The Opera House - rich in history
Over the past weeks, comments made by a couple of persons who must have had their own reasons to offer us their thoughts about the need or otherwise of having an Opera House as part of our arts' scene has brought to my mind a number of reflections about what should be happening on the site of the Opera House ruins.
Let us try to place the subject within a historical perspective.
The Royal Opera House in Valletta was hit and destroyed on April 7, 1942. It was one of the casualties that Malta suffered during World War II.
Perhaps if as a nation we could aim to make the new project encompassing this site as well as City Gate and Freedom Square come about by 2012, we would have set ourselves the target of making it happen by the 70th anniversary of this date.
It is interesting to see how the Royal Opera House project itself had originally come about.
The Manoel Theatre, inaugurated in 1732, was becoming too small to accommodate the ever increasing number of opera lovers in Malta.
The Royal Opera House was built at the entrance of Valletta on the site of the Auberge d'Angleterre. It took six years to build then at a cost of £60,000.
Architect Edward M. Barry was entrusted with the preparation of the designs and in December 1860 Sir Adrian Dingli received the first plans dated November 24, 1860, for reference to the Council.
The Royal Opera House was inaugurated on the October 9, 1866 with Bellini's opera I Puritani. The first opera season lasted from October to the following May with the following 16 different operas: Un Ballo In Maschera, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Crispino E La Comare, Ebreo, Elisir d'Amore, Ernani, Gemma de Vergy, Jone, Merope, Poliuto, Rigoletto, Roberto il Diavolo, La Traviata, Il Trovatore and Lucrezia Borgia. Each opera was performed more than once throughout the season with I Puritani clocking 18 performances in all! This was the pattern followed throughout the existence of the Royal Opera House.
On Sunday, May 25, 1873, the interior and a part of the exterior of the building were destroyed by fire. During the general rehearsal of the new opera La Vergine del Castello composed by Mro Privitera who had been invited to Malta to conduct his work, part of the paper scenery caught fire and in a few minutes the theatre was engulfed in flames.
Three days after the theatre was burnt down, the Council of Government appointed a select committee and it was decided that the theatre should be rebuilt. The Royal Opera House was re-opened with Verdi's Aida on October 11, 1877.
The "cartellone" for each season was made up of a wide choice of operas predominantly popular Italian repertoire (Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano) as well as French (Gounod, Massenet, Thomas, Bizet) and Wagner operas including Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Walkiria etc. Operas by Maltese composers such as Paolino Vassallo's (Amor Fatal, Frazir, Edith Cavell) and Nani's (I Cavallieri di Malta, Agnese Visconti ) and Carlo Diacono (L'Alpino), and Carlo Fiamingo (Redenta) were also introduced as works off the beaten track for the benefit of opera lovers.
What I find of particular interest is the fact that then, from time to time, the government would issue a call for tenders for the lease of the opera house. The conditions of the contract of lease (and regulations) were published in the Government Gazette. If we think that public private partnerships or "farming out" are new concepts, we only need to examine how the Royal Opera House used to be run to realise that well over a century ago, this is the way that the government would ensure not only the Royal Opera House was kept alive, but also that it could be run and managed in a feasible manner.
Impresarios would abide by the condition that they would have to stage a number of operas per theatrical season but they were also at liberty to organise other events. It is through this manner that Anton Nani's close association with the Royal Opera House began in 1885 when he was appointed impresario, a post he held for four seasons. Other impresarios responsible for various opera seasons between 1902 until 1939 were Luigi Pace Balzan, Emanuel Said, Augusto German and Impresa Giuseppe Farrugia (ta' Farsons). During the Strickland administration (Constitutional Party), the season was managed by an Impresa Governativa!
The impresa was responsible for engaging singers, conductors and to present not less than 12 different operas and to choose a further four operas from a list of 30 operas attached to the conditions of the contract of lease... a total of 16 operas in all! The 1925/26 season had 20 operas which included two new works for Malta: Mascagni's Silvano and Giordano's La Cena Delle Beffe.
In 1916, the management was obliged, under the terms of its contract with government, to carry out certain structural and seating alterations at its own expense. As a result the stalls in the pit were changed and increased in number.
After the close of each opera season the Royal Opera House was frequently used for other activities, including plays in English presented by MADC, and in Italian by Carlo Goldoni Company. There were Russian ballet evenings by Princess Poutiatine as well as concerts of classical music. The introduction of the "talkies" on March 15, 1930 had its own impact on the theatre.
Moreover, in 1938, The Dublin Gate Theatre Productions visited Malta to perform The Provoked Wife, Night Must Fall, Hamlet, Macbeth, The Drunkard, Berkerley Square. In April of the following year, The Old Vic also visited Malta and performed Hamlet, Man and Superman, The Rivals, Henry V and Viceroy Sarah. Between May 2 and 15, 1939, the Compagnia d'Operette Imperatrice gave performances of various operettas such as Cin-Cin-La, Madama di Tebe, Frasquita, Principessa della Czarda, La Danza delle Libellule...
Again to me it is of particular significance to observe that even when the Royal Opera House had opera as it main genre of entertainment, it had branched into other art forms including drama, films, choreography, operettas and other events.
For many foreign agents, Malta's Royal Opera House was considered "una piazza importante" and a launching pad for many singers who later on became world famous.
These are some of the celebrities that graced the boards of our Opera House:
Giovanni Zenatello, tenor, sang at La Scala and the Metropolitan. After he retired, he was responsible for the setting up of the Arena di Verona Opera Festival which attracts thousands of opera lovers to Italy each year;
Gemma Bellincioni, soprano star of the world leading opera houses who also discovered Enrico Caruso!;
Antonio Scotti, baritone, Enrico Caruso's regular partner at the Metropolitan;
Tancredi Pasero, famous La Scala bass, and Toscanini's favourite basso;
Carmen Melis, soprano with an exceptional voice and later teacher of Renata Tebaldi;
Mariano Stabile, baritone and possibly the greatest exponent in the role of Verdi's Falstaff;
Riccardo Stracciari, the celebrated baritone considered the finest Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia;
Bidu Saya, who became one of the leading sopranos at the Metropolitan Opera House;
Licia Albanese, another famous soprano, later star of the Metropolitan;
Giulietta Simionato, a great mezzo soprano who started her career in Malta and became Maria Callas's constant partner at La Scala and the Met;
Aureliano Pertile, world famous tenor and Toscanini's favourite for many years; and
Gianna Pederzini, another famous La Scala mezzo soprano, a great singer and a great actress.
In order to add to the prestige of the season, famous composers were invited to come to Malta and conduct their own compositions. These included Ottorino Respighi, Riccardo Zandonai, Giuseppe Mule', and Mons. Licino Refice.
With the outbreak of World War II looming in the background, on September 9, 1939, the musicians making up the orchestra were informed by the Impresa that the opera season 1939/40 had to be cancelled.
The Royal Opera House in Valletta was then destroyed on April 7, 1942.
Are we able as a nation to honour its memory through a new space for all the performing arts over the next years and to do that within the context of modern day exigencies in the performing arts' world, including the need to have all the required facilities to stage musicals, symphonic events, and other happenings that would really make this area a focal point that attracts thousands of Maltese people and tourists to it?
When on a couple of occasions, I was discussing the area with Sir Cameron Mckintosh, he pointed out to me that while the former Opera House was the testing ground for new opera productions planned for La Scala in Milan, a new multifunctional performing arts' centre could be the testing ground for new productions planned for London's West End, and he was willing to provide his own insight and expertise to help us achieve that goal. Sir Cameron had also accepted to become a member of Malta's Council for Culture and the Arts.
The project for Valletta, our capital city, is to my mind evolving like a jig saw puzzle. Government is placing on board different pieces. Different clear pieces have for the discerning been placed on board already. They include the appointment of world renowned and acclaimed architect Renzo Piano to design City Gate, the Opera House ruins and Freedom Square; commencing the process to draw up plans for Fort St Elmo area; the appointment of Judge Giovanni Bonello as Superintendent of the Palace (signalling correctly that this building is, apart from hosting the offices of Malta's Head of State, to become a museums' centre of the highest calibre); and finally the publication of plans for St George's Square. It's wonderful news in all respects.
In this puzzle, the timing at which different jig-saw pieces are placed on board is as important as the pieces themselves. The most crucial and also the most talked about piece is being left for last. It has now been announced that we should expect to have this piece officially on board the chess board by the end of this month. It's the piece that will be signed by Renzo Piano and ultimately reflecting what would have been agreed upon with the architect's client - in this case the government. It's the piece that will reveal more, rather than less, final plans for the entrance to our baroque city as well as what will happen in Freedom Square and over the Opera House Ruins.
Much as I would be surprised not to see parliament included in this area, I would like to think that common sense will prevail and the Opera House ruins in particular will reflect a decision in favour of culture and the arts, in favour of the tradition that the site invokes, in favour of creating an iconic magnet that really draws people (both Maltese and tourists) to it, and that will respect the fact that Valletta will be the cultural city of Europe in 2018.
Over the past weeks some persons tried, for their own reasons, to shift the argument about what kind of development to go for at the Opera House ruins into a debate as to whether or not the country should have an Opera House that is dedicated only to classic opera. As amply highlighted in this feature, even when the Opera House was still in place until World War II, the theatre was used for different activities related to the performing arts although opera was then the leading genre. To try to shift the argument in such a direction is at best grossly unfair and at worst an attempt to condition people to reach conclusions on the basis of wrong premises.
When the Prime Minister dealt with this issue in an interview on the TVM programme Dissett, he went out of his way to be fair towards all those who like myself have not been making the case for simply rebuilding an Opera House but the case for a multifunctional centre for the arts and culture. There is a world of difference between the two concepts.
A multifunctional centre for the arts and culture means providing a space that can be as much used for Opera as it can be used for the modern day musical, for major theatre events as for symphonic orchestra, for ballet as for modern choreography, for concerts and happenings as for festivals and celebratory occasions.
Incidentally this is precisely what Theatre Projects who are known the world over for designing and otherwise advising on multifunctional arts' centre had put pen to paper and specifically advised Government to do over the past years. They had also demonstrated that that there is ample space to provide for a theatre over the Opera House ruins that can provide seating for over 1,000 patrons, and be flexible enough to offer facilities for all the different performing arts as well as space for the visual arts.
The report by Theatre Projects also proves that such a project should be considered as a major investment rather than as an expense. It is the only project that can really lead to the regeneration of our capital city. The point has since been made whenever Notte Bianca comes to town, or when other initiatives including the Summer Arts' Festival, the International Choir Festival, Valletta Waterfront Events, Valletta Alive evenings, and concerts organised by the private sector began to happen on a far more regular basis than ever before.
A news release issued by the National Statistics Office on June 3 adds weight to the argument in favour of the performing arts. According to the official statistics released on that date, in 2008, we have had an increase of more than 70 theatre productions over the previous year, with theatre audiences totalling 209,003 - an increase of 22 per cent. The biggest audiences were those attending concerts (24 per cent), followed by musicals (17 per cent) and comedy (13 per cent). A significant average with regard to theatre seat utilisation was registered for opera (76 per cent).
I must add that when I had seen to the conversion of St James Cavalier from a Government Printing Press to a Centre for Creativity, the whole purpose was to provide spaces in favour of different art forms that were at best only dreamt of previously but have since the dawn of the new millennium been used successfully to the extent that thousands of persons, including in particular children and young people, have as planned adopted the centre as their own. St James Cavalier is now one of the more important cultural landmarks of our country that is already taken for granted.
When St James Cavalier was planned and brought to life (not without overcoming countless obstacles then, an analysis of which should be undertaken at least for the benefit of posterity), it was envisaged that the Centre for Creativity would link up to the additional and larger spaces in favour of culture and the arts that needed to be created over the Opera House ruins.
This is the breath of fresh air that the entire arts scene and our talented artistes yearn for and deserve.
The jig-saw pieces are falling in place. Possibly I sin on the side of optimism, but I am confident that the overall picture that will evolve can and will do us all the prouder for what we would have managed to achieve and to pass on to future generations.