There is a political tactic used by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It is attributed to his Australian adviser, Lynton Crosby. The theory is simple. Whenever the news is bad, very bad for a political leader, they simply drop a decomposing cat on the political table.
Everyone reels back in shock, the news agenda is abruptly changed and the politician using the dead cat lives to fight another day.
There was a strong smell of dead cats recently when the government suddenly touted the possibility of ‘roofing’ the site of the old opera house. If the government was hoping for a major distraction as more important and, admittedly, more complicated stories were being published in the media, it can’t say it was terribly successful.
True, it has prompted us to dedicate a whole editorial to it but only insofar as to highlight that it is one more example of the government’s missteps with regard to the whole cultural sector.
In its statement, the government makes much of the fact that it will be consulting the architect, Renzo Piano. But there is no mention of consulting the performing arts community itself.
As the opposition spokesperson on culture, Julie Zahra, herself an accomplished performer, said, simply providing some shade and acoustic baffles to ward off sound to and from the surrounding neighbourhood is not going to make things much better.
It does not reflect nor satisfy the needs of performers neither their patrons.
The story of the misnomered Pjazza Teatru Rjal is a sorry one. Many in the performing arts community had seen it as a golden missed opportunity to have another performing venue.
The government has thrown millions of euros into the venue to keep it alive for just four to five months of the year. Most of the productions held there are either sponsored by the PTR itself or come with heavy government or diplomatic sponsorship.
It is, in effect, a wasted opportunity. It is not even the space originally thought of by Piano, who envisioned a flexible space that could be reconfigured according to needs.
The current set-up with its green plastic chairs and its worse-for-wear wooden soundboards are a far cry from the elegant white sails of Piano.
What makes the whole thing even sadder is that the country is crying out for a proper modern theatre or, at the very least, a proper concert hall to be the home of a country blessed with so much artistic talent.
It is indeed ironic that, for example, the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra must travel abroad to be able to perform in a proper concert hall.
Unfortunately, this lack of insight into the needs of the sector is the mere tip of the iceberg. It has led to missed opportunities such as Valletta 2018 – European Capital of Culture, which left barely any legacy apart from the creation of yet another state agency.
If the government is serious about making better use of the PTR site, it needs first to start a proper discussion with the potential users of the space, especially seeing the noise that Valletta is generating these days. And let us not be tempted to go down the route of copying the past for nostalgia’s sake.
The Manoel Theatre was built by the knights to serve their needs and reconfigured by the British. The Royal Opera House was built to serve the British. Would it not be nice for the Maltese state to create at least one performance space to serve the needs of Maltese artists? And that does not necessarily mean just roofing it over!
Or is that cat really dead?
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