The Malta Independent 4 June 2020, Thursday

Reconstructing the Royal Opera House? It is not the first time it has been suggested

Sunday, 20 October 2019, 09:00 Last update: about 9 months ago

Albert Galea & Giulia Magri

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.




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