The Malta Independent 28 September 2020, Monday

The Valletta Royal Opera House

Malta Independent Sunday, 21 December 2008, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

From Mr L. Camilleri Gera

The architect of the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden, Edward Middleton Barry, was the very same architect who designed The Valletta Royal Opera House – built in 1866, destroyed by fire in 1873, reconstructed and completed in 1877 and, on the tragic day of 7 April 1942, bombed and flattened by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War.

This was a very sad ending for the Royal Opera House which, since 1942, has housed nothing at ground level but cars to accommodate people working in Valletta.

If the Opera House were to be rebuilt as it was, it would be a nostalgic comeback for all those who are still with us today from times gone by, for those who love and appreciate the style of the architecture and, of course, for those with a passion for the theatre (opera, ballet, concerts) in the atmospheric surrounds of the period.

Everywhere you go in Europe you will find that most opera houses of fame that were destroyed either by fire or war-time bombardment have been rebuilt to their former glory, with the exception of our Opera House in Valletta. Those that were lucky enough to have escaped the devastation of fire and war still stand to serve their purpose.

Great opera house landmarks of international fame in cities around Europe include:

The Old Opera House (Alte Oper) Frankfurt

This was originally constructed in the late 1800s. It was destroyed in 1944 and did not reopen until 1981. Evidently the rebuilding was controversial, because some people wanted to have it rebuilt exactly as it was before, while others wanted to build it in a modern style. In the end it was rebuilt to look exactly like the original building.

La Scala, Milan

This was opened in 1778 with seating for over 3,000 within 678 pit-stalls and six tiers of boxes. The stage of La Scala is the largest in Italy.

The Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper)

Completed in 1869, it was set alight by American bombardment in WW II in 1945 and was rebuilt as it originally looked.

The Royal Opera House in London

Originally built in 1858, this was extensively reconstructed in the 1990s.

Berlin State Opera (Staatsoper Unter den Linden)

This was first established as the Court Opera (Hofoper) in 1742. In 1843 it was destroyed by fire and subsequently rebuilt.

Semperoper, Dresden

This was first built in 1841. It was destroyed by fire in 1869, rebuilt and then destroyed again in WWII (1945) by Allied bombing and the subsequent firestorm. In 1985 the opera house was rebuilt to almost the same appearance as it had before the Second World War.

Prague State Opera

The famous Prague State Opera House opened its doors in 1888. While it was never destroyed as a result of bombardment or fire, it did fall into disrepair due to neglect under the communist regime. However, after the fall of communism in 1992, the theatre underwent a renaissance and was restored to its former glory.

The Palais Garnier (Opera de Paris)

Opened in 1875, with a seating capacity of 2,200, this theatre has also never been destroyed by war or fire, although it has undergone several name changes. The construction of this theatre was hampered by the discovery of a water table that had to be drained before building could continue. However, this problem was overcome and did not cause the theatre to be demolished or rebuilt elsewhere. This magnificent theatre remains a prominent landmark in Paris of which Parisians are justifiably proud.

The Hungarian State Opera House

This theatre was opened to the public in 1884 with an auditorium that contains 1,261 seats. This theatre has managed to survive both world wars and remains intact. It underwent a major renovation in the 1980s, and was reopened exactly 100 years after the original opening, on 27 September 1984. Pictures of this theatre show a building very similar to our own Royal Opera House in Valletta before it was destroyed in the war.

We boast of having a state-of-the-art hospital, but where is our state-of-the-art opera house to be found?

The Manoel Theatre, whilst a gem, is somewhat too small to meet the demands of today.

The Mediterranean Conference Centre lacks atmosphere and also has very poor acoustics for operas, operettas and the like.

The transformation of St James Cavalier by Prof. Richard England – a Maltese architect of international fame, for whom I have great admiration – was overall a job well done. However, the theatre itself looks more like a Shakespearean playhouse, serving to house only a small cast and audience alike, and could not house an opera such as Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. This opera would require a stage capable of accommodating a huge cast and seating to accommodate a vast number of locals and tourists flocking to the theatre. For a performance of Aida (as one example of many) we would need a stage that could accommodate the sopranos, basses, mezzo-sopranos, tenors, and the rest of the cast, namely priests, priestesses, ministers, captains, soldiers, officials, Ethiopians, slaves and prisoners, Egyptians and, last but not least, the animals. The last time Aida was performed in Malta the cast had to be minimised, yet it still could not be accommodated at the Manoel Theatre, and had to be performed out-of-doors.

Malta needs an opera house in its capital city and we do not need to create another Parliament building. Parliament could be moved to Fort St Elmo, as already suggested by members of the public, or to any Auberge in Valletta being used today as a Ministry, for that matter. After all, parliament is only there to house 65 Members and the staff to run it.

Malta needs an opera house that can be rebuilt in its former glory and appreciated by everyone – locals and tourists alike.

Using the same architectural style, it could also have a greater seating capacity, as well as a larger stage, if it was extended into the existing car park in Freedom Square.

I am sure that Renzo Piano would be just as capable of doing this.

It is bad enough that, upon entering Valletta, today’s generation has only ever seen something looking more like Beirut or Baghdad than Valletta. With all due respect to world-renowned architect Renzo Piano, the modern design/s he came up with for the Royal Opera House did not fit in at all with the architectural style of all the other magnificent period Valletta houses and palazzos erected since the day Jean Parisot de la Valette laid the foundation stone on Mount Sciberras (Valletta) in 1566 with his own hands until the day our Royal Opera House came down in 1942. They would, in fact, look completely distorted and entirely out of place, just like City Gate itself and the housing-estate seen on entering or leaving Valletta through City Gate.

If we are to spend all those millions of euros coming directly from taxpayers’ pockets, then why should the Government not call a referendum for the people to decide on this hotly controversial issue?

Louis Camilleri Gera


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