The Royal Opera House remains, even today, as a shadow of its former self, one of the endearing symbols of Malta’s capital city. It is a site that may take on a new form in the near future as well, with government announcing, in the most recent Budget, that a public consultation on whether it should be roofed over will be launched. This is, however, not the first time that government has looked to new ideas for the Royal Opera House.
Designed by English architect Edward Middleton Barry in 1861 and opened on 9 October 1866, the Royal Opera House had a seating capacity of 1,095 people along with a further standing capacity of 200. It was, however, short-lived. On 25 May 1873, the theatre was gutted by a fire to the point that it was decided to rebuild the theatre.
It reopened five years later on 11 October 1877 with a performance of Verdi’s Aida and soon became one of the icons of Valletta, being considered a monument to the British period and their impact on Malta from an architectural and cultural perspective.
Some 65 years later however, on Tuesday, 7 April 1942, a tragic outcome befell the theatre. It was on the receiving end of a direct hit during the German Luftwaffe’s intense air raids in World War II, with this period considered the most devastating and intense of the entire Blitz.
The portico and the auditorium were a heap of stones, while the roof hosted a gaping hole with rows of twisted girders surrounding it. The rear half of the theatre however, somehow remained intact.
However, in spite of this, what was left of the theatre in structural terms was torn down in the 1950s as a safety precaution. This is not to say, though, that the government of the day did not attempt to give it a new lease of life.
In 1953, six renowned architects submitted designs for the new theatre, with a planning committee choosing that submitted by Zavellani-Rossi as being the one deemed to make the grade having been chosen over plans submitted by the likes of Professor Marcello Piacentini and Alister Macdonald.
A provision of £280,000 was made in the 1955-56 Budget – a figure which would be equivalent to over £7 million in today’s money – but nothing was ever done with it, leading to the project to ground to a slow halt.
Italian architect Renzo Piano was contacted in the 1980s to design a building for the site, with plans being submitted in 1990, while the Maltese architect Richard England was also commissioned in the late 1990s to come up with plans for a cultural centre. Each time, however, the plans were shelved, with the Opera House’s fate remaining a controversial point.
It was only in the 21st century that the project started to get moving. The then PN government announced a proposal to redevelop the site for a dedicated House of Parliament – to much controversy, with many people thinking that the Opera House site should be reserved for cultural matters.
The proposal was temporarily shelved until 2008, but when Lawrence Gonzi’s PN won another term in government, Piano was once again contacted to start work on new designs and a budget of €80 million was reserved for the project.
Piano eventually convinced the government from using the Opera House site for a new parliament and instead proposed an open-air theatre for the site, which was eventually officially inaugurated on 8 August 2013.
The site has proven to be popular since, but has been subject to the whims of mother nature and has also been the source of near constant noise-related complaints by neighbours.
The Opera House’s appearance is now in line to come under the microscope once again, with Finance Minister Edward Scicluna announcing in Parliament last week, during the Budget speech, that a public consultation on whether the venue should be roofed over will be taking place in 2020.
He said that Piano has already been contacted about the matter and noted that the ultimate objective is to make better use of the venue while respecting its historical surroundings.
Toni Attard – founder and director of Culture Venture
“Culture Venture will be leading the consultation process and research plan for the space which houses the Teatru Rjal. Essentially the consultation plan has nothing to do whether the theatre should be rebuilt, rebuilding should not be part of the conversation.
“It’s a simplified argument to say it’s just about a roof; it has much more to do than just a roof. The consultation goes into the discussion of how the space is used and how it can be used over a period of time.
“If you were to ask any theatre person, they would all say that we need a proper 21st century space, where one can use it and perform in it well. It is an extensive consultation process with the users of this space, actors, directors and also the residents and the business community impacted by the venue. The consultation is simply how to improve the open air space.”
Joseph Calleja – renowned Maltese tenor and Maltese Cultural Ambassador
“The first I heard of this was through the media on Budget Day. Nobody from government or any other entity has spoken to me about the issue.
“I had made my views known on this subject when the Valletta City Gate Project was being conceived back in 2009, saying at the time that I believe the site where our opera house once stood is an ideal location for a national theatre – with a roof of course! My opinion has not changed. I would wholeheartedly support an initiative to give Malta back its artistic home provided that whoever is involved in such a project has the nation’s best interests at heart.”
Peter Borg – music/artist producer, Red Electrick member
“When you consider that Malta has very few venues, I think that it is open air is not very helpful. If we had more closed theatres and spaces where, during the winter months, we can organise events, it would be fine to leave the theatre as is. I think the theatre itself brings a great atmosphere.
“Without taking into consideration the cost and what it will entail, ideally it would be a retractable roof – that would be the best of both worlds. During good weather, one would be able to leave the roof down and at other times during the wetter months, one does not have to cancel a performance or change venue.”