Sunday Times of Malta, 29 March 2009, by Herman Grech –


A cultural and performance centre could be built on the site of the former opera house in Valletta after all, if one of the main options presented by Italian architect Renzo Piano is taken up by the Prime Minister.

No official proposal has been made to the government, but it is understood that this option places the new Parliament building in Freedom Square, next to the opera house site.

Mr Piano has suggested embellishing and developing the inside of the opera house site to create a versatile recreational area which can be used for cultural activities in summer and winter.

The necessary structures would be put in place to house sound and lighting equipment.

Mr Piano’s original brief was to turn the old Royal Opera House ruins into a multi-purpose building that would host Parliament and also play a cultural role. But Parliament’s relocation from the Palace in Valletta sparked a national debate with many demanding that the site should be used exclusively for cultural purposes.

Last January, Lawrence Gonzi hinted that the proposal to build Parliament on the old opera house site was not cast in stone and he said he had informed Mr Piano of the need to create a cultural space.

During a visit to Malta last January, Mr Piano had remarked that Freedom Square was too empty and he expressed the opinion that shops should not be the first buildings people see upon entering a city like Valletta.

The plans are not final and Mr Piano’s senior partner Bernard Plattner is expected in Malta next month to officially present the proposals to the Prime Minister.

When contacted, the Office of the Prime Minister would only say that several options would be considered.

Should the government decide to opt for a versatile open-air performance space, it would resemble a proposal presented to Cabinet in 2006 by then Culture Minister Francis Zammit Dimech.

Dr Zammit Dimech had proposed transforming the ruins of the opera house into a permanent open-air performing space and ideally providing further space for the arts below ground level.

Addressing the Nationalist Party’s general council last Friday, Dr Zammit Dimech appealed to the Prime Minister to ensure that the site was used to create a “multifunctional space for culture and the arts”.

Conceptual plans detailing the different uses of one of the most under-utilised areas had been drawn up and discussed at Cabinet level. The idea then was to create a multifunctional theatre on the opera house site that complemented St James Cavalier. The plans, however, never saw the light of day.

When contacted, Dr Zammit Dimech said that he felt government was still in time to make the right decision.

The 1866 opera house, designed by E.M. Barry, architect of the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden, was demolished by a German bombing raid during the Second World War.