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Damascene U-turns

Watching TV guru Lou Bondì interact with opera superstar Joseph Calleja on Bondìplus last Thursday warmed the cockles of my heart as it appears that Mr Bondì has changed his opinion of both opera itself and its aficionados.

Artists, writers and thinkers, scholars and historians are only wheeled out when it is politically opportune to do so
- Kenneth Zammit Tabona

In an ill-judged article in this august paper only a couple of years ago, Mr Bondì compared opera buffs to a superannuated, down-at-heel lot haunting dingy Valletta drawing rooms or words to that effect.

A couple of years ago, with the then chairman of the Manoel Theatre publicly declaring that opera was a dead art, Mr Bondì, who had probably not realised as yet that opera stars can be nominated for Grammy Awards, joined the fray and between them and some other truculent bandwagon-jumpers caused untold harm to the operatic genre in Malta. It was harm that no amount of admiring chit-chat with Mr Calleja on Bondìplus is going to repair in a hurry.

All of a sudden, thanks to Mr Calleja, we have had a Damascene conversion to the extent that Mr Calleja is now cultural ambassador extraordinaire for Malta, which is to me splendiferous news.

It is so sad that there is still nowhere on this island where, what Mr Calleja excels in most, the interpretation of operatic roles as they should be performed, cannot be realised. There is no opera house or adequate space to put on an opera of Mr Calleja’s repertoire.

This leads me into what appears to be another Damascene conversion as expounded by the Prime Minister last week. After having been strongly criticised and practically vilified, insulted and threatened by one of his own backbenchers, the Prime Minister has, in the space of just over a month, turned the whole thing around. He has not only appeared smiling and relaxed with the very person who demanded his resignation but has also admitted that, in many instances, Franco Debono was right and that he, Lawrence Gonzi, had failed to listen to the people.

Like Louis XVI and Lafayette, the Prime Minister has now created Simon Busuttil as some kind of unofficial ombudsman to listen to our gripes and complaints, so here goes.

To return to opera houses and empty spaces I was recently accused of having given up the struggle to have something more functional than an empty space on the site of the Royal Opera House. I will never give up.

I do not know what is actually being concocted behind the boarding in Republic Street but till now it appears as if the ruins are being well and truly tarted up.

Only a couple of years ago, I had been invited to take part in Bondìplus by Mr Bondì (I have a mug bearing the legend that “I survived Bondìplus!” to prove it). In a direct telephonic connection with Renzo Piano’s Paris office I had asked Bernard Plattner, who was speaking on Mr Piano’s behalf, whether it would be possible to construct an auditorium for orchestral performances similar to the gorgeous one Mr Piano designed for Parma.

I do my research pretty thoroughly and the Sala Della Musica Niccolo Paganini is built over what was left of a sugar refinery utilising the same concept as what is being employed for the open space here. Mr Plattner reiterated instantly that it was very possible and that, inexplicably, nobody had asked him. Naturally, the implication here is that, at that time, there was no brief!

I do not know whether or not there is a brief now, however, when one thinks that the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra has been homeless since 1997 the mind boggles and one is at a loss to explain how a perfectly logical commonsense solution as proposed by myself and confirmed by Mr Plattner can be ignored. Or, rather, I can for when one recalls the words of Minister Austin Gatt, whom I believe has now relinquished his involvement with the project, way back then, it is indeed no surprise that any advice given was totally ignored.

For those of you who do not remember I will jiggle your memories a little. It was all about that letter which 128 persons who know their stuff sent to the Prime Minister in protest regarding the open air non-theatre idea. What Dr Gatt said on TV was that the artists of Malta have to understand that as we live in a democracy, what the government says goes! A declaration worthy of the great Leonid Brezhnev himself, don’t you think?

This must be retracted and an apology made.

This ministerial broadside is symptomatic of a deep-seated disrespect for the intelligentsia and artists in general. Artists, writers and thinkers, scholars and historians are only wheeled out when it is politically opportune to do so. This must stop.

I now lay this whole case before you all and Dr Busuttil, in particular, to be reassessed. I hope that, for the sake of culture in Malta, the decision regarding the opera house space will be reviewed to give the national orchestra a proper home in which the great symphonies will not sound like elephants being stuffed painfully into Mini Minors.

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