Internationally renowned tenor Joseph Calleja still believes the former opera house site in Valletta remains the ideal location for a national theatre, as the debate over whether Pjazza Teatru Rjal should be roofed is rekindled. 

The announcement regarding a possible makeover of Valletta’s open theatre came during the 2020 Budget speech last week.

Mr Calleja had made his views known on this subject when the Valletta City Gate Project was being conceived back in 2009.

"At the time I had said that I believe the site where our opera house once stood is an ideal location for a national theatre – with a roof of course! My opinion has not changed. I would wholeheartedly support an initiative to give Malta back its artistic home provided that whoever is involved in such a project has the nation’s best interests at heart," the tenor told Times of Malta. 

Consultation regarding putting a roof over the iconic theatre will start in the coming months, even though talks with world-renowned architect Renzo Piano, who designed the venue, are already underway.

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A spokesperson for Mr Piano confirmed that the authorities had consulted with his architectural firm regarding the roof, however, no precise discussions had followed as yet. Complaints from local residents of late night noise disturbances from the theatre had pushed the authorities to revive the idea of enclosing the historic space.

A spokesperson for Valletta mayor Alfred Zammit, who has been the recipient of many of these complaints, said he is “100 per cent behind the proposal as long as it keeps in line with the project design of Renzo Piano.”

However, others were more critical of the idea on the basis that it defied the point of having an open-air theatre.

Petra Caruana Dingli, Council member of heritage NGO Din l-Art Ħelwa, explained that, if there is a need for a roofed-over theatre or concert hall, which is appropriately equipped for contemporary performance requirements, then it would be better to plan for a new state-of-the art theatre somewhere else.

“This particular site in Valletta could then remain an open-air venue catering for specific type of events. Installing a roof would defeat the idea of having an open-air theatre at all,” she added.

“If we had a wider vision on cultural development, investing in a new state-of-the-art performance space, in an area which needs regeneration, (such as Marsa), could be an excellent spur for quality cultural development in the islands,” she explained.

According to Vicki Ann Cremona, Professor of Theatre Studies, considering whether Teatru Rjal should be roofed or not begs a series of questions.

“What purposes is this theatre destined for? What kind of performance is it to house – is it to continue housing any type of performance indiscriminately, is to be an auditorium, is it to specialise in dance, or house mainly theatre?”

Simply roofing an already existing structure is no solution, she added. “There are technical exigencies which imply a necessary and thorough rethinking of the space. Most importantly, who is taking the final decision and what budgets do they dispose of?”

She said it would be wiser to keep the theatre as it is until there are adequate plans and budgets, rather than roof the theatre without thinking of all the additional elements that have to be taken into consideration if this is done. 

The iconic Opera House, popularly known as Teatru Rjal, was erected in 1866, however, less than 10 years after its inauguration, its interior was destroyed extensively by fire.

Although the Opera House was repaired and re-inaugurated four years after the fire, the building was flattened during World War II after an aerial bombardment.

Its ruins were incorporated in an open theatre that formed part of architect Renzo Piano’s plans for City Gate.

Pjazza Teatru Rjal was inaugurated on August 8, 2013.