April 6, 2013

The politics of theatre and culture


Bombed Valletta in 1942 with the opera house on the right.

The (new) Prime Minister of Malta hailed the under signed as a “symbol of national unity” for the Maltese people. Indeed I have always tried, within reason, to steer clear from anything that can divide opinions in our very polarized Malta.

Of course there were exceptions and one of these exceptions came up a couple of years ago when the previous government announced the (then) new plans for Valletta. I actively and immediately opposed the decision to build a new parliament versus a multi – purpose concert theatre which the country so desperately needs. Don’t get me wrong. I am not stating that having a parliament is not important, of course it is. However, weren’t the historical sites of Fort St Elmo or the MCC suitable enough venues and spectacular to boot? Both could easily accommodate parliament with minor adjustments and at a fraction of the cost spent on the new parliament. Or so the various leading Maltese architects told me. Can anyone really state, hand on heart, that the building of a multi – purpose theatre in the entrance of Valletta wouldn’t pump much needed air in our oxygen starved cultural scene? Imagine a fully functional new theatre in upper Valletta and a parliament in lower Valletta! That is what I call tackling the regeneration of Valletta at both ends…

As much as Barry’s design was beautiful the old theatre site, unfortunately, isn’t big enough for our modern requirements. A larger footprint is needed to accommodate a bigger backstage area so that the theatre would need to be able to host musicals, opera, vocal symphonic concerts, conferences, poker tournaments, ballet, theatre, pantomimes, private events and even boxing matches if necessary! Flexibility is the only way an eventual “theatre” can come close to be commercially viable and not be yet another burden on tax payers. Of course I guess nothing is in the way to adapt Barry’s outside architecture to a bigger footprint…

There is a huge PR opportunity for Malta waiting to be exploited here. The “rebuilding” of our theatre would no doubt generate huge interest by the major European media and beyond. The theatre was destroyed during one of more 3000 (!) air raids Malta suffered between 1940 and 1942 our island being one of the most intensively bombed countries in WW2!

This government has now a huge opportunity to give back to the Maltese people their cultural identity something every single administration failed to do for the last 71 years!


  1. I am totally in agreement with your above blog which mirrors my own thoughts on the subject. I am 58 years old and it still hurts every time I pass by the old Opera House ruins. The reason our forefathers left the ruins there and did not place anything else on that footprint was specifically because they hoped that what was destroyed by war would be rebuilt in time of peace. I believe our young island nation can afford to have a temple dedicated to the arts…even if not fully financially viable.

  2. Ray Pisani

    I fully agree.
    My mother sang in that Opera House as a child for a school musical and the experience left her musical for ever.
    She is 88 and she refuses to enter Valletta and will not even look at the new Piano building as if it were an abomination.
    Of course she was born and bred in Valletta until the war forced her to leave. I too think that the Opera house be rebuilt as was with the necessary adjustments to accommodate modern music and artistes.
    Good Luck
    Ray Pisani

  3. Carmen Micallef

    I agree with you 100% Joseph. Looking forward for your July concert.

  4. Just saying

    If you’re saying that the site of the old theatre is not big enough for modern theatrical requirements, why are you suggesting that it should be rebuilt? What use will it have? And if you’re suggesting that the ‘new theater’ with Barry’s magnified design should have been built instead of the new parliament (if I understand your arguments correctly), the site of the new parliament is roughly the same size as the site of the old theatre. So again you end up with a theater which is not big enough, according to you. I find your arguments very incoherent

    And is Maltese society so backward-looking that it feels that its cultural identity is only expressed by baroque and, in this case, neoclassical architecture? Personally, although I love architecture from all eras, I would feel very offended if you give me a neoclassical-pastiche building today. Using your argument, as a Maltese, I wouldn’t feel that this would express my cultural identity.

    The type of flexible theater you’re talking about; a theater that can house anything from opera to boxing matches, can only be offered by contemporary design and architecture because only this can accommodate our modern-day flexible and open culture. So again, if we build a theater in the future to satisfy the needs you’re describing, we will have to use contemporary design architectural solutions. I think you have travelled more than enough to know that all those cites and countries that want to build or have built theaters and opera houses, even in historic centres, have arrived to the same conclusions.

    If you want PR opportunities, look at the international attention that the new opera houses of Oslo, Reykjavik, Copenhagen and to a lesser extent Beijing have attracted? Tiny Iceland, in particular, has managed to revamp the whole image of its capital with its new avant-garde opera house with its creative reflective facade.

    Mr Calleja, as huge admirer and follower, I beg you to focus more on making the Maltese engage more in the enchanting world of contemporary and traditional arts and cultural. You should be the one harping about the importance of forming one’s self not just by engaging in village feasts, carnival, Clavin Harris parties and the latest American blockbuster but also by engaging in opera, classical music, ballet contemporary and traditional art exhibitions (like the latest jewellery exhibition organised by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti) alternative cinema, etc. In this way we can make all monetary investments in culture not only viable but necessary.

    I suggest you stick to this. You are our biggest hope. Then leave our architects and urban planners to work out the best way to cater for the new need for more culture.

    • admin

      Thanks for your feedback. Although I didn’t specify it in my original blog it is pretty obvious that what I meant was a building on the same site extended further into freedom square. I admit that my knowledge of architecture doesn’t go too far however, internationally, there are indeed examples of completely modern structures built from scratch but there are also examples of buildings restored to their original glory. There is an argument for both sides.

      Re the rest of your post I am in total agreement with you save for the following –

      “I suggest you stick to this. You are our biggest hope. Then leave our architects and urban planners to work out the best way to cater for the new need for more culture.”

      We have been without a proper (multi) cultural space for 71 years not due to bad architects or urban planners but due to a string of chronic bad decision making. Without a proper space in which to fully enjoy and experience some of the activities you mention, the much “awaited” renaissance of Maltese culture will remain a faint flicker of a flame till the time when it will be all but extinguished…

  5. Anthony Camilleri

    A man of your calibre should refrain from direct political messages knowing in hindsight that we are all proud of you , why the sudden change of heart when you clearly stated ” indeed I have always tried, within reason, to steer clear from anything that can divide opinions in our very polarized Malta.”

    • admin

      Hi Anthony – thank you for your message. I have never, ever done anything to pick a political side. I am sorry you deem my post as being political. It is anything but such. In addition not being political doesn’t mean being completely void of opinions, ideas and (occasionally) expressing the latter…

    • Erik

      Anthony, throughout history, artists have been voices for people. Artists identify more easily with people’s pleasures and pains. Let artists continue to speak up against senseless ideas or actions regardless of where these come from. Thanks Joseph.

  6. Andrew Borg-Cardona

    Joseph, the sad reality is that on most evenings, the vast majority of them, even the theatres we have aren’t full. The only reason there was opposition to the Piano design, the way I see it, is that people kept repeating the mantra “roofless theatre”, when it is simply an open-air perfomance space, part of a larger idea. There’s no reason why the MCC can’t be developed, for that matter, so why keep harping on and on?

    • admin

      It so great to have you and read you here! I really think I am right on this one. My comments are stemming only from the desire to see the development of Valleta’s potential to the full. A cultural centre there would be an amazing hub of activity. I have my sincere doubts whether the MCC can be really converted into what I wrote about in my blog for the simple reason that it wasn’t intended for that purpose in the first place….

  7. Norman Shaw

    Hi Joseph,

    I am in total agreement with your ideas – you are spot on! The Renzo Piano/AP project has only managed to completely ruin the transport system within Valletta and also defile the bastion walls! I do hope that the new Government will strive to change what we can change…. Thank you for voicing your valid suggestions! The roofless theatre or open air performance space has become an eyesore and an embarrassment…and nothing else!

    Norman Shaw, Minorilty Leader Valletta Local Council

  8. Percy Eugene Cartwright Jnr

    Hello Joseph,

    I agree totally with Joseph. The majority of developed countries, all boast with their own unique Opera Houses.

    Why not the Maltese. I think the Old Opera House should revived and planned as Joseph suggests. After all, him being a famed singer, should know what he is talking about. On another note, this should be done in a bi-partisan manner.

  9. Silvan Said

    The open air theatre with its cheap xalata type of structure is incongrous and reflects only our inability to seriously commit to the arts whilst the new parliament building exit door exposes our fixation with politics and government, probably as a result of our colonial past and two party system.

    The new parliament building dominating our city is a sign of big government dominating our lives. It should be converted to good use for the enjoyment of the people and not to awe the people. It could be a centre for arts, science and history. It should showcase our history using many tecnologies such as the project in Australia that simulated the temples.

  10. Franco

    I believe that the MCC should be restored to its original state, i.e. Republic Hall should be reconverted to an open air cloister and the whole site turned into a Museum about the Knights Hospitallers of Malta. This is, after all, their hospital.

    The Opera site could have been redeveloped along Barry’s original plans on the Republic Street and South Street sides and would have served as a foyer to a proper multi-purpose hall built on what is currently the Parliament site.

    City Gate is no longer a gate thanks to Piano.

  11. C.Sammut

    @ Andrew Borg Cardona.. the building itself will not generate attendees. This needs to be coupled with an improved economical status of the general population, discounted prices for the younger generation, fostering a dress code (not always evening) and an educational background to what is being put up, as well as theatre tourism. I have seen many a foreigner asking Mr Calleja for dates of his Malta concerts. Not many have tapped this market niche. I personally am all for a theatre extended over the new parliament structure or even underground and rebuilding the Barry design just as an external facade. A Parliament plan in the St Elmo area would have helped regenerate this part of Valletta and makes for easier traffic access.

  12. This article was written and published in March 2010 and is still relevant


    Anyone who saw Bondi Plus last week will have realised by now that although Mr Bondi declared that it would be the last time that the subject of the open air theatre cum piazza was discussed. Discussed after a fashion, of course; as the discussion included none of the potential users or those who are paying for it, read the Malta Government, but merely the Piano representatives; Konrad Buhagiar and Bernard Plattner who had the thankless task of defending the indefensible. Mr Buhagiar found himself between a rock and a hard place while it was clear from the questions I asked Mr Plattner that there was no brief to speak of and not one jot of what has been written in the media about the project had been passed on to either him or Mr Piano. Had Mr Plattner or anyone at the Piano HQ read what has been written in the last nine months, he would not have been as nonplussed as he was when I mentioned Renzo Piano’s own Sala della Musica Niccolo Paganini in Parma as a blueprint for what could happen on the Teatru Rjal site. Ergo when many of us who for no other reason but to preserve and enhance culture in Malta have been turning somersaults trying to clarify a horrendously complex issue to no avail, the man who at the end of the day has been commissioned by a sovereign nation to build 1) an entrance to what is ostensibly a Renaissance city, 2) A parliament to house our 65 demigods and demigoddesses and 3) something to fill a spot that is dear to the nation’s cultural memory, has been left in the dark. The result is that the Government will, come hell or high water, insist on forging ahead with a project that Malta needs like a hole in the head; an open air theatre which in a country like ours is taking coals to Newcastle and does not, repeat, does not solve any of the glaring lacuna in our cultural mix.
    I will once again ask the following questions to whoever will take the time and trouble to ponder upon them seriously. To justify the expenditure of even one of those 80 million euro of taxpayers’ money I would ask all these questions and more; wouldn’t you? Here goes……..
    1) How much of the 80 million euro for the entire project is being dedicated to the theatre?
    2) How much are the estimated maintenance costs of the open air theatre as proposed for the first ten years of its existence?
    3) Conversely how much would a closed and soundproofed auditorium like Parma’s which can be used all the year round cost and what would its relative maintenance fees be in the first ten years?
    4) What would be the cost for a retractable roof as proposed by Fr Peter Serracino Inglott over the present structure plan?
    5) Have Renzo Piano and Associates any idea of what Malta’s current cultural needs are?
    6) Have they been informed that our Malta Philharmonic Orchestra is homeless and has been so since 1997?
    7) Do they know that because there is no Museum of Modern Art in Malta, 200 years of art are unaccounted for and lie in storage in what is quaintly referred to as a reserve collection?
    8) Are they aware that Malta’s National Library as opposed to the Bibliotheca is out in the Styx hidden in some ditch in Beltissebh?
    9) Are they aware of the drawbacks and limitations of the other two theatres in Valletta?
    10) Do they know about the ruinous Rih Isfel u il-Grigal? And the Gibbli too?

    11) Do they know that the Majjistral howls through July like a destructive banshee?
    12) And are they aware of the 17 parishes in and around Valletta that launch a million petards from June to September?
    The mind boggles at just how inadequate the present project is and how unwise it would be for Renzo Piano to put his name to it in its present form.
    Up to a couple of weeks ago there was a veritable Gordian Knot wherein every practitioner of any cultural discipline imaginable was looking towards the Teatru Rjal site as a possible solution to the present glaring cultural inadequacies. Then like deus ex macchina Sir Cameron Macintosh was brought into the equation. Oddly enough Sir Cameron said that he could convert the MCC into a highly functional opera house when Malta simply cannot afford opera on an ongoing year round basis. A week later on Bondi Plus the Chairman of the MCC, Peter Fenech declared that he had other viable plans to create a multi functional theatre able to take opera, ballet, dance and drama among other things. Is this wishful thinking; just like the little angel who told St Augustine that he was trying to fit the ocean in a hole in the sand? The Fenech/Macintosh possibilities of an alternative multipurpose venue has now changed things dramatically and the Government must, before it loses all cultural credibility, take a practical decision to opt for one of them plus an all year round acoustically perfect, weatherproof cultural venue on the Teatru Rjal site that will solve the orchestra’s problem for good and all and prepare Malta for the designation that hangs over our collective heads like Damocles’ Sword; namely being the European Cultural capital in 2018. At the rate we are going the prospect is terrifying me.

    Kenneth Zammit Tabona

  13. Kenneth Zammit Tabona

    Multipurpose buildings confuse the issue and end up being neither fish nor fowl. If one examines what malta has at present one is faced with a beautiful but totally inadequate Manoel Theatre and a most dysfunctional MCC. Since 1997 the Malta Philharmonic has not had a place to perform. Renzo Piano’s Bernard Plattner on Bondi Plus in march 2010 informed the undersigned and whoever was watching that an auditorium or orchestra on the lines of Piano s own Sala Della Musica Niccolo Paganini in Parma IS possible and realisable.
    As for audiences; these require nurturing. The Valletta International Baroque Festival was a huge success and so were the recent Teatru Manoel Productions of Cavalleria and Pagliacci, the Manoel is always packed for orchestral concerts especially when a piano concerto is on the Programme. There is a following however performing large orchestral works in an 18th century court theatre is like trying to stuff an elephant in a miniminor.

    • admin

      A multipurpose hall is the only way forward for Malta. I have performed in such halls all over the world especially at the beginning of my career. Indeed even “old” opera houses have been modified to keep abreast with the continuous high tech demands that contemperorary stagings require.

  14. Joseph Carmel Chetcuti

    I was not too impressed when Joseph Calleja made references to his secondary school exam results when attending the University of Malta. I considered those comments highly political and, worse still, a cheap and tacky reference to Franco Debono. Yet, accusing Joseph of being political when he comments on anything that has to do with theatre in Malta says a hell of a lot more about his accusers. If someone like Joseph cannot comment on matters that directly concern him because Malta’s all-too-sensitive and precious brigade gets offended, then too bad for them. When I was last in Malta, in December 2013, the open-air theatre looked terrible. It attracted nothing but cheap performances. It smacks more of a community theatre. It is vulgar. Most probably, a whore house is far more interesting. If Maltese think that visitors to Malta are going to be impressed by such shambles, they know sweet bugger all about tourism. Built something dynamic like the Sydney Opera House. That’s what I call style.

  15. Kenneth Zammit Tabona

    There is no place for a multipurpose hall

    • admin

      If they take more footprint from freedom square there probably is. Remember, we don’t need a 2000 seater. Around 800 – 1000 seats would be enough.

  16. Astrid Vella

    I totally disagree that this is a political piece. As to the patronising person saying that Joseph Calleja should leave it up to “architects and urban planners to work out the best way to cater for the new need for more culture.”, the fact that ‘Just Saying’ does not have the courage of his convictions to write in his own name says a lot.

    Although it’s a hot potato, I personally don’t think that the style of the exterior is the main issue. For years party hacks told us that we don’t need a larger theatre because the Manoel is half empty; well, Kenneth Zammit Tabona has debunked that myth, assuring us that the Baroque Festival, operas and orchestral concerts are all well patronised. Furthermore one could pursue the concept of cultural tourism – attracting tourists just for theatre performances, as is done in Prague.

    Joseph Calleja has confirmed that a multipurpose hall is the way to go – who are we to question that? The tragedy is that we missed the possibility to reverse the neglect of Valletta by placing the full, roofed theatre here and Parliament in lower Valletta, either at the Auberge de Baviere or the MCC, as Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar (FAA) had suggested in order to kick-start the regeneration of lower Valletta. Richard England had drawn up plans to this effect.

    FAA had proposed enlarging the footprint and valorising the facade by rotating the entrance to the side of the building facing Valletta’s missing gate. Thus the theatre foyer could have been built extending out onto Ordinance Street, freeing up more space for the performance facilities on the actual theatre footprint. Freedom Square would have been turned into a beautiful public garden so that on entering Valletta, the first thing one would have seen would have been the beautiful facade of the new National Theatre.

    Now that our government obstinately insisted on placing Parliament on Freedom Square – breaking the law that says “Parliament and the ministries are to be located in the palaces and Auberges of Valletta” – we have lost the possibility of such an expansion.

    The present theatre footprint is exactly the size of Venice’s Teatro La Fenice which was restored to its original glory after its second fire, while incorporating all modern facilities within. That is what Venetian architect Giovanni Trevisan designed in the plans he drew up proposing a modern take on the Barry facade, and a multi-purpose theatre interior which would accommodate a contemporary art gallery above the theatre and an elegant theatre restaurant on the top floor. Joseph Calleja, what did you think of his proposals, and how would you propose to enlarge the theatre site?

  17. Kenneth Zammit Tabona

    For those who have not yet read my article in today’s Times as it is not yet online here it is…………….The second half of the article refers to Valletta regeneration


    How time flies! A month has gone by since the election and despite the prognostications the world has not come to an end. Business as usual you might say apart from the speculative interest that a section of us take in who is being appointed to what and how. We have not been in ‘business as usual‘ mode for almost two years! It would be impossible to please everyone in this little fishpond of an island of ours and by the time the spanking new legislature has the wherewithal and the people to be an up and running government people will be far more interested in who is going to be PN party leader.
    History repeats itself ad nauseam. In 2008, the electorate, after voting for ‘more of the same’, was far more interested in who was to succeed Alfred Sant. In retrospect that should have been a good indicator of what happened afterwards although, in all truth, the proverbial excrement did hit the fan when the divorce issue was raised. Divorce was so badly handled by the PN that it left the already weak government totally handicapped. As we saw for ourselves, the electorate is not as gullible as many thought it was and the threats, personal attacks, character assassinations, negativity and overall apocalyptical scenario painted by the PN should PL be elected turned out to be as ephemeral as a soap bubble and the PN itself has, like a house of cards, imploded into bankruptcy both fiscal and ideological as the contenders primed to succeed Lawrence Gonzi flagellate themselves with blame citing the obvious as to what went wrong and promising to turn the PN upside down in an attempt to restore its credibility. I wish them all the best of luck.
    Meanwhile we have a new administration raring to go. The main reason behind the colossal victory was that Malta is totally fed up of confrontational politics and what Joseph Muscat promised us, a truly inclusive and national government, appealed to a nation torn and scarred after decades of internecine strife between the two parties. Joseph Muscat has achieved so much by his drive, at first pooh-poohed if not derided, to heal the wounds and apologise for the past. He promises a full stop and fresh line approach to the way things are done and a government for the people. That is what led an additional tenth of our population into taking the plunge and voting PL. If he can deliver, which I believe he can, Joseph Muscat will be responsible for the long awaited emancipation of Maltese politics. Maybe, next time round, Malta will not have to go into election mode for almost 18 months before bringing the economy to a grinding halt. Maybe next time round the stress and enervation we experienced will have been a thing of the past. It all remains to be seen.
    Meanwhile it is essential that the new government ensures that it is there to serve the people and that it does not repeat the cardinal mistakes made by the outgoing government. One of the most telling mistakes made was the Piano Project; not in itself but in its concept and function. The politics of art is a complex science. Monarchs and presidents throughout history have vied to create buildings and monuments that reflect their greatness and magnanimity. The vast majority of these in the last century have been houses of culture for the people. The great palaces built by enlightened and not so enlightened despots have been turned into museums and personal art collections belonging to the Habsburgs, Medicis and Bourbons have long been put on display to our greater delectation. Architects like Piano have been creating libraries, museums and concert halls all over the world. Therefore is it not obvious that the brief given to Renzo Piano to create a parliament was insensitive and politically inept? Rubbing salt in an open wound there was no commensurate brief to create a cultural shrine out of the ruins of the Royal Opera House but a half baked vagueness called the roofless theatre.
    The Piano parliament buildings have been pronounced as too small for a variety of reasons. There are plenty of uses that these can be given should good sense prevail and parliament be taken to the Sacra Infermeria with ancillary offices in the Evans Building and Fort St Elmo. Think of how this juxtaposition will generate a new life and a vital transformation to lower Valletta. Think of the magnificence of the long hall of the Infermeria decorated with the tapestries that caused so many problems in 2008 with the bunker issue. It could, with very little additional expense, become one of the grandest and most artistically significant parliament buildings in Europe set in a very important historical building that was the raison d’être of the hospitaller order that ruled us for almost three centuries.
    This move would then leave the area next to City Gate free to be a cultural hub. Already there is St James Cavalier and the fact that the national collection is in the process of moving to the adjacent Auberge d’Italie already gives more logical sense that the area should become ‘cultural’ in the true sense of the word. With Valletta 18 around the corner, the fact that we have no auditorium for our homeless orchestra, no national theatre apart from a court theatre which cannot go on being all things to all men, no museum of modern art , no museum of contemporary art and no proper library gives plenty of scope to rethink the Piano project on lines which are in keeping with what modern governments work on; giving to the people what they deserve and enshrining its treasures and facilitating their achievements in a concrete way for posterity.
    Kenneth Zammit Tabona

Leave a Reply

Joseph's Blog

May 16th, 2016

Quo Vadis Eurovision and other stories

Malta did not win the Eurovision but lo and behold the sun still rose and the island (the center of the known universe) still spun…

My two cents is that Ira Losco gave a really good performance and that the whole presentation was excellent. She shouldn’t have performed cause she is pregnant? Come off it – I have performed repeatedly with pregnant opera singers well into their 7th and 8th month of pregnancy and trust me when I say that rehearsing and performing for a full opera production is much more physically demanding than a couple of days at the Eurovision. Of course there are those who know much better than the undersigned and who went on to say that the presentation was a tad “camp”…oh the irony when one considers that the Eurovision is the campest of them all.

Meanwhile, this wouldn’t be Malta and the Eurovision wouldn’t be the Eurovision unless its politicized to the exhaustible hilt. The inevitable “mud slinging competition,” which we will see a lot of in the coming 22 months, ensued and even yours truly (inexplicably) ended up in the midst of the fray, in yet another “supernova” in a tea cup. The Eurovision suddenly became an interchangeable bullet to be used ad nauseam by both sides much like bitter parents who use their innocent children during disputes.  I have always found sycophants interesting, even amusing but they will not be getting the much desired Streisand effect from me, thank you very much. It is part of human nature after all to conjure conspiracies and we are not going to let the simple truth get in the way of some exciting and convenient fiction.

Speaking of “conjuring” is it me or is a company advertising real estate using a chap “connected” with the tragic and unnecessary death of an underage girl? It must be a clone or a”doppleganger”, otherwise this would be the epitome of bad taste and a 100 shades of wrong. Don’t get me wrong I am all for “second chances” and all of that but shouldn’t there be due process first? After all Lisa Marie didn’t get a second chance did she?