"Valletta 2018 is truly an extraordinary platform given that one of its highest goals is that of encouraging active participation in arts."
Emma Bondin, Professional Pianist
Capturing Valletta student journalist Andrea Rossitto interviews members of the team behind the first Maltese opera cycle, City of Humanity, to find out how productions like this at the European Capital of Culture aim to change Maltese attitudes to arts.
"Back home my parents constantly lambasted the fact that arts don’t earn you a living," says Dr Reuben Pace, composer, producer and the brains behind City of Humanity. "But music and all the other arts are not something ‘extra’.
"I compose because I feel the need to do so. This week, for instance, I have a really tight schedule and hence not ample time to compose. That’s why I don’t feel fully at ease. I believe it’s a human need to communicate artistically."
Dr Pace wants to enable other people in his country to discover how arts can fulfill this ‘human need’. He wants Maltese people to connect with their own identity through arts. It’s for this reason that City of Humanity is centred around Malta.
Each stage of the opera cycle takes one key moment in Malta’s history. Behind the Fortifications, which premiers in November this year, explores the Great Siege of 1565. The Island Fortress, in November next year, looks at the impact of the Second World War on the tiny island. The Age of One or Nil, in November 2020, explores what characterises modern day Malta. But although the libretti are all based in Malta the human philosophies which they portray have an international and timeless significance.
The production team involves British artists, including set designer Nicky Shaw and opera director Michael Moxham, but the final performances will be delivered in Maltese.
It is a major production in the Valletta European Capital of Culture year, a title which provides a boost for Maltese arts. Dr Pace welcomes this, and says it is long overdue.
He sees a great difference between the professional level and the standard of village brass bands – although, he says, these do a very good job at introducing young people to music. He says the gap is not being filled because not enough is being done to change the mentality of ordinary people towards the arts.
"The government has pledged millions to various sports activities," he says. "I believe it’s the arts’ turn now to receive such further investments, a pledge which I am sure the current government will fulfil."
Dr Pace is keen to promote promising individuals to the top of Malta’s artistic scene. He recognises that many ‘rising stars’ are there thanks to personal support networks – of course, not including himself.
I meet 14-year-old Emma Bondin, deemed to be one of Malta’s upcoming professional pianists. She is among the performers who are involved in the production of City of Humanity. She says how much her musical family inspired her, and how her father in particular encouraged her to aim high.
City of Humanity seizes the opportunities that the European Capital of Culture offers for supporting learning and development. The opera’s production timeline includes masterclasses for musicians. Yvette Galea, another professional pianist, took part in workshops in April with City of Humanity’s Spanish conductor Robert Ferrer. She says they were "a unique learning experience".
"Valletta 2018 is truly an extraordinary platform given that one of its highest goals is that of encouraging active participation in arts," she says. "We’re really pleased to learn more about how the conductor unifies the orchestra, sets the tempo and shapes the sound of the ensemble."
Professionals from around the world are enriching their understanding of Malta as they share their expertise. Ferrer has had an international career, and is currently based in the Czech city of Brno – but he says he feels he has learned much from working on this project.
"I’m quite astonished by the island’s Baroque architecture," he says of Malta. "I’ve heard the Maltese Islands pack glorious variety albeit being a small archipelago. I can almost smell your rich history and glamorous traditions."
City of Humanity 1 – Behind the Fortifications premieres on 14 November with music performed by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. The project is supported by funds from the Arts Council Malta.