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'Everything is seen through a political filter - I'm sick of it'

Valletta 2018's Mario Philip Azzopardi hits back at critics

Valletta 2018 Artistic Director for Special Events Mario Philip Azzopardi talks about elitism in the arts, sustainability and the scope of a European City of Culture. Interview by Ramona Depares.

It’s been a week since Valletta 2018 officially kicked off. How has the experience been so far?

Exhilarating, frustrating, the best thing that I’ve done in years. I’m glad that I had this opportunity to contribute back to my country, with the assistance of a great team. I think we pulled off one of the biggest festas this country has every seen. For the first time we took our place among the nations of Europe, asserting ourselves as culturally independent. Europe we’re here – not belonging to you, but with you.

Have reactions met your expectations?

A 110,000 per cent. We reached 110,000 people ... we are not talking huge spaces like London or New York, but Valletta. We managed it with flying colours. Reactions from the European City of Culture (EcoC) family were very good indeed.

A criticism levelled at the Maltese artistic scene is that the approach is hobbyist, more than professional. Would you say one of the remits of the Valletta 2018 Foundation is to take things to a more professional level?

We are almost 400,000 people in Malta. There is no market here. Is it possible for an actor to make a living out of being an actor, in Malta? I don’t think so.

When you consider 95 per cent of acting professionals around the world are out of a job most of the year... over here we have the security of a permanent job. Then, if you’re crazy enough to dedicate six hours of the day to the art you love, after your job... then you are doing what everybody else does around the world while also being secure.

I hate the word hobbyist. It is so demeaning. I’m producing my 16th play in Malta and these actors are dedicated and committed to the work of theatre.

Would you say more work needs to be done to further this professional attitude?

There needs to be an assessment made on realistic terms based on where we want the artist to go in Malta. I think the artist isn’t respected enough.

I believe the criticism has been levelled towards the artists themselves.

I firmly believe that one of our problems is the academic attitude towards the arts. Academia has absolutely no idea of what goes on in the trenches of production. Academia sits back very comfortably; they are Monday night armchair critics.

Here, academics are a major concern. Lately – on your newspaper – there was an interviewee who claimed “there is no-one in Malta who can do this part”.

Our artists are sometimes goaded by academia to imitate what happens abroad. If we are to be our own artists we are going to have to depend on what we have here and try and reach levels, not imitate them.

In these past few years there has been a definite drive to help the arts become more self-sustaining. However, it remains a fact that some art forms will never be self-sustaining. Does this mean they should not be financially supported?

Of course not. Of course they should be funded. It’s not a matter of whether you fund the arts or not. It would be a major tragedy if they are not.

I won’t go into the merits of what is ‘art’. But one must understand that art is not necessarily homework. Sometimes, here in Malta, we forget that art is also entertainment. When Shakespeare wrote his plays, he was not thinking about the message he wanted to deliver but about how to entertain the audience. You have this attitude that everything in art has to inform the people, educate. Calm down, let’s give them their money’s worth. Then, if you’re good enough you are going to present the public with an opportunity to make choices.

I don’t believe that art changes the world, I don’t believe that art changes politics. World War II came when we had Beethoven and Picasso, and we still had World War II. We have great art nowadays and we still have wars.

Let’s say all the poets in Malta decided to go on strike for six months. What is going to be the social impact of that? Zero. What is the social impact if garbage collectors had to go on strike? Disastrous. So we as artists have got to be a little bit humbler. Let’s accept that we’re here by the grace of the audience.

But there are instances where we have seen art changing the world, acting as social commentary, providing satire...

Of course, absolutely.

So, is there space for this form of art?

Of course there is, it’s a tragedy if there isn’t.

Are you telling me that it’s not necessary?

No, I never said that. It’s got to be sold right to the audience. The audience has got to know why they should come and see it. Theatre cannot be presented as an elitist venue where only those people who understand culture – whatever that means – can go.

Is it okay that we lose €120,000 every year at the opera? I don’t know. Things have to be sought out. But how many people go and see it? The problem is not that it costs the taxpayer a loss every year, the problem is that only 600 to 1,000 people go see it. Something’s got to be done.

Is your issue with the opera the fact that only 600 people attend, or that it’s not made more accessible to more people?

Look, opera was a major thing in Malta before the war. It used to open here before they took the production to the rest of Europe. But people went to see it in their thousands.

Since then, unfortunately, because of academic meddling, we have closed the arts to an elitist attitude which is very detrimental to our cultural well-being. These things belong to everybody.

Now, how do you sell it? Where do you put it? How do you present it? These are questions that are not being properly assessed in Malta.

If there is a classical production and only 300 people go see it, it’s the fault of the Maltese because the people are ignorant. If there is a  play in Maltese that sells out, the attitude from academia is: ‘Oh, it’s populist, it’s not Ibsen, it can’t be valid’.

But the public is showing us very plainly that when you present something well-made... Every play we present at Staġun Teatru Malti, for example, is researched and sells out. Why? Because they are seeing their experiences, not the foreign ones.

You have this attitude that everything in art has to educate. Calm down, let’s give them their money’s worth

I’m not saying those plays should not happen, don’t misunderstand me. I’m saying that the Maltese experience is what we are living in. Unfortunately, the elite don’t want to deal with this, but they want to deal with what happens in London, Germany....

Who are the elite?

The elite are those people who think they can speak for the Maltese people. The elite are those who are Maltese but don’t want to say that they are Maltese.

You are a firm believer in the ‘bums on seats’ principle. Is there a point where there can be too much pandering to populism?

What’s wrong with bums on seats? Do you think that Shakespeare and Chekov were happy if they saw their theatres half full? I don’t understand this idea of populist being wrong. That giving the people what they want is wrong.

It’s important to give the people what they think they want and then, through proper attitudes and through the integrity of the artist, you move your public to higher ground.

I hate the artist who leaps into the future and sets about his journey irrespectively of where his audience is. I think that’s very fascist. I love the artist who moves forward but drags his audience behind it, making sure it moves with him.

That is the mission as I understand it. I want to know what keeps the people entertained, because that is my mission. Entertainment. And then, through hard work, hopefully I am bringing this audience towards a better understanding of our life.

One of the criticisms levelled at the Valletta 2018 opening was the fact that the Triton Fountain show was imported. In view of this, is it a priority for Valletta 2018 to encourage and facilitate homegrown art?

But La Fura del Baus is homegrown. We have introduced to the Maltese public a new sense of spectacle. The idea was that everybody that participates is local.

We brought in their machinery and their expertise. We organised a workshop with them through Notte Bianca and, in totality, 150 children took part in La Fura. That is the originality. Maltese participation is original.

This show is so expensive the only way you can bring it is through the touring, the amortisation of costs among many peoples. They go everywhere. Are we going to be judged as plagiarists because we brought this experience to Malta?

It’s obviously not a case of plagiarism, but can you say it’s homegrown? If you put up an Ibsen play with a Maltese cast and production team, you do not describe it as homegrown...

La Fura was one of four shows. It was not the main event. The choreography by Paolo Mangiola... is that plagiarism, because we put dancers on stage? There are dancers on stage everywhere.

These are all Maltese people making a celebration. One of the most important elements of EcoC is ‘European dimensionality’. We are giving it to the Maltese people, by the Maltese people, as part of Europe.

This is my greatest sadness. It’s been a tough year for me this last year. Everything is seen through a political filter. I’m sick of it. Yes, I am a Labour supporter, I’ve got every single right like everybody else to choose a party. Here, in Malta, you are condemned together with your work and family, because you are on a different political platform. Sad. That is something that we’ve got to forget when we talk about art. Let’s not forget that politics is there to serve us.

One of the aims of the Foundation is to leave a long-lasting cultural legacy on the Islands. Can you give specific examples of how this will be achieved?

The Foundation will continue its work after 2018. It will continue to create on a lesser level, continue the legacy of celebrating art. Celebrating, not pushing down people’s throat. Culture belongs to the people, not to the critic, the professor, the politician.

Everything we are doing is a start, not an ending. Take the Pageant of the Seas, taking place every two years. We’ve created a tradition already. We will have mini cities of culture, taking it to Mosta, Naxxar, St Paul’s Bay...

What is being done to foster an appreciation for arts and culture at school level? Are there any plans to include arts in the school curriculum?

We can satirise Catholicism but not Islam. That’s nuts

This is part of our future. If we don’t take care of this we have failed miserably. When I was young we used to have a children’s national drama festival. All schools would present a play and the finalists would put it on at the Manoel Theatre. It would always be full. Why has that stopped?

Do you feel that the Foundation has a role to play in this, though?

We are doing our damndest. We have encouraged and supported initiatives like (children’s arts programme) ToiToi. I will never say it’s enough, because it never is.

Do you have any specific examples of what the Foundation is doing about this?

I am the artistic director of special events. I have got five major events to coordinate. What we just did took two-and-a-half years to prepare, along wth a new opera, a new movie, Pageant of the Seas, closing ceremonies... So there are questions I can’t answer because that is not part of my remit. But there are people out there who will be able to, because they are concerned directly with this.

A complaint often levelled by musicians is the lack of affordable ‘plug and play’ venues in Malta. How justified is this complaint and do you foresee a possible solution?

Yes, there are attempts. Rome was not built in a day. You never are finished. You will find people who are very disgruntled that we are not following their ideas, but when you are in a situation of management, you are doing this for the country and the people and not for one particular idea or interpretation of what the arts are. That comes in the experimental stages. But the experiment can’t be the mainstay. With experimentation you push people away. You’ve got to attract them.

I’ll give you an example. We introduced contemporary dance, one of the most difficult forms of art today, in a spectacular show by ŻfinMalta. ŻfinMalta was, unfortunately, exposed to situations where their shows were not well-attended.

We gave ŻfinMalta an audience of 110,000 people, in a way that was very entertaining and absolutely gorgeous to look at. Now, when we talk of ŻfinMalta, we talk of the spectacular show they did.

I had to fire the previous company that was preparing a show for us there. It was not creating something that was going to be appreciated. It was more cerebral. Am I saying there should be no cerebral events? No, but the occasion elicited a different kind of show.

What was the previous show?

I am not going to tell you that. We disagreed and there is nothing wrong with disagreement. Art is conflict. With yourself, the people you’re working with, the audience... If everybody agreed, we would end up with committee-driven drivel.

The arts are synonymous with cultural diversity. Yet, you had gone on record with anti-Muslim comments on social media. How do you reconcile these two facts?

First of all, I contest the idea of culture and diversity. Diversity is part of culture. Culture is not diversity. Every society has its own culture, and that is to be defended; accepting other cultures is what should be considered. Allowing other cultures to talk to us, and we to them. But to give up our culture is nonsense. It’s political construct. These are my ideas, not the Foundation’s. It’s me personally.

The context to my statements was this: there was a night, I think it was on (TV programme) Xarabank, where I heard a local Imam expressing his views that it is acceptable if hands are chopped off if a thief is caught stealing. I’m sorry, I disagree with that and I will use every single form and energy to stop that from happening. Just like I would stop anything else that would violate human rights.

Islam is a religion, not a race. So one cannot be racist because one does not agree with Islam.

There are a lot of things that I disagree with when it comes to the Catholic faith. Am I racist because of that? We can satirise Catholicism but not Islam. That’s nuts. Why not?

Am I going to stand by if someone tries to hurt an Islamic person? Are you kidding? I hope I’ll have the strength to jump and defend the person. I’m not attacking the person but the philosophy. What is wrong with that?

If the Church were to come out and condone harm towards homosexuals, for example, what would our reaction be? But yet, there’s absolute silence when we hear about the atrocities that are being done in the name of Islam.

Of course, not by all Muslims. But you know what? If one priest were to say something that goes against what we believe in, the whole world will rise up against Christianity. So there is this kind of hypocrisy that as an artist, I will not stand by.

What will it take for you to look back and say that the EcoC experience in Malta was a success?

I think the EcoC experience is going to give us a perception of what art can do for us. It is not going to be measured by how many plays or concerts we do after. We are going to measure it by how people will react to the cultural experience through their involvement in artistic endeavours. The reason EcoCs happen is to transform the society and give a better perception of how to choose, what to choose and what to do with your choice.

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