Theatres & Opera
The Orchestra was founded on 1st April 1968 and was originally known as the Manoel Theatre Orchestra. It comprised a number of musicians who previously formed part of a chamber orchestra in the employ of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy (Malta), better known as the C-in-C Orchestra that was disbanded one day earlier. It was the orchestra in residence at the homonymous theatre and regularly performed operas and symphonic concerts under the direction of its resident conductors Joseph Sammut (1968-1992) and Michael Laus (1992-1997).
In September 1997 the orchestra became an independent body and became officially named as the National Orchestra of Malta. Michael Laus became the resident conductor, a post he still occupies to date. The Orchestra currently enjoys a nucleus of forty-five full-time musicians that form the Orchestra’s backbone. Most of the performances are however supplemented by a number of professional Maltese musicians augmenting the Orchestra to 55/60 members to offer its demanding audiences a varied and challenging repertoire.
During the season 2001-2002 the National Orchestra toured for the first time. In Belgium the orchestra performed at the City Hall in Brussels under the direction of Michael Laus, while in Sicily the National Orchestra, in collaboration with the Manoel Theatre (Malta) and Operalaboratorio (Palermo), took part in a five-performance production of Mozart's Cosi` fan tutte at Palermo's Teatro Orione. In June 2003 the National Orchestra of Malta participated in the production of Leonard Bernstein's Candide at Rome's Teatro Argentina and also performed a symphonic concert in the evocative ruins of Villa Adriana in Tivoli.
The predominant influences of the various cultures in the Mediterranean Region has not only affected the Maltese way of living but left indelible marks on the development of the National Orchestra of Malta, or Orkestra Nazzjonali as it is know in Maltese. The demanding repertoires by Italian, English, German, French, Austrian and Russian composers among others, so much imbedded in local music tastes, has often seen the Orchestra performing as a large symphony orchestra thanks to the excellent co-operation that Orkestra Nazzjonali enjoys with important Orchestras in Europe. Since January 2005 we have seen the orchestra performing Grand Concerts on a number of important occasions with the participation of musicians from the Czech Republic, Italy, Germany, England, Austria, Russia, and Ukraine.
The Orchestra’s extensive calendar of events consists mainly of symphonic concerts at the Manoel Theatre, the Mediterranean Conference Centre and other venues apart from opera productions in Malta and Gozo. The National Orchestra is frequently invited by the President of the Republic of Malta to perform in state concerts in honour of the various distinguished visiting Heads of States.
In August 2006 the National Orchestra teamed up with the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra through EU’s Leonardo Mobility Project which enabled a number of our string musicians to join one of the world’s top orchestras in workshops and two concerts held at the Spilberk 2006 Festival in Brno, Czech Republic, under the direction of Petr Altrichter and Leoš Svárovský respectively. This January (2007) the National Orchestra teamed up with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Pesaro in two concerts at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta in Malta and the Teatro Gioacchino Rossini in Pesaro, Italy under the direction of Paolo Ponziano Ciardi and Michael Laus respectively.
Among the many distinguished conductors and soloists who have performed with the National Orchestra one can mention Peter Stark, Charles Olivieri-Munroe, Paolo Ponziano Ciardi, Rene Clement, Brian Schembri, Jonathan Butcher, Ghena Dimitrova, Alexander Rudin, Miriam Gauci, Sergei Glavatsky, David Campbell, Cecilia Gasdia, Roberto Cominati, Andrea Griminelli, Igor Ardasev, Lukas Vondracek, Mats Rondin, Carmine Lauri, Joseph Calleja and Andrea Bocelli. Later this year, in June 2007 the Orchestra will be accompanying Jose’ Carreras.
The Orchestra is a predominant exponent of Maltese Composers and one of its ambitions is to promote Maltese compositions beyond our shores and make them known to important international music centres as well as to a wider public around the world. The recent launch of the Orkestra Nazzjonali “Live” Label is a step in this direction. The first CD, printed in the UK, was dedicated to Paolino Vassallo’s varied works and has already proved to be a success in Europe and the USA. Other CDs in a series of “live” recordings are in the offing.
The National Orchestra also organises community projects from time to time. Music education programmes bring the orchestra and its music to the widest possible audience through interactive music making, performing for children of different ages and involving them in creative talks and workshops.
Following centuries of unrest and a myriad of conquerors,
the rule of the Military Order of St. John brought about
a period of unprecedented stability and development to
the Maltese Islands. The newly constructed fortified
capital, Valletta, administrative centre and home to
the variety of nationalities forming the Order, witnessed
a further development as the islands’ cultural
and entertainment hub.
Throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries, the demand
for operas, pageants, theatrical and dramatic productions
boomed as the Maltese embraced what had previously been
entertainment reserved solely for the Nobility. Shows
put on by amateurs and theatre professionals were then
housed at the Knight’s Auberges around the city
or in the open.
In 1731, Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, identifying
the need for a central building serving, in his own words, “for
the honest recreation of the people” commissioned
and funded the construction of the “Public Theatre”.
Completed in 10 months, the original interior of the
theatre, constructed entirely out of wood, was modeled
around the palermo theatre, being semi-circular with
straight sides projecting to the stage. The night of
january 9, 1732 witnessed the first curtain call to a
presentation of scipione maffei’s classic tragedy,
merope. For the next 60 years the theatre specialized
almost exclusively in lyric operas and french tragedies,
and was run by a senior knight, known as the protettore,
having the dual function of both theatre manager and
The passage of the islands into french hands in 1798
meant the appointment of the first maltese commissioner,
then acclaimed international composer, nicolo isouard.
This proved to be, however, a highly uneventful tenure,
as the islands once again faced two years of civil
strife, with the population’s sole cause being
the liberation from napoleonic rule, culminating with
the siege of valletta and the eventual “liberation” by
the british in the first days of the 19th century.
Now known as the royal theatre, the building underwent
a series of alterations and enlargements, establishing
its role as the nation’s entertainment centre;
and, over the next 60 years played host to year-round
theatrical productions to an ever-increasing audience
of locals, tourists and foreign dignitaries.this same
prosperity however rendered the theatre’s size
inadequate, and following the sale of the building in
1861, crowds were drawn to the newly-finished, much larger
opera house. The theatre rapidly fell into total disuse,
becoming a doss house for beggars.
However, an 1873 fire that destroyed the opera house
brought a new lease of life to the now renamed manoel
theatre, in tribute to its founder. Once again however,
the reconstruction of the opera house signified the
end of the road for the manoel, converted first into
a dance hall and eventually a cinema.
During the second world war the building served as
a shelter for the homeless, victims of the same carpet
bombings that sealed the fate of the opera house, totally
destroyed in 1944. Once again, the country’s rebirth
following the ravages of war meant the rebirth of the
manoel, now acquired by the maltese government.
A decade-long restoration process by local traditional
artisans and international experts saw the transformation
of the building into a multi-functional theatre. The
once lovely decoration of the atrium was restored from
behind the grime and paint which had for so long hidden
the theatre’s beauty. Inch by inch, the great
ceiling with its 22 carat gilding was restored; the
dozens of tiny panels and paintings which decorated
the tiers of boxes were brought to life again. The
grand re-opening ceremony in december 1960, left the
audience gasping with delight at this newly rediscovered
jewel in malta’s national heritage, and heralded
the new beginning of the manoel. Now officially the
country’s national theatre, it has, over the
years, hosted countless productions by both local talent
and international stars, and has been the catalyst
for the growth and appreciation of dramatic art in
After the knight’s victory of the Great Siege
of 1565 Grand Master La Vallette decided to stay on the
Island and build a new city which was to be called Valletta.
He asked all the European rulers for help, amongst them
Pope Pius V who besides financial assistance also sent
over Francesco Laparelli, a military engineer of considerable
fame. Laparelli was the one responsible for the layout
of Valletta as we know it today. St. James is one of
two cavaliers designed by Laparelli and built by the
Malltese architect Girolamo Cassar.
The original use
of St. James was that of a raised platform in order
to defend the City and it’s bastions.
During this Period St. James was converted into an officers’ mess.
They later realized they could exploit its position and
height to solve one of the major problems around the
Maltese Islands, that is, the lack of water. The British
dug two wells in the top part of St. James in order to
store the water pumped via the Wignacourt Aqueducts.
St. James Today
In the year 2000 St. James Cavalier reopened its doors,
this time transformed into a centre for creativity by
Maltese architect Prof. Richard England.
One of the cisterns has been changed into a theatre
in the round were a number of local and foreign artist
perform each week. St. James also hosts a music room
as well as a cinema which projects two films a day, including
European films. A good number of art exhibitions, by
both local and foreign artist, are also held every month.
These include painting, sculpture, installations and
photographic exhibitions. St. James is also very popular
with schools since a variety of programs are being offered
to children of all ages, including the very popular Saturday
St. James Cavalier has finally been given back its dignity
after years of neglect and misuse.
Theatre - Gozo
The Astra Theatre has for the past thirty-two years
presented to all local theatre lovers with a wide vista
of culturally oriented activities never dreamt of on
the Island of Gozo.
Just six months after its official inauguration, on
the 20 January 1968, the international Carousel was held.
This was to be the first of in a series of light entertainment
by foreign personalities which culminated with Raffaella
Carra, the Goggi Sisters, Al Bano and Romina Power, The
Platters, Bobby Solo, Osibisa and the Montparnasse Ballet
Local talent was extensively used and encouraged during
all these years. The Astra Dramatic Company managed to
revive the best loved form of theatre entertainement
in Gozo: the Operetta. Thanks to it, the Gozitan Public
enjoyed the Merry Widow, Principessa della Czardas, The
Gondoliers, the Great Waltz, Geisha and many others.
After a break of over two decades, another operetta;
Geisha was performed again at the theatre in January
Astra Theatre patrons were also introduced to such
literary giants such as Henrik Ibsen, Goldoni, Feydeau,
Moliere and Brandon Thomas. Visiting companies also featured
prominently on the Astra stage and practically all major
theatrical companies in Malta were billed there some
time or other.
In 1978, the Astra Theatre ventured in the greatest
form of stage production; the opera. Rigoletto was first
on the list. This was successfully followed by Il Barbiere
di Siviglia, Aida, Lucia di Lammermoor, L’Elisir
D’Amore, Norma, La Traviata, La Forza Del Destino,
Nabucco, Turandot, Il Trovatore, Macbeth, and finally
Rigoletto and Aida again in 1998 and 1999.
A host of other stage productions dot the Astra theatre’s
calendar of events, but what has been mentioned amply
reflects the enormous cultural contribution the Astra
Theatre has given to the Gozitan and Maltese society.
More information on Folklore & Crafts,
Art Galleries and Museums Coming