In the mid-19th century, as opera became more popular in the Maltese Islands, it was felt that the Manoel Theatre, opened in 1732, was becoming too small for increasing audiences. In 1860, the Governor of Malta – Sir John Gaspard Le Marchand – formally approved the construction of a new theatre, to be built on a site at the entrance to Valletta. The new “Royal Opera House” was designed in the following year by the English architect Edward Middleton Barry, who had designed several prominent buildings in London including Covent Garden and the National Gallery. The building in the Neo-Classical style was constructed on a 63 m by 34 m site previously occupied by the Casa della Giornata, the onetime residence of the Turcopilier of the Auberge d’Angleterre during the time of the Knights. It was completed after five years with a seating capacity of 1095 and 200 standing; more than double the capacity of the teatru Manoel. It was inaugurated on October 9, 1866 with Vincenzo Bellini’s opera I Puritani. The total cost amounted to £60,000 which, at that time, was a considerable sum.
On Sunday evening of May 25, 1873 during the rehearsals of Giuseppe Privitera’s opera La Vergine del Castello, the theatre accidentally caught fire and its interior was extensively damaged. Restoration works were taken up immediately under the supervision of Architect Webster Poulson, at a cost of £4,000. On October 11, 1877 – after nearly four and a half years from this accidental fire – the theatre reopened with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, followed by a further 18 performances of the same opera. During the 1877-78 opera season, twenty-three other opera productions were staged. In 1895, electricity replaced the use of gas to illuminate the theatre.
For many years, the Royal Opera House in Valletta served not only as an important launching pad for aspiring opera singers but also as the prime theatrical venue of Malta. This was the place where Military Officers, British Royalty and Maltese enthusiasts came to enjoy staged entertainment of the highest quality, both in the field of music as well as that of drama. Many foreign artistes, including the world renowned tenor Giovanni Zenatello (1876 – 1949), the celebrated Italian mezzo Giulietta Simionato (1910 – 2010) and the equally famous Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão (1902 – 1999), who later became top notch stars of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, started their illustrious career in this theatre. Much to the delight of Maltese opera lovers, other distinguished opera singers engaged by the management of the Opera House included tenor Icilio Calleja (1882 – 1941) and baritone Giuseppe Satariano (1895 – 1992). Famous composers also invited to Malta by the Impresa of the theatre were Ottorino Respighi, Mons. Licinio Refice, Giuseppe Mule’ and Riccardo Zandonai.
The Royal Opera House was held to be one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring Opera Houses in Europe. This was therefore by default the theatre where Maltese singers and musicians aspired to commence their career.
On the evening of Tuesday April 7, 1942 the theatre suffered its second tragedy when it was devastated in an aerial attack by Stuka dive-bombers. Its pristine interior and most of its side walls came crashing down and one of Malta’s cultural and architectural landmarks ended up in miserable ruins. Only the numerous Corinthian columns and peripheral hard stone base survived.
In 1953, six renowned architects submitted their designs to have the theatre built anew. The Committee chose Zavellani-Rossi’s project and recommended its acceptance by Government, subject to certain alterations. The project was however shelved after a lot of bickering.
Eventually, the ruins fell into disuse and the interior floor of the glorious theatre came to serve as a parking lot for the vehicles of the many commuters who entered Valletta. However, from time to time, some metaphorical cinder did throw some sparks into the air, and occasionally, the site was cleared of these vehicles to hold a theatrical event of one kind or another.
In the 1980s, contact was made with renowned architect Renzo Piano to design a building to be constructed on site of the ruins as well as to embark on the rehabilitation of the entrance of the City. Piano submitted the plans which were approved by the Government in 1990. Again this project never came to fruition, mainly due to the heavy opposition it found from various quarters of the conservative Maltese intelligentsia.
Today Pjazza Teatru Rjal has been integrated into the old theatre’s ruins. It is regarded as a monument that stands for the heroism, tenacity and dignity of the Maltese who stood against enemy action in the Second World War. At the same time the newly built theatre shows an aspiration to preserve past culture with a promise to create and nurture new artistic ideas.