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Between Scylla and Charybdis

Confessions of a frustrated Artist and Artistic Director

Never in my life did I ever imagine that the world would be plunged into a crisis on this scale. I’m sure I’m not alone. 

Kenneth Zammit Tabona (left) at the first performance after lock-down at The Manoel Theatre (Valletta, Malta). Photo by Mark Zammit Cordina
Kenneth Zammit Tabona (left) at the first performance after lock-down at The Manoel Theatre (Valletta, Malta). Photo by Mark Zammit Cordina

“The creative arts must continue to be supported.”

Since March, we have existed in a surreal world – many of us barricaded in our homes, wondering when it would be safe to resume our former life. The days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months and we are told that they may turn into years. 

The pandemic is capricious and unpredictable. It strikes inexplicably, killing some, maiming others and affecting others asymptomatically. 

As we all know after seven months of rumours and spurious theories, one of the most affected areas of our lives has been the arts. As Artistic Director of the Manoel Theatre, our national theatre, the plans and events that had been meticulously put into place years earlier had to be scrapped, and as soon as the last chorus of Rossini’s Otello faded last March the theatre closed and our summer programme was postponed or cancelled. We replaced these performances with online streams of our past productions and have planned ‘Covid-friendly’ performances that can happen with or without an audience from October until December, which will also be streamed. 

We had a call for applications and the response was very encouraging; I was highly impressed with the imaginative projects for Covid-friendly performances that were proposed. These will be spaced out between October and April. 

We hope to open our doors with a recital by soprano Nicola Said singing Samuel Barber’s nostalgic Knoxville, two romantic songs; Nursery Rhymes by Arthur Bliss and the magnificent Seven Early Songs by Alban Berg. Nicola will be accompanied by pianist Christine Zerafa, and for the Barber, a quartet: on first violin , Nadine Galea; second violin, Stefan Calleja; clarinet, Godfrey Mifsud; and Desirée Quintano on cello. The commission for transcription for this unusual combination was given to composer Reuben Pace. The concert should be wonderful and will open the season on the 23rd of October. 

The most painful decisions involved in our programme recalibration concerned the January Baroque Festival and the March opera. 

The programme for the festival is worked on from two years prior, and the 2021 festival programme was publicised during this year’s festival, when Coronavirus – for all we knew – was still a rumour. We contacted all the 300 plus artists in April and told them all that there stood a very real possibility that the festival in its usual form would not be feasible and gave them alternative dates in January 2022. Thankfully, they all accepted. Covid permitting we will replace the 2021 festival with a smaller more manageable Covid friendly one, with or without an audience, which will have to be socially distanced. 

The opera was not so simple. We had planned to stage Richard Strauss’s only chamber opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, at the end of February. All arrangements had been made; conductor, director etc. Auditions had been held and the cast completed. The risk however proved to be too great, and we decided to postpone the event to March 2022. This would have represented the first Strauss opera performed in Malta, in German with Maltese and English surtitles. Covid permitting we will stage Purcell’s delightful but poignant Dido and Aeneas in February instead. 

Another first that was scuppered was the opera Pelopida by Maltese composer Geronimo Abos, which was meant to happen at the beginning of September. Again, this would have been the first time that a baroque opera by a Maltese composer would have been staged at the Manoel. A terrible pity as this opera, which was commissioned by Teatro Argentina in Rome in 1747, has not been performed in its entirety in living memory. This opera has been tentatively postponed to September 2021. 

Where plays are concerned, we have some wonderful fare in the pipeline; de Filippo’s Napoli Milionaria, Shakespeare’s Othello, and the perennial favourite, Zeza tal-Flagship, should be given a new lease of life and charm a new generation with the foibles of our ancestors. 

Meanwhile we find ourselves between the Homeric monsters wondering how we can navigate the treacherous Covid waters in future. We cannot close down. That would be the death knell of art and culture. We must make the theatre as reassuringly safe as possible, taking all the necessary precautions. We must contribute to engaging artists, both local and foreign, to create art. And whether or not we have an audience, the creative arts must continue to be supported. 

This is our raison d’etre.

The first socially-distanced live audience concert on the 23rd of October 2020, with Soprano Nicola Said at The Manoel Theatre, pianist Christine Zerafa and ensemble by Godfrey Mifsud, Nadine Galea, Desiree Quintano, Stefan Calleja. Photo by Mark Zammit Cordina

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