Renowned tenor Joseph Calleja

Renowned tenor Joseph Calleja, the acclaimed ORA Singers and Magdalen College Choir are just some of the classical music delights coming up at this year’s Oxford Festival of the Arts – and it’s all free.

Now in its twelfth year, the festival has had to go digital due to the pandemic, but director Michelle Castelletti is upbeat about this enforced change of plan.

“I’ve had to rethink very quickly, but I’m happy with it,” she says. “I have found it really exciting, and we’ve learned things that we’ll use in the future.

The festival was originally set to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Field of Cloth of Gold, a spectacular 18-day event laid on for King Henry VIII and King Francois I of France in June 1520 to bring together the two rival kingdoms in a newfound spirit of Anglo-French friendship.

That celebration has now been postponed to 2021, but Michelle has curated a special programme of online events that give a tasty appetiser for next year.

“It’s the golden nuggets of things we could do digitally,” she says. “I still have the underlying theme of the Field of Cloth of Gold. So Joseph Calleja – who’s a good friend of mine, a wonderful chap – I thought of him because he is called the tenor with the golden voice. So there’s lots of little links like that.

“We’re starting off with Joseph, and I think it’s good to open the festival with something that warms our hearts. It’s a really beautiful way to open, and I can’t thank Joseph enough.”

Since making his debut with the Royal Opera in 2002, playing the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, Maltese-born Calleja has sung with many of the world’s leading opera companies, including Vienna State Opera, Metropolitan Opera, Bavarian State Opera and many more, as well as notching up an impressive array of CD and DVD recordings.

For the Oxford Festival of the Arts, he will be performing a selection of arias, including two recorded exclusively for OFA. 

ORA Singers Photo credit- Nick Rutter

The innovative ORA Singers, led by artistic director Suzi Digby, pay tribute to Tudor composer Thomas Tallis to mark the 450th anniversary of his greatest work, Spem in alium.

The group will perform extracts from their forthcoming recording of Spem in alium, alongside other pieces by Tallis and new reflections by contemporary composers. 

The ORA Singers feature again later in the festival in Talking Tallis, a music and discussion event that includes a Q&A session with Suzi Digby and Scottish composer James MacMillan as well as exclusive excerpts from MacMillan’s Spem in alium.

Sir James MacMillan and Suzi Digby looking over a music score

“I’m on the Board of ORA, so again it’s all about relationships and I’m really blessed with this one,” Michelle says. “We were going to be celebrating Tallis in a very special way this year and we still are, so I’m really looking forward to that.”

Award-winning Maltese pianist Maureen Galea celebrates Beethoven’s 250th birthday with two of his popular sonatas, the Op.10 No.1 in C minor and Op.13 in C minor ‘Pathetique’, as well as the lesser-known Fantasie Op.77.

Maureen Galea at piano

“Maureen is a wonderful pianist and again a good friend of mine,” says Michelle. “We’re doing the two C minor sonatas, because I always associate Beethoven with C minor for some reason and the Pathetique is such a great work. Then we’re doing the Fantasie, which is not often performed, so that’s really good, I think.”

Another landmark birthday this year is that of legendary cellist Jacqueline du Pre, who was born 75 years ago. Cellist Gabriella Swallow pays tribute with a performance of Bach’s Suite for unaccompanied violoncello No.1 in G major, BWV 1007, interspersed with contemporary works, including world premieres by Martin Bussey and Alison Berry.

Gabriella Swallow

Michelle says: “Gabriella’s a phenomenal cellist because she’s so versatile. I thought we’d go for the unaccompanied piece that everyone knows from the first few notes, but I thought let’s insert that with contemporary works. So this is going to be a really beautiful one.” 


Magdalen College Choir provides a stirring finale on 5th July with the Festival Service, which will feature extracts from this year’s Virtual May Morning and end with the hymn The Day Thou Gavest.

So, not quite what Michelle originally had in mind, but nevertheless, she is pleased with the outcome.

“It’s wonderful to be able to share things this way, and we’ve been able to experiment a bit, so things have actually worked really well in this new format. 

“There’s also more of a personal element. Going back to Joseph, the fact that he is in his house in Malta gives a little window on the artist as a person, not just an artist. I think that’s quite special.”

“Everybody’s been so wonderful. At times like this I always say it’s all about relationships and networking and partnering, and the friendships that we’ve built up over the years, and of course this is where it really shows. 

“Everybody’s been optimistic and worked really hard, and I’m really thankful for that.”

OFAVirtual 2020 runs from June 18th to July 5th. For more details of classical music and other events, visit



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