to public attention as runner- up on Australian Idol. In that time he has developed into a consummate performer and interpreter of the iconic anthems in popular music. His break out hit, “The Prayer” went four times platinum and he’s gone on to win multiple awards and plaudits. Callea used this song to close the first half of the program and it was a spine-tingling rendition. The rapt audience gave him the first of the evening’s standing ovations, and it was only interval.
In this genre, especially with the symphony orchestra backing, and passages sung in Italian, I occasionally believed I was hearing a Neapolitan tenor. Callea has phenomenal technique and can switch from operatic bravura to bright-toned pop with ease. In fact it’s a delight to see and hear a fine singer show off what he can do. He’s very well prepared and comfortable with the material and sings it as if he is a part of the orchestra. It was a thrill to hear him create that torrential sound which seems to pour out of him, with notes held for as long as sixteen bars or more. With h is voice soaring over the orchestra, he clearly enjoyed showing his incredible breath support, in the several power ballads which require this talent in spades. This style of song is of course his speciality and he’s playing to his strengths.
Callea was greatly supported by his arranger and long-time collaborator John Foreman, who conducted the MSO with assurance and flair. Their banter at the podium showed great affection and mutual respect. Foreman, now a household name is a familiar face to music lovers due to his musical direction work on television and his conducting for popular music theatre.
Things change briefly during the second half, when the orchestra rests while Callea and his core musicians show some serious ability in reinterpreting the songs of Whitney Houston. He sings a medley with just piano, played by Garth Ploog and the superb backing vocals of Suzie Ahearn, Annette Roche and Rocky Loprevitte. Throughout the performance, the vocal harmonies they provided were so close and warm that you couldn’t distinguish any separation in the voices. In fact, they became an extension of Callea’s own voice. It’s clear that they have sung together many times over a long period. Only with vocal stylists the calibre of Suzie Ahearn, is such refinement possible.
If I had to find fault with this presentation, it would be that towards the end, I was becoming emotionally exhausted. That many showstoppers in a row are a lot to take. The hits just kept coming and they were given the full power of the orchestra, augmented by Callea’s own guitarist, bass player, pianist and drummer. “I Swear”, “Everything I Do, I Do It For You”, “Rain”, “It Must Have Been Love”, “Right Here Waiting” and “Save the Best for Last”. Standouts for me would have to be George Michael’s “Jesus to a Child” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You”. Both ambitious choices, but Callea made them his own.
Callea jokes that this was a vanity project for him, but in reality it was a great opportunity for his many fans to see him in another light. To see him in the context of symphonic sound and hear his music interpreted in the universal language of orchestral music. He was more than equal to the task. For all his light-hearted self-deprecation, regarding his being just a “wog boy” with budget rhinestone heels and sparkly microphone, I believe by mounting this project, he proved to himself and his public that he had actually arrived.
Jon Jackson reviewed Anthony Callea’s concert with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, “Aria Number 1 Hits in Symphony” at Hamer Hall Melbourne, on September 8, 2017.