Only 19 years ago, an Australian music label discouraged a rising star from identifying as gay.
The year was 2004, when Melbourne singer Anthony Callea became famous after his breakout moment singing The Prayer on Australian Idol.
Same sex partnerships were not legally recognised and marriage equality was years away.
Callea came from a Catholic Italian family and in his words, did not come out because ‘I knew my emotional capacity and I wasn’t about to push myself over the edge at twenty-one’.
He was discouraged from answering questions about his sexuality in media interviews after placing second on Australian Idol and found out years later, that his record label declined requests from gay press to interview him.
And so Behind the Voice (Dietro La Voce) is a memoir, at its heart, about a talented performer’s fight to be his authentic self as a person and as a singer of classical and pop music.
Back when Australian Idol was new
I was drawn to the book after enjoying the first two exciting seasons of Australian Idol when it was fresh and new and producing wonderfully diverse talent like Paulini, Courtney Act and Casey Donovan.
Growing up listening to Italian tenors like Mario Lanza and hearing Italian opera at Lucky’s Trattoria in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley where I worked in the 90s, you could say I have an ear for Italian tenors.
OK, I adore them.
So that time Callea sang The Prayer on Idol, showcasing his incredible vocal and emotional range, is a time I’ll never forget. Hundreds of thousands of Australians felt the same way.
I also remember how, when he placed second in the finale, instead of standing on stage looking disappointed, he whispered supportive words to the winner Casey Donovan. The mark of the man.
It was interesting to read in his memoir that Callea had to fight Australian Idol producers to perform this classic song in the ‘Contestant’s Choice’ round (which usually featured pop songs).
Callea stuck to his guns when the producers advised him to choose a different song and ‘The Prayer’ became Australia’s fastest and highest selling single of all time.
Not quite rags to riches but something like it
Raised in a close, working-class Italian family in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, Anthony Callea put in the hard yards to get where he is today: a household name whose music regularly charts and whose shows often sell out.
He has studied music since he was five and was called ‘the singer’ in his family from the same age.
As a teenager he sang at weddings and handled Ricky Martin’s ‘rider’ (food and drink requests) at a suburban shopping centre in Melbourne where Callea was mistaken for Martin’s younger brother.
‘Highpoint’ is a good name for the same shopping centre where Callea won the annual talent competition three years in a row. A low point may have been when he worked there as a Freddo Frog mascot with a minder because children were punching Freddo ‘in the nuts’.
Callea went on from low points like this to become a chart-topping performer sharing stages with Celine Dion, Diana Ross, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston and performing for Pavarotti and the Queen.
In between Idol and these career highlights, there’s been a lot of tears, stress and loneliness and sheer bloody-minded stubbornness which got him through tough negotiations with record labels and managers not working in his best interests.
It’s quite the roller coaster and Callea is a natural storyteller with laugh out loud anecdotes and brutal ‘calling it as it is’ moments. He’s clearly a resilient guy, even if, by his own admission, he can also be quite ‘dramatic’.
A loyal support act to the divas
He’s obviously got some excellent dirt on many famous Australians and gallantly keeps most of it to himself apart from writing that he once put Tina Arena to bed fully clothed after a ‘few too many drinks’.
Of all the divas, Celine Dion gets honourable mention as the most gracious and kind to her supporting acts.
As well as supporting touring international stars, Callea found a niche in musical theatre, performing in Rent, Wicked and Grease.
His story is pretty wholesome
As music bios go, Behind the Voice is no Anthony Kiedis: Scar Tissue or Chrissie Amphlett’s Pleasure and Pain. It is a down to earth memoir of a working class Italian boy with good pipes and a good heart ‘making it’ through hard work, large dollops of good humour and willingness to let go of major disappointments (like missing out on Eurovision). And talent. Of course.
There are no story arcs about sex, drugs, rock’n roll and rehab (apart from a surprising amount of cigarettes and whiskey for someone who looks like a choir boy). The story arc is more about surviving and ultimately thriving in an often very shitty music industry. Many times, important choices were taken out of his hands and this is a story of fighting to live his life and make his music on his terms.
It’s no surprise to me that he wrote his own memoir with no apparent ghost writer or co-writer.
No spoilers here: Callea has come out on top and is doing nicely, thank you.
His success is our success
He made The Prayer, a song half sung in Italian, by a gay man from the Western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia’s top selling single. The fact that Australians loved The Prayer so hard, shows that we do embrace diversity in this country.
Behind the Voice is a great read, an insight into the music industry and into a European-style performer who broke the mould of typical Australian acts like John Farnham and Barnsey.
This year Anthony Callea and Tim Campbell are touring their “Up Close & Unpredictable” live music concert to theatres around Australia with some tickets available for Oct and Nov shows. https://www.anthonycallea.com/tour
Behind the Voice, Dietro La Voce by Anthony Callea is published by Simon and Schuster ($34.99).
This reviewer obtained my copy from the excellent Berkelouw Books in Eumundi.