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Gensna: A nation's music

Mary Rose Mallia and Renato in a scene from the original rock opera which took place almost 30 years ago.

Mary Rose Mallia and Renato in a scene from the original rock opera which took place almost 30 years ago.

Discussing the prospect of another Ġensna with the names behind the successful show reveals a sense of group solidarity in the endeavour to organise this long-awaited return. Maestro Paul Abela, lyricist and poet Ray Mahoney and most of the original cast of singers, will be teaming up once again, and among this team of friends and colleagues resides a deep anticipation for the upcoming performance as well as a fond recollection of the original rock opera which took place almost 30 years ago.
Several members of the Ġensna team have justified their increased enthusiasm for the show because the re-launch of the concept has apparently been a long time coming. Whether it arose in conversation or following a performance of one of the original songs, the question as to whether Ġensna would ever happen again has been posed many times by fans over the years. Unfortunately, the much desired plans for a reunion of any kind had remained hypothetical until only recently, when it was decided that the time was ripe for both a reunion and a fresh re-introduction.
To use the term repeat performance would be misleading as this time, Ġensna will not be performed as a rock opera, but will be presented as a concert with many added extras. The attraction of the concert format lies in different elements. For one thing, while the original show used synthesisers, this time the audience will witness a live 35-strong orchestra, a choir composed of 80 adults and 40 youngsters (in other words, a choir which boasts a total of 120 individuals) and of course, the main singers on stage. Furthermore, the performances will be backed up by an original dance choreography directed and performed by the Alison White studio, big screens highlighting live action and clips from the original rock opera, and a light show.
According to Mro Abela, the idea behind the concert format grew out of a desire to reunite the original cast: “To repeat the rock opera, complete with acting, we would have required an entirely new cast… we wanted people to experience the songs by those same singers”. The decision to hold the performance in concert version also means that the show will act as a tribute to and a celebration of the original rock opera. Departing from the subject on an ambiguous note, he adds that “as for the possibility of Ġensna as rock opera in the future, time will tell!”
Almost unanimously, the Ġensna team recall the previously unheard-of opportunity offered by such a large-scale show as the original rock opera: one written, performed and produced by an all-Maltese cast and crew. Mro Abela recounts his return from America in 1981, when, fresh out of music school, he was approached by producer Joe Galea who proposed a small idea that eventually grew into a full-blown rock opera with a hand-picked cast, a recording budget and a run of over 30 performances.
As Mr Mahoney states, back then Ġensna already possessed all the vital ingredients required to produce “a polished and professional product”.
Like Mro Abela, professional musician and Ġensna singer Paul Giordimaina also remembers the impact the original show had upon the local music scene.
Both admit that before the Ġensna project had taken its cast and choir over to Sicily to be recorded professionally, local sound recordings of the time often left much to be desired. Singer Georgina Abela, who will also be joining the original cast with the song Il-Warda this time round, entertainingly tells of how she used to refer to the quality of these one-track, jumbled recordings as “borom u platti”. However, on witnessing the one-off performance of the rock opera in the open air at Ħagar Qim, she says that she had to revise this description.
Apart from the luxury offered by better recording quality, many of the singers admit to the good career opportunity the show had presented them with as emerging talent at the time. Tony Camilleri (popularly known as il-Bajżo) says that it was without a doubt “100 per cent bigger” than anything he had done up to that point and Renato considers it to be the biggest local musical he has ever taken part in.
Meanwhile, Mary Rose Mallia points out that although she had already performed a prominent role in the musical The King And I, Ġensna’s importance lay in the fact that it was an all-round Maltese production, one factor which helped to seal her reputation on the local pop scene.
Many of the singers also remember the close-knit relationship which the long process set in place. With both Mr Mahoney and Mr Micallef recounting that it took almost a whole year to get rehearsals and recordings finalised for the performance of the rock opera, it’s no wonder that various members of the cast had bonded over the experience. As Catherine Vigar recalls: “It wasn’t easy at all but we all worked hard and we got on very well together” while Ms Mallia says that during the rehearsals “there was a family feeling from the start.”
Certainly, this is also confirmed by what Mr Giordimaina tells me – that apart from the fact that friendships were formed among the main singers, a few members of the original Ġensna choir also went on to get married.
The enthusiasm which resided behind the stage, emphasises Mro Abela, is not easily forgotten: “There was a cast of around 150 people and they would always come to rehearsals!” Mr Mahoney insists the stressful preparations were always leapt at with great enthusiasm by the whole party.
When individually asked about their working relationship, both poet and composer express a mutual respect for each other’s work. Mr Mahoney credits his colleague’s dedicated and continuous presence among the singers as the indispensable counterpart to his own painstaking emphasis on all aspects of intonation, grammatical utterance and pronunciation. At the same time, Mro Abela says about Mr Mahoney’s work that “his words always inspired me, he is a true poet”.
But beyond what Ġensna was like the first time and what it will be like in concert, what is Ġensna about, what should Ġensna mean to an audience? In a nutshell, Mro Abela describes it as “the story of the Maltese people”. Expanding upon the themes which the production explores, Mr Mahoney defines it as “a faithful rendition of a nation’s most salient and prominent historical milestones”, a patriotic romance conveyed with “soul-searching” emotion.
Certainly, Mr Mahoney associates the link between poetry and music to a Romantic tradition. When asked about the coupling of the two, he instantly quotes the Romantic poet William Wordsworth who famously said that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. Mr Mahoney goes on to say that poetry heightens the passion music describes. Mro Abela also sees the two as interlinked. “When poetry is put to song it attracts the ear,” he says. “This then attracts the attention to a sentence, a word, an idiom, a turn of phrase, which causes one to stop and think about the way everything has been designed to work together.” In this way, the two colleagues explain Ġensna’s initial impact and its enduring appeal.
With regards to the songs of the musical, a seemingly simple question is posed to the singers: “Out of all the songs that you sang in Ġensna, which is your favourite?” Some surprising trivia arise. Ms Mallia explains that she enjoyed performing the song Din l-Omm as much as she did because Mro Abela had overseen the composition of each song with the specific singer in mind. Every aspect was tailor-made to the singer, so that in the end she says the song fit her like a glove. With regards to the coming performances, Mro Abela once again lent his attention to the singers in order to change the orchestration of the songs to suit a concert.
Renato’s favourite song from the rock opera is Mitna Għall-Barrani, one which he ironically had strong reservations about in the beginning. “I kept asking Paul to give it to someone else!”, he laughs.
The reason for this being the physical and emotional burden of a seven-and-a-half minute solo with a troubled theme – a far cry from the generally upbeat, jolly songs which Renato knew and loved. “However,” he continues, “once we recorded it I had to admit to being wrong: I loved it and it remains popular to this day.”
Mr Camilleri, meanwhile, professed that although he is at pains to choose a favourite, he holds a strong preference for the duets. “The songs I enjoyed performing most were duet-based – I had one with Joe Cutajar and one with Paul Giordmaina”, because they had offered him the opportunity for a joint performance which filled the lonely and empty space of the stage.”
When speaking of the general consensus which he recalls the singers reaching in conversation, Joe Cutajar says that the all-round favourite among the cast is probably It-Talba. As Ms Vigar notes, the continuing popularity of this song is highlighted by the fact that it has often been adopted for local wedding ceremonies.
All parties in fact point out that the songs, as well as the concept of Ġensna itself, have sustained their popular appeal over the span of a generation. Mr Mahoney has no doubt that news of Ġensna as a rock opera, an experience still recalled by parents of a younger generation, has been passed on to their children, people who had not even been born on its release. Confirming this, Mro Abela describes the heavy youth element in the present choir and the overwhelming response which the production has received from youngsters during audition calls: phone calls flooded in during the advertised time frame and did not quell when the window of opportunity had closed.
The fact that the upcoming run of performances is a tribute and a recollection of a show from the 1980s has not caused the buzz to wane among the main singers either. Most of the singers admit that there are a few anxieties involved in the wait, but these are mostly overridden by excitement. “I’m half excited and half afraid!”confesses Mr Camilleri while Renato proclaims “I am actually more excited now than I was then!” Both singers draw attention to the increased pressure caused by the “live” factor of the concert. Whereas parts of the rock opera had to be dubbed due to the nature of such an epic stage event, the entire concert will be choreographed and directed as a fully live spectacle, which always increases the stakes for the performers.
However, all are grateful for the chance to take part in Ġensna once again and promise to give it their best. “Of course I am really looking forward with excitement… I hope that we can bring some excitement to the people who will be sitting in the theatres or anywhere else,” says Mr Cutajar.
Meanwhile, two other long-established singers, Mary Spiteri and Georgina Abela, who are actually both newcomers to Ġensna, readily put across their happiness and honour at being given the opportunity to be involved. “I am very happy and honoured to be taking part in one of the most successful and well-written shows popular Maltese song has ever had. I will also be singing one of my favourite songs,” says Ms Spiteri, who will be performing the song Tema 79. Ms Abela is also enthusiastic about the idea: “I’m very happy that the opportunity to have a role in Ġensna has finally arisen.”
Ms Mallia expresses emotions which convey both nostalgia and fresh experience: “The fact that I’m here again takes me back to the very same feeling I had the first time, except with something extra added to it.” Her feelings summarise the general vibe behind the scenes at the moment, where all the singers promise a performance which comes from the heart.

Nine performances of Ġensna in concert will be held at the Mediterranean Conference Centre – on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (twice), March 31 (twice), April 4 and April 5 (twice). The first performance on Friday will be held in the form of a gala night. A matinée performance will also be held on Sunday.

Source: Weekender, March 21, 2009

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