Updated: Feb 13, 2018
Exclusive Interview with Watercolourist and baroque-aficionado - KENNETH ZAMMIT TABONA. (TEMPLE Magazine Issue 1).
It’s hard to define Kenneth Zammit Tabona’s role in Maltese culture, but it’s safe to say that it’s a very important one. In fact, on top of being among Malta’s best-known names in painting, he is also the artistic director of Malta’s national theatre, the Manoel. Moreover, Kenneth is the founder of the Valletta International Baroque Festival, the European President of the Historic Theatres Association (Perspectiv), and a board member of the Réseau Européen de Musique Ancienne (REMA), the only representative network of early music in Europe.
When he’s not wearing one of his many professional caps, Kenneth is an avid collector of art and 18th-century Chinese porcelain, as well as a fan of contemporary music and a keen follower of the dandy cult. Here, however, he tells us more about his love for Malta and its culture.
How did it all start?
I always painted and dabbled in line-drawing and watercolours. Nevertheless, in the 1960s, when I was being educated, being an artist as a profession was inconceivable to most… For a Jesuit-trained boy, the options were to become a lawyer, a doctor, an architect or an accountant; which is why, when I was still at Sixth Form, I applied to join Barclay’s Bank.
My joining the cultural scene in Malta was quite coincidental. I remember I was still 17 when I read a critique on The Times of Malta about an opera I had attended. I disagreed with the critic’s view and wrote the paper a letter explaining my views. I was horrified when it was published but, when a while later I got a phone call to cover for the music critic, I decided to go for it… That, I would say, was the moment it all began.
What’s special about the Manoel Theatre?
For starters, the Manoel, built in 1731, is the oldest national theatre that still works as a national theatre with a full schedule anywhere in the world. In many ways, the Manoel serves as a blueprint for other historic theatres around the world to become fully active again.
Yet the Manoel’s story is also a special one, and is intertwined with that of the Island. You see, Malta had a very vibrant opera scene up to World War II but, after the Royal Opera House was bombed, opera was only staged at the Radio City Opera House in Hamrun and the Orpheum Theatre in Gzira – neither of which were equipped or had a big enough stage for full-blown operas. Then, in the 1950s, the government realised that we needed a national theatre. At the time, however, the Manoel was in private hands and was run as a cinema, and so the government had to buy it back. The Manoel Theatre was finally inaugurated as the national theatre in the 1960s.
Thankfully, the British architects had been kind and true to the theatre’s original style, which means that, today, we can still enjoy the theatre in all its baroque glory. Over the last 10 years, we have also worked on restoring it to its former 18th-century style, including the façade. Thanks to the ecological acclimatisation project, which should be installed by the end of this year, the theatre will be functioning for 11 months a year.
Why do you love the baroque music so much?
Our buildings are baroque, our national character is baroque: we are surrounded by baroque. Baroque means exaggeration, and everything about us, the Maltese, is baroque. Moreover, music is a universal language, understood by anybody. I love all music, but I realised that the lacuna in the Maltese music scene was baroque.
There is also a baroque revival taking place all over the world and, thankfully, in Malta, we’ve graduated from not even having a harpsichord to having a full-fledged festival dedicated to the genre; the Valletta International Baroque Festival. We have very extensive musical archives and we’re joining the European journey of rediscovery. Now we also have a baroque ensemble, which plays music from the archives – they recently played in Madrid, Paris and Berlin.
What’s special about opera in Malta?
Opera has always had a special place in Malta with the Manoel Theatre being built as an opera house – in fact it was referred to as a Theatre a l’Italienne. This was still the case under the British, but was abandoned when the Royal Opera House was built. Yet after the latter was bombed in World War II, people were waiting for a new opera house to be erected… We still are, in fact. This means that, in Malta, we don’t have a space big enough to stage the larger, more popular, operas like the great Verdis or Puccinis, simply because the orchestra pit is merely 7metres and 3metres at the Manoel.
Nevertheless, we continued staging operas and we have a minimum of one production in Malta and two in Gozo annually. Beyond that, many Maltese have left their mark on the international opera scene; the most famous of whom was Nicolò Isouard, a Maltese composer whose bust can be found on the Palais Garnier in Paris, and whose opera, Cendrillon, will be staged here in March 2018 marking the bicentenary of the composer’s death.
As the Manoel, we are also working on bringing more opera to the Island, with Don Giovanni in March 2018, and Così fan tutte in March 2019 – and a Monteverdi project that will see us right up to 2020.
You are also a watercolourist… What is your favourite thing to paint in Malta?
Our dramatic landscapes! My favourite is Fomm ir-Rih, as I think it is one of the most beautiful bays in the Mediterranean. One almost expects Poseidon and the Nereids to come out of the sea while there… It’s a mythological landscape with an extraordinarily wild formation. Close contestants would have to be those of Hondoq ir-Rummien in Gozo and Ghajn Tuffieha in Malta.
They are all real Maltese fantasies and there’s something unique about the rock formation which makes them incredibly dramatic. Malta may not have the undulating countryside of England, but its landscape is rugged, rough and uncompromising, and that makes it beautiful in its own right. In many ways, it’s as uncompromising as the demise of the much-lamented Azure Window, which was recently engulfed by one colossal wave.
As a watercolourist, I always incorporate a landscape, seascape or garden in my art, and most of the time it’s Fomm ir-Rih. The late lamented Professor Fr Peter Serracino Inglott, the former University of Malta rector, used to call my style ‘fuori-dentro’, as it’s made up of very Maltese interiors, with views of the landscapes out of the window or hung on the wall.
Which colours do you associate with Malta, and why?
Ochre and blue because, wherever you go, you have the rock and the sea. Then, depending on the season, you also have a variable amount of green. Malta is awash with light, so the colours never really end. But I would still say that those two dominate the landscape.
Discover Kenneth Zammit Tabona’s paintings at www.kztabona.com
Published TEMPLE Magazine 2017/18
Copyright: Temple Concierge Ltd
Photography: Jan Zammit