Band-club opera in Malta
Above: A sketch by Renzo Piano: "South Elevation of the City Gate"; © RPBW
By CATHARINE MORRIS
To return to Hippolyte et Aricie ou la belle-mère amoureuse, which I saw at Teatru Manoel in Malta last month: a representative of the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles explained after the performance that opera parodies developed in parallel with opera in France. They were put on at fairground theatres, initially with real actors. The Comédie-Française tried to stamp them out by allowing only monologues – “so then you’d find one actor and one parrot . . . and ghosts were very popular”. When the Comédie-Française succeeded in forbidding even monologues, pantomimes were played; and when at last all real actors were banned, marionettes appeared. Marionettes have a long tradition throughout Europe, we were told – they were not invented in France, as you might imagine.
In the Maltese islands, too, opera is very much of the people. Many children’s first experience of live music comes through their local band clubs, which have been popular since the mid-nineteenth century; and two such clubs – both on Gozo, which has a population of about 30,000 – have venues large enough to accommodate full-scale operas. Both the Aurora Theatre, of the parish of St Mary’s, and Teatru Astra, attached to St George’s, stage one every October, and the competition is fierce. There was a time when the rivalry could become bloody, and our tour guide Mariella told us of a man who, because he belonged to the wrong band club, was unable to sit among the mourners at his friend’s funeral, so had to hover at the back. Today each theatre strives to outdo the other in quality and invention. Both count on armies of local volunteers to carry out admin work, make scenery and take part as performers – but they each also engage a well-known singer each year. The island of Malta itself has no large opera venue, so tickets sell out fast.
Valletta has been named European Capital of Culture 2018, and there is a general air of rejuvenation: the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the creators of the Shard in London, are currently working on the renovation of Valletta’s city gate, the conversion of its Royal Opera House (bombed during the Second World War) into an open-air theatre, and the construction of a new parliament building. The Valletta International Baroque Festival will provide a suitably grand opening to the year, but I’m glad to hear that the band clubs will have a conspicuous place in the 2018 programme too. Part of Malta’s appeal is in its melange of cultural influences, and the Aurora Theatre is the only place I know of that accommodates under one roof an opera house, a social-club-style café with groups of men playing cards, and a statue of the Virgin Mary next to a boxing arcade game called Knockout . . . .