Opera director Michael Moxham set designer Nicky Shaw, librettist Gorg Peresso and Dr Pace visiting Birgu.
Opera director Michael Moxham, set designer Nicky Shaw, librettist Gorg Peresso and Dr Pace visiting Birgu. Photo: Ken Scicluna.

Considered to be the first ever Maltese opera cycle, ‘City of Humanity’ is a collaboration between Maltese artists – composer Dr Rueben Pace, choreographer Dianne Portelli and author Ġorġ Peresso – and artists from the UK, including set designer Nicky Shaw and opera director Michael Moxham.

Capturing Valletta Student Journalist Andrea Rossitto caught up with leading members of the production team during their first rehearsals in Malta to discuss the operas – and what the Maltese language means for national identity.

The language of opera

"Prior to the Second World War, opera’s main language was Italian," says Rueben Pace, composer of City of Humanity and the driving force behind the project. "This project intends to give an artistic extension to the island’s history primarily by increasing the amount of artistic works in Maltese language."

Mr Pace is himself from Malta. However, this is Mr Moxham and Ms Shaw’s first trip to our sunny shores. I can easily read on their faces how keen the two are to learn more about the Mediterranean island!

"I look forward to learning more about the island’s history, which I’ve heard is a long and colourful one," Mr Moxham says. "Its language sounds amazing too — it’s fast paced and full of sounds that aren’t found in many other European languages. The island’s stone also feels so different. It was a kind of a 'love at first sight' feeling that I experienced when I arrived here."

Maltese… but in English?

Dr Pace’s and Mr Moxham’s words straight away make me think of what I’ve been learning during sociology classes at university for the past few weeks, in particular, our discussions about national identity.

The Last Night of the Proms, we’ve been saying in class, marks the culmination of a self-conscious form of nationalism. On this occasion, flag-waving and the Union Jacks all over the place might appear tongue-in-cheek but such gestures still manage to bring different people under one banner. Indeed, nationalism has the power to evoke strong emotions not only in times of war. Ask yourselves, don’t we all feel some community of feeling when it comes to football or the Eurovision Song Contest?

What about more sub-conscious elements of national identity, such as language? The soul of the nation resides in its language and, some say, a people without its own native language are a people lacking an identity. Of course, this has some contentious points – what about Switzerland, for instance, given that it’s a confederation of cantons with four mother tongues, German, French, Italian and Romanish?

For me, however, the real question is Malta, with two official languages, Maltese and English. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that people forget that the Mediterranean island’s national language is Maltese, even though it is as an official language of the European Union, the only Semitic language so distinguished.

Taking the hard road back to our roots

Dr Pace has his own opinion on these questions of nationalism, language and identity.

"As a Maltese people, we tend to take the easy way out, delving into English vocabulary," he says. "It seems as though we Maltese, given that we’ve historically been thoroughly colonised, retain the idea that what’s foreign is superior. In multiple scenarios, unfortunately, Maltese language seems to be at a crossroads. Someone needs to up the ante. The City of Humanity project stood out to me back in 2014 shortly after producing the very first Maltese multimedia opera, Il-Kantilena — the oldest known literary text in Maltese language," Dr Pace adds.

Future voices

The City of Humanity project also aims to identify individuals with exceptional artistic talents and give them a platform to develop. The production is seeking to connect several educational and cultural entities to the mutual benefit of all. Students from secondary schools up to university are being assisted by their lecturers as well as professionals in the field.

"Music, stage set, choreography and costume design will be blending folk and contemporary," says the project's choreographer Dianne Portelli.

Three operas, taking place at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in the heart of the Capital of Culture itself, will be delivering all of the above to the public. The first opera, City of Humanity 1 – Behind the Fortifications, takes place in November this year, and gives an artistic touch to the Great Siege of 1565. The second opera, The Island Fortress, looks at the impact of the Second World War on the tiny island. The Age of One or Nil is the final opera and explores what characterises modern day Malta.

"All three performances will be in Maltese," says Dr Pace. "However, we’ve taken into account foreigners who will be joining us and will therefore provide them with English subtitles."

Photo of a visit by some photography students to Birgu.
Photo of a visit by some photography students to Birgu. Photo: Anabel Laus.
the opera director, the set designer, the librettist and Dr Pace himself visiting Birgu
Photo: Ken Scicluna

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