The purpose of this page is to throw some light on the Opera Houses found in Malta. Although not comprehensive, I will attempt to give as much information as possible regarding the actual buildings and where possible the performances held therein.
In 1731 Malta did not yet have its own private theatre. However it is known that the Italian knights of the Order of St. John gave theatrical representations since 1631 in their auberge. A private diary, preserved at the National Library of Malta, records the date of the opening of the Manoel Theatre,as January 1732. In those days it was known as "Teatro Pubblico". It is said that the Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena wanted that Malta should have its own theatre for the honest recreation of its people. The isnscription in Latin above the entrance still says "ad honestam populi oblectionem"(for the honest entertainment of the people). The Manoel Theatre was built in the record time of ten months. This however, makes one suppose that the architects, Francesco Zerafa and Antonio Azzopardi, made use of the three adjoining houses to the theatre.
According to the Compendio del giornale de' successi dell'isole Malta e Gozo - dall'anno 1729 sini all'anno 1750, written by Fra Gaetano Reboul, the first play performed for the public was "La Merope" on 19 january 1732. This was written by the well known author Scipione Maffei. On 26 January of the same year, s satirical and anti-clerical play "il bacchettiere falso" by Girolamo Gigli was also shown. On 18 January 1769, a short play "Il trionfo di Minerva", by Lentisco Adrasteo was presented on the occasion of Grand Master Pinto's 88th birthday. A similar honour was later given to Grand Master Ferdinand Von Hompesch, on his appointment as Grand Master. On this occasion, Hompesch appeared on the balcony thanking the crowd that had gathered to cheer him and showering handfuls of gold coins.
During the French blockade, the famous Maltese dramatist and composer Nicolo' Isouard presented at the Manoel Theatre many of his famous works such as "Avviso ai Maritati" and "Artaserse". Under British rule the Manoel Theatre was called "Teatro Reale" and two restorations were made, one in 1812 and the other in 1844. The theatre was then able to house 85 persons. In 1830, the opera "Il Contestabile di Chester" by Pacini was shown to the public several times. This resulted in Sir Walter Scott becoming popular with the Maltese public. The famous operas "Elisir d'Amore", "Gemma di Vergy" and "Lucia di Lamermoor" were presented under the auspices of Queen Adelaide, widow of William IV of England, whilst visiting Malta.
Before being restored to its former beauty in 1960, it was also a venue for Carnival dances - as it had often been under the Knights. At one time it was also turned into a cinema. Before this date, the theatre had been subjected to much abuse and if action had not been taken, we would have lost one of Europe's oldest opera houses. It reopened its doors in 1960 with aperformance by the Ballet Rambert and it has continued to give pleasure to its patrons ever since.
The Manoel Theatre Orchestra regularly gives concerts, sometimes under great conductors, and often accompanying guest soloists while the Manoel Theatre Academy of Dramatic Art provides training over a number of years to aspiring young actors and actresses, some of ehom have already established themselves on the local theatre scene.
The list of world renowned artistes who performed at the Manoel since its grand opening in 1960 is quite impressive. Famous pianists have included Louis Kentner, Moura Lympany, Michael Ponti and John Ogdon. Among the famous singers who sung in the theatre, one can mention Kiri Te Kanawa, Katia Ricciarelli, Boris Christoff, Flaviano Labo' and of course our own Miriam Gauci.
A visit to this theatre is indeed a must when in Malta. Its magnifiscent ceiling, with its 22 carat gold leafing and glittering main chandelier, its three tiers of boxes and their ornate rococo decorations, offer a splendid sight. Incidentally, the horseshoe shaped theatre has some of the best acoustics on the island.
Manoel de Vihena's theatre continues to provide honest entertainment even to this day and those concerned about the continuation of civilized values continue to cherish it and give it patronage.
Picture No 1: Manoel Theatre interior
Picture No 2: Performance of Madam Butterfly
Picture No 3: Manoel Theatre tiers
The Royal Opera House
Unlike the Manoel Theatre, The Royal Opera House is no more. Gutted by fire, and bombed by the Germans, the remains of the Opera House continue to remind us of our incapability to rebuild what must have been Malta's most imposing and important edifice.
The design of the building was entrusted to Edward Middleton Barry, the architect of Covent Garden Theatre. In 1861 all was ready for the building to start. There was some delay before this because the original plans by Barry did not take into consideration the sloping streets on the sides of the Theatre. Because of this, the original plans had to be altered and a terrace added on the side of King's Way. In 1862 the actual building started. What was the Casa della Giornata was demolished to make way for the building which was to occupy a site measuring 206 feet by 112 feet, having a seating capacity of 1095 and 200 standing. The cost of the Theatre was to have been around 30,000 pounds, but the finished building cost between 44.000 and 60,000 pounds. The enormous sum spent on the theatre drew sharp criticism from several quarters. Finally, in 1866, the theatre was ready for the official opening on October 9, 1866. By 8 o'clock the house was full. The audience on that night consisted of several members of Maltese high society and Naval and Army officers led by Superintendent Malta, Rear Admiral Henry Kellet. After a brief interval the new theatre season commenced with Vincenzo Bellini's "I Puritani". The singers were Adelina Luppi as Elvira, Enrico Serazzi as Lord Talbot, Adriano Pantaleone as Sir Richard Forth, Amelia de Liso as Enrichetta, Mario Raffaele della Terza as Sir George, Lorenzo del Riccio as Lord Walton and G. Lanner as Sir Bruno Robertston. After some initial difficulties the theatre settled down and the operatic season became a popular feature, awaited with eager anticipation by theatregoers of all ages. It was not to last long; the sixth season was brought to a premature end by something whose possibility had been foreseen but anassured - fire.
It was Sunday evening of May 25, 1873 when a dress rehearsal of the opera "La Vergine del Castello" by Mro Privitera was being directed by Luigi Kyntherland. Around 10 o'clock, at the close of the third act, the alarming cry "Fire!" was heard. Everybody rushed to the only door which had been left open during the rehearsals. After five minutes the stage resembled the fiery crater of a volcano with the burning scenes streaking down on the stage like comets. Half an hour later, "the roof fell in with a most terrific crash sending up such an immense volume of flame as to light up the surrounding countryside for several miles". The exterior of the theatre was undamaged but the interior stonework was calcified by the intense heat. The theatre, which had cost nearly half of Malta's annual revenue, was no more. The cause of the fire soon became a matter for speculation. The official version attributed the fire to economies practiced during the rehearsals when lighting was provided by a few naked gas lamps without protective glass tubes. The police arraigned Censu Calleja, theatre lamplighter and Luigi Frendo, stage mechanic. Both were accused of negligence and fined 10 and 20 pounds respectively. Calleja and Frendo were the scapegoats of a disaster for which they paid with their sanity and their lives. Calleja died later in the Lunatic Asylum and Frendo of ill health.
It was decided to rebuild the theatre, and after the issueing of tenders for the work and a lot of argueing whether the front had to be changed or not, the theatre was ready. On October 11, 1877, after nearly four and a half years from the fire, the theatre reopened with a performance of Verdi's "Aida".
During the years 1877 and 1942 the theatre was managed by an impresario and the contract was awarded by tender every four years (five after 1906). It was only between 1929 and 1932 that the theatre was managed by the Government.
On the evening of April 7, 1942 the theatre was devasted by German bombers. The next morning, a people who had been hardened by aerial bombing inspected the remains of their national theatre. They stared at the rubble as their grandparents had done 69 years earlier. The portico and the auditorium were a heap of stones, the roof a gaping hole of twisted girders. The rear end starting half way from the collonade was however intact. While the war lasted there was little hope of reconstructing the theatre. The damaged parts were demolished and carted away. In 1946 German prisoners-of-war in Malta reportedly offered to rebuild the theatre for a nominal charge. The Government declined to accept the offer, bowing to Union pressure for the job protection at a time of massive unemployment and emigration.
In 1953, six architects of world renown were invited to submit designs for the new theatre. The designs were exhibited in May 1954 in the examination hall of the Royal University of Malta. The Committee chose Zavellani-Rossi's project and recommended its acceptance by Government subject to certain alterations. The project ground to a halt on Labour's re-election. The Govenment contended that it was not in a position to spend so much money on a theatre when so many other projects needed attention. Althought a provision of 280,000 pounds for the reconstruction of the theatre had been made in the 1955-56 budget, these were never used. By 1957 the project had been shelved and after 1961 all references to the theatre in the country's development plans were omitted. Throughout the 70's and 80's the site languished and the Maltese put on a brave face explaining to foreigners this ruin on the threshold of their nation's capital.
The immediate post-war period was the right psychological moment for rebuilding the theatre according to Barry's plan. Half of it was intact and much of the sculptured stone could have been salvaged from the rubble. We are now in 1996 and plans for a National Arts Centre are in pipeline. These are to include the site of the Royal Opera House and the adjoining St James Cavalier.
After 54 years, the site has not changed. It is now being used as a parking lot, and ironically, the only part of the original theatre of 1866 which is still standing and used as shop outlets on Republic Street is the part which had caused so much headache to Barry and to the Council of Government - the terrace!
The following is a list of some of the operas performed at the Royal Opera House during its lifetime:
I Cavalieri di Malta, Mignon, Duca D'Alba, Mefistofele, La Gioconda, Agnese Visconti, Aida, I Puritani, Cavallleria Rusticana, I Pagliacci, Manon Lescaut, Lohengrin, Otello, La Boheme, I Pescatori di Perle, Amico Fritz, Andrea Chenier, Fedora, Isabeau, I Zingari, Tosca, Francesca da Rimini, L'Alpino, Sansone e Dalila, Werther, Iris, Carmen, La Favorita, Faust, Turandot, Thais, Gianni Schicchi, Tannhauser, La Dannazione di Faust, Falstaff, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Walkiria, Der Rosenkavalier, Il Trovatore, Loreley, Norma, Cecilia, Tristano e Isotta, Don Carlos, La Forza del Destino, L'Arlesiana, I Vespri Siciliani, Louise, La Fanciulla del West.
Reference: "The Royal Opera House", Joseph Bonnici, Michael Cassar - 1990
Radio City Opera House
Just after the second world war, the necessity of a new opera house was being strongly felt and Mr. Charles Schembri, the son of Mr. Joseph Schembri decided to build a new opera house on a piece of land in Hamrun. So the Radio City Opera House was born at an outlay of 100,000 pounds. Although not as big or beautiful as the Royal Opera House, it was well suited for the staging of operas, and in fact it served its purpose well in promoting opera and opera singers in Malta after the second world war and up to about 1960.
The theatre was inaugurated with a grand carnival dance in 1945. The general manager of the theatre was Mr. Anthony P. Bilocca. It soon became a popular venue for various activities including opera, operatta, variety concerts, drama and carnival balls. It was even used for wrestling and boxing shows and later converted into a cinema.
The operatic debut took place on the 22nd February 1945 with a gala night by the Malta Amateur Theatrical Company which presented the one act opera by Pietro Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana. During this same year the following operas were produced, Lucia di Lamermoor, La Boheme, La Traviata, I pagliacci. These were directed by Mro. V. Bugeja and By Mro. G. Camilleri.
The 1945 - 46 season began on the 15th November 1945 and it consisted of 12 operas which were: Rigoletto, Tosca, Carmen, Fedora, Madame Butterfly, Werther, La Boheme, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, I pagliacci, Il Matrimonio Segreto and L'Elisir d'Amore. The singers were all Maltese and were Mary La Rosa, Aida Sammut, Alice Tonna, Mary Grima, Gemma Fsadni, Jane Buttigieg de Piro, Joe Zammit Harrison, Arthur Galea, Lino Farrugia, Anthony Cini, Paul Asciak, Joe Bezzina, George Ross, Anthony Vella, Walter Cachia, Emanuel Zammit Ross (passed away 18th July 2001) and Frank Bonello
The 1946 - 47 season saw the amalgamation of the three opera companies in Malta under the batons of Camilleri, Cirillo and Bugeja giving no less than 17 operas with La Sunnambula, Faust, Don Pasquale, Andrea Chenier, L'Amico Fritz, Manon Lescaut, and La Favorita being shown for the first time in the theatre.
During the 1947 - 48 season there were no operas performed by Maltese amateur singers. Because of this, many of them went to England and Italy to try their luck there.
In 1948, the Italian Operetta Company "Citta di Milano" came to Malta and presented 'Madame di Tebe', 'Primrosa', 'La danza delle Libellule', 'Il paese dei Campanelli', 'Scugnizza', and 'La Donna Perduta'.
In 1949, Luigi Cantoni was given permission by the government to bring over an Italian Opera Company to perform at the Radio City. During the years 1950 - 1959 there were various opera seasons by Italian Opera Companies and some 37 different operas were performed. At this point ,one must mention the many famous singers who performed at the theatre. Among the many who sung there, there was Anselmo Colzani, Gino Bechi , Elena Rizzieri, Afro Poli, Gino Mattera and Angelo Lo Forese. Singing with these great voices there were our own Paul Asciak, Oreste Kirkop, John Lopez and Giuseppe Satariano who were later to make a name for themselves in Italy, England and the United States.
In 1953, Mr Joseph Schembri was again the owner of the theatre but in 1955 the theatre became the property of Baldacchino Brothers. In 1974 it became the property of Mr. Sunny Baldacchino. During this time, the theatre served as a cinema and as time went on, activities held therin became fewer and fewer. The name was also changed to Radio City Hall when operas were no longer performed.
To-day the Radio City Opera House is only a nostalgic memory for the many people who enjoyed themselves within its walls. This is especially so for me, because, although still a boy of 11 or 12, I remember distinctly being taken to the theatre to watch a performance of some opera. Mr. Joseph Schembri was a cousin of my father and whenever he could not attend, he used to let our family use his personal box at the theatre. This was situated next to the Royal box and was one of the best boxes in the house.
In 1992 the theatre was pulled down to make way for the Labour Party new general headquarters.
Refernce: Alfred G. Miceli