The Malta Independent 23 January 2020, Thursday

History Of the Maltese theatre: The Royal Opera House (Part II)

Malta Independent Sunday, 23 January 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

The Opera Singers

Opera singers fell into established types - a prima donna, a primo tenore, a baritone, a buffo or serious basso, and a few comprimarios and singers of small roles, who were not usually of a very high standard.

The register which was kept indicated the debut dates of relatively new singers as well as notes about singers replaced for various reasons such as illness or those who left Malta before the end of the season and the end of their contract. One particular case was when an opera singer, tenore Angelo Alguzino died in Malta on 21 February 1901 (during the season 1900-01) and was substituted by another singer, Aldieri. Many cases shown in the register refer to singers who were refused. There were instances where the singer took the theatre to court as in the case of tenore Attilio Maurini who won the case in the Court of First Instance by a sentence dated 25 February 1905 and later confirmed in the Court of Appeal by another sentence dated 5 May 1905.

There were also cases where the singers lost the court cases such as tenore Nino Peria and Comprimaria Elvira Rammer by sentences dated 16 May 1905 and 25 February 1905 respectively. One opera singer was an ex-British military officer, tenore Enrico Benevento who stayed on during the 1911-12 season till the end of February 1912.

During the 1918-19 season, the part of Basso was performed by the Maltese singer Giuseppe Satariano in the operas, Madame Butterfly and La Forza del Destino, Atto II.

During the 1921-22 season the Maltese tenore Niccolo’ Baldacchino performed in five operas at the theatre – Aida, Cavalleria Rusticana, Ernani, Pagliacci and Carmen.

During the 1933-34 season, the role of Rigoletto was performed by the Maltese baritone Giuseppe Satariano with great success. The opera was held five times and on the fifth performance was held in honour of the Maltese baritone. The theatre was literally a full house and after the Second Act, he sang as extra, the part of the factotum of the Barbiere for which he was showered with gifts, deafening applauses and shouts of “Bravo!” During the same season the Maltese opera singer Edwin Craig made his debut in the part of Mario Cavaradossi in the opera Pagliacci by Leoncavallo.

The Russian tenore A. Wesselovsky was engaged purposely for the opera Werther and was very well received by the public. He also performed in the opera Tristano e Isotta by Wagner.

The ‘Impresarios’

The role of an impresario included the job of recruiting singers and finding composers to write operas for the singers. His role as manager and director was to organise and manage public entertainments, especially operas, ballets or concerts. He was the “operatic manager” and undertook a form of a business undertaking, from the Italian word impresa (undertaking).

There were cases where the Compagnia was held in quarantine due to the cholera epidemic. In the 1873-74 season, the Compagnia was kept 10 days in the Lazarretto Hospital for quarantine reasons. During the 1893-94 season Impresario G. W. Malfiggiani died at Lazzaretto Hospital in October 1893. The impresa was given to his son, Achille Malfiggiani.

When the season 1897-98 ended in April 1898, the theatre was entrusted in the hands of Maestro Paolino Vassallo by the government who presented to the public his opera for the first time. A Giunta Teatrale or Theatre Committee was also established and the first committee appearing on the Register refers to the 1869-70 season, which was composed of Baron Augusto Testaferrata Abela, Capt. George Uchter Knox R.A (Royal Artillery) and Sigismondo Dimech LL.D.

During the 1898-99, the season started in December instead of October, as was the normal custom. The reason was that in July 1898 after a call for applicants by the government, the theatre’s management was entrusted to Signor Benedetto Perez but the government withdrew his contract because when asked to hold two English representations, he refused to do so. He eventually filed a court case against the government and by a sentence of the First Hall of the Civil Court delivered on 25 July 1898, he won the court case. Despite having won, he still did not take on the impresa and a fresh call for applicants was made. However, nobody applied for the post and the running of the theatre’s management was then given to Signor A. W. Malfiggiani without any preconditions as contested by his predecessor. Signor Malfiggiani passed away during the 1899-1900 season and the impresa was then entrusted to Signor R. Castagna as director. Signor Castagna died on 21 February 1901.

The theatre’s impresario, Dr Em. Said MD was elected as deputy in the Maltese Senate and had to terminate his contract as impresario on 27 October 1921 and subsequently replaced by A. German on 3 October 1922.

The following table gives details of the Opera Season and Impresario from 1866 up to 1942.

Opera Season


1866/67-1869/70 G. W. Malfiggiani

1870/71-1880/81 H. Zinelli and Le Brun (later H. Zinelli, Busuttil and Montanaro)

1881/82-1884/85 G.W. Malfiggiani

1885/86-1888/89 A. Nani & Ci.

1889/90 C. Ronzani & Ci

1890/91-1893/94 G. W. Malfiggiani

1894/95-1899/1901 A.W. Malfiggiani

In April 1898 the impresario of the theatre was Maestro Paolino Vassallo.

Note: 1899/1900 During this season Signor R. Castagna was appointed representative after A. W. Malfiggiani passed away.

1901/02 Benedetto Perez was appointed representative of A. W. Malfiggiani on the demise of R. Castagna.

1902/03-1905/06 L. Balzan passed away before the start of the season and the impresa was continued by Dr Em. Said MD represented by Mr A. Borg.

1906/07-1910/16 Cesare di Lancellotti & Dr Em. Said MD

1916/17-1918/19 Cesare di Lancellotti. Garanti: Luigi Apap.

1919/20 Cesare di Lancellotti. Garanti: F. Falzon & G. Mifsud.

1920/21 Dr Em. Said MD & Augusto German P.L. Dr Said was elected as a representative in the Maltese Senate and Augusto German P.L signed the contract on 3 January 1922.

1922/23-1926/27 Augusto German P.L

1927/28-1929/30 Cav. Em. Said MD

1930/31-1931/32 (Governattivo), Direttore Augusto German P.L. The theatre was under government management from 1929 to 1932.

1932/33-1934/35 G. Farrugia

1935/36-1938/39 Cav. Em. Said MD

1939-1942 A.W. Said/Augusto German

Rules and Regulations

The rules and regulations governing the different members of the compagnia of the Royal Opera House were laid out in a Notice (undated) signed by the impresario consisting of 23 Articles. These rules covered the artistic director who fell under the responsibility of the impresario as well as all the artists and this rules called out for respect of discipline, such as not allowing any strangers, dogs or children on the stage or in the theatre’s rooms, and to keep the passages clear during performances. Other rules governed the procedure of singers and other artists in reporting sick. This had to be done through medical certification and penalties in case of default. The theatre had its own medical doctor to confirm the veracity of sickness. Detailed rules were also included for the choir members who were to be decently dressed and clean-shaven. They were obliged to take good care, keep clean their vestiario and hang it back properly in its place. The artists were prohibited from having any contact both by word or body language with the audience during the performance.

Two bell chimes were sounded by the stage director. The first chime was for the artists to prepare themselves and the second was for the artists to be on stage for the start of the act.

It was strictly prohibited to smoke in the theatre and every artist and stage worker who broke this rule, apart from getting a police fine also suffered the imposition of a fine payable to the impresario of between 25 to 100 Italian Lire.

Closures and Delays

Other historical events that emerge from the notes to the Register affecting the theatre were delays in the opening of the theatre such as in 1898-1899 season which started in December instead of October (as was the usual custom).

Due to the demise of Queen Victoria on 22 June 1901, the theatre remained closed for 10 days as from 23 June 1901 (by Proclamation III of 23-1-01). To make up for this closure, two extra operas were held on 2 and 3 May 1901.

During the 1901-02 season, for reasons of maintaining public order, the theatre was kept closed on 7 June 1901 (by Notification No. 2 of 6 June 1901).

During the 1914-15 season the theatre was opened one month late due to the start of the First World War.

The theatre was also closed on 3 February 1922 when Pope Benedict XV passed away.

Gala nights and special events

The Register also contains details when Gala evenings and other special events were held in honour of dignitaries such as the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and King Edward VIII for whom a representation of the opera Aida was held.

Other Gala evenings were those held in honour of Sicilian students on 19 April 1904 and a Grand Ball held in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh on 21 June 1889. At the time the theatre’s organising committee or Giunta Teatrale was composed of the Onor. A. Naudi LL.D., Mr Henry Vella and Major Brickenden of the Black Watch Regiment.

On 16 April 1907 and on 23 April 1909, the Gala evening was held in honour of the King and Queen of England, while on 26 June 1912, it was held in honour of the French Fleet. Prince Hirohito of Japan also received this honour on 25 April 1921.

The Fire

The disastrous fire that broke out at the theatre is also recorded on the register. On Sunday 25 May 1873 at about 9pm, during the rehearsal of the opera La Vergine del Castello by Maestro Privitera, a fire broke out that reduced the theatre to ruins, and subsequently, until the theatre was repaired, operas were held at the Manoel Theatre in Valletta.

Carnival and Alterations

On 26 June 1912, the carnival Veglioni or masked carnival balls were held in the theatre for the first time. During the 1916-17 season the impresa changed the cushioned seats of the Platea as per its contractual obligations, (a total of 162 cushioned chairs and 82 seats) were changed). Other alterations were made to the entrances of the theatre.

Another Register

A more detailed register titled, Lista di Opere Teatrali e data della loro prima rappresentazione contains the names of operas first held abroad giving details of the Maestro, date of first representation abroad, the theatre and place. The date of the first representation in Malta is also given which makes good comparison. Sifting through the dates in the register, it is interesting to note that the time lag between the date of the first representation abroad and the first representation in Malta is very short. For example, the opera, Attila by Verdi was first held on 17 May 1846 in Venice by Maestro Verdi who was the composer at the Fenice Theatre and the first representation in Malta was in 1849.

The above was not only indicative of the popularity of opera in Malta but also reveals the intuitive musical talents of the Maltese, as explained in a letter by Profs. Mallia on 13 June 1922 distributed in a flyer titled Per la Verita: “…Io sono convinto che qui a Malta si difetta fino ad un certo punto di una razionale istruzione musicale, ma come tutti I popoli del sud, I Maltesi dispongongo di una intuizione musicale naturale e di una facilita’ di assimilazione che permette loro di supplire in gran parte alle lacune dell’istruzione”.

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