The existence of Gozo’s buzzing opera scene may come as a surprise to many but, with some of the world’s biggest stars performing here on a yearly basis, the island has become an international hub for the art. Here we speak to two representatives from the island’s iconic theatres, the Astra and the Aurora, about the past, present and future of opera on Gozo.
Gozo is renowned for its unspoilt countryside, its imposing fortified capital, and its slower-paced way of life. But, since the 1970s, it has also built a name for itself in the world of opera.
“The first opera on Gozo was organised way back in 1977,” explains Matthew Zammit, the PRO of Teatru Astra, which is one of the two main venues for opera on the island. “It was Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and it was performed just across the road at the Aurora Opera House.
“Teatru Astra, then, produced its first operas, Rigoletto and Il Barbiere di Siviglia, in 1978. From then on, two operas have been organised on a yearly basis by the two main theaters on Gozo, and the island has now become renowned for its high-standards in the art,” he adds.
But opera in Gozo is also unique in many ways. This is because, while the productions are of the highest, international standards, thus enticing many world-renowned stars to perform here and audiences from far and wide to visit, the system with which it works makes it different to that of most – if not all – other opera scenes.
“Opera in Gozo is a particular phenomenon associated with the local scenario,” says Colin Attard, the musical director at the Aurora Opera House. “What I mean is that opera on Gozo is a ‘labour of love’, because of the large amount of voluntary work that goes into each production.
“On similar grounds, the engagement of topnotch international artists, who perform alongside amateur performers (such as the choir, for example) and for non-profit-making institutions, makes Gozo’s opera truly singular. And, undoubtedly, it is this that has contributed to its success, without compromising its artistic qualities in any way.”
A Tale of Two Theatres
With both the Astra and the Aurora located on Triq Ir-Republika in Victoria, the story of opera on Gozo has always been riddled with the belief that the two main theatres compete against each other for the biggest names and the best productions. Although this is not technically untrue, in reality this is a healthy competition that has helped Gozo’s name in opera stand out.
“The presumed rivalry between the two theatres is conducive to a sense of competitiveness and an ever-increasing urge to do better the next time round,” says Matthew. “In this regard, this rivalry creates a stimulus for the hundreds of volunteers to work hard to organise this event every year and the end result is most impressive when you consider the size of our island.”
Nonetheless, while the history of opera on Gozo places the Astra and the Aurora together as the precursors and benefactors of the art on the island, each theatre has its own, interesting and intricate history.
“The Leone Philharmonic Society, which owns the Aurora Opera House, has staged regular theatrical performances here since before the 1970s,” says Colin. “Then, in the 1970s, the management decided to build a large theatre and present the first operatic production in Gozo, Madama Butterfly, which had an obvious ripple effect in Gozo and also served to revitalise opera in the Maltese Islands. Slowly, the productions have been ameliorated and we have now proudly reached international, artistic standards.
Over the years, the stage of the Aurora has welcomed Raina Kabaivanska, Neil Shicoff, Juan Pons, Michelle Crider, Stuart Neill, Mzia Nioradze and Eva Mei, among others.
“Yet I would say that the grandest experience was Turandot with Maria Guleghina, who flew to the Aurora straight from New York’s Metropolitan, where she was also performing Turandot,” continues Colin. “Of course, the Aurora is not the Met, and we were all somewhat concerned about it; yet Guleghina’s commitment and professionalism was such that we all felt so comfortable working with the world’s number one Turandot,” he adds.
“Meanwhile, Teatru Astra was inaugurated in January 1968,” explains Matthew. “It forms part of a larger musical voluntary organisation, entitled the Soċjetà Filarmonika La Stella, which was founded in 1863.”
Since its inauguration, the Theatre has hosted international performers such as Raffaella Carrá, The Goggi Sisters, Al Bano and Romina Power, The Platters, Bobby Solo, Osibisa, the Montparnasse Ballet Troupe, Nek, the Ballet Classique de Paris and, more recently, Amedeo Minghi. Local talent has been extensively put to use and is constantly encouraged by the Theatre.
“The first opera that was produced at the Astra was Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1978 (and again in 2009),” Matthew continues. “This was successfully followed by Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1978), Aida (1988), Lucia di Lammermoor (1988), L’Elisir d’Amore (1988), La Traviata (1989, 2010), and many, many others.”
What’s Next for Opera in Gozo?
With such a great legacy comes great expectation however, and the upcoming season is eagerly anticipated by locals and visitors alike.
“Teatru Astra is currently in the late planning stages of its forthcoming production of Puccini’s enduring work, La Bohème, which will be staged on Thursday 29 and Saturday 31 October 2015. An impressive line-up of main singers will be taking part, together with the Teatru Astra Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus,” says Matthew. “As in previous productions, the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Teatru Astra’s Musical Director Joseph Vella, will be in attendance.”
“At the Aurora, meanwhile, we’re currently working on Verdi’s iconic opera La Traviata, which will be held in October. Though the cast has not yet been announced, we plan to stay true to our policy of making every visit to the Aurora a memorable operatic experience,” Colin concludes.