From ballets to baroque operas, the Manoel Theatre has seen it all in its time. But few performances altered the status quo more than Teatru Unplugged – a live music event that has, for over 15 years now, turned our picturesque national theatre into an upbeat concert venue that attracts a completely different crowd to the one drawn to its more classic calendar.

Teatru Unplugged has built a brand all of its own – an ethos crafted around the desire to give talented musicians a platform and to present a line up that is great fun. It is a brand that has raised rafters and eyebrows by being different, but which has also gained the respect of music lovers from all walks of life. And it has stayed true to itself too.

Seventeen years on from the very first Teatru Unplugged and co-founder Jonathan Shaw is understandably pleased by what the concert has achieved. It has certainly come a long way from its original inspiration to bring a whole new audience into the national theatre; one that was partly motivated by the then fast developing trend behind MTV’s ‘unplugged’ concerts in the late 1990s.

“I am not a musician myself, but I love listening to music and getting a taste for different genres,” he says.

“That said, I know that if something isn’t in my comfort zone, I will struggle to sit through a two-hour concert of it. That’s how we came up with the idea for Teatru. It’s similar to the concept of a book of short stories, with something for everyone.”

As always, this year’s Teatru Unplugged will present a selection of six acts, each performing a set that’s around 15 minutes in length. “Originally, people thought it was crazy to mix classical numbers with rock and pop with jazz, but they’ve come to realise that it works”.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” Shaw continues. “Plus, watching all of those artists perform against the stunning backdrop of the Manoel Theatre brings it together beautifully.”

Shaw smiles as he remembers how he and co-founder, the late Nirvana Azzopardi, had no idea whether the first edition would lead to a second. “Seventeen editions on and I guess we were onto something,” he grins.

And part of the winning formula definitely seems to be the team’s ability to tweak and reinvent the Teatru Unplugged offering year on year.

I have watched an 80-year-old getting into the beat of a rock performance

While some artists are invited back for repeat performances, the show is also a platform for newbies to take to a large-scale stage for the first time. “It’s a careful balance between encouraging new work and bringing past stars back for an encore,” he says.

The show has also come to attract a niche crowd, many of whom only frequent the Manoel Theatre on this occasion.

“I think those people enjoy the fact that it’s a great night out and that there is something for everyone. Over the years I have watched an 80-year-old getting into the beat of a rock per-formance and seen a young child intently listening to classical music. It’s family friendly and there’s a great balance to it.”

This year’s performers will work in complete harmony too and the Teatru Unplugged team has brought together a fantastic mix of styles and genres. The line-up includes soloists Simon Schembri, Berne and Emilia Wisniewska, the duo Justin Galea and Claire Tonna and their bands, Gianni & Friends, nosnow/noalps and Stoned.

Nick Morales, who will be performing with nosnow/noalps, is thrilled to be among those performing.

“We first took to the stage at the Manoel Theatre for Notte Bianca last year and it will be great to be back. Teatru Unplugged is brilliant because it gives all sorts of acts the chance to play a simple, unplugged set in a really prestigious venue.”

Morales believes his band’s chosen songs will fit in beautifully with the rest of the show as they plan to play an acoustic set and take things back to basics.

“It will be an energetic set with mellow moments and lots of interactivity,” he says. “We have chosen some of our favourites and hope to give the audience something to sing along to.”

Meanwhile, violinist Wisniewska, who is originally from Poland but is now based in Malta, will bring something completely different to the event.

“A violin solo will definitely add an alternative dimension to the overall performance and I hope the audience will enjoy sitting back and experiencing the power of what violin music can bring. It’s a huge honour for me to be part of such a prestigious local event,” she says.

Teatru Unplugged 17 will also carry on its legacy of giving back. This year the project will raise money to build a kindergarten school in Africa in conjunction with Kilimanjaro 8.

“The school will be named after Nirvana, my co-founder on Teatru Unplugged, who died last year. We want to keep Nirvana’s memory alive through the show and plan to keep raising money for causes that would be dear to her – whether that’s cancer, family or education.

“We plan to keep building on what we believe is a winning combination of music, entertainment and community spirit.”

Teatru Unplugged 17 takes place from Friday to Sunday at the Manoel Theatre. Tickets are available online.

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