A cry for artistic education

Never one to mince words or worry too much about going long, painter and Manoel Theatre Artistic Director Kenneth Zammit Tabona catches up with Teodor Reljic to give his hot take on the shortcomings of the Maltese cultural scene

Kenneth Zammit Tabona:
Kenneth Zammit Tabona: "By and large, artists are considered to be temperamental, capricious and unfairly gifted"

As someone involved in the field of Maltese culture in various capacities – as a painter, journalist and artistic director – what kind of evolution have you seen in the Maltese arts ever since you were active, and what would you say were some of the most significant developments in this regard?

One of the things that still troubles me and what needs to change is the general attitude towards artists. Sometimes we are looked upon as capricious privileged beings who haven’t got a proper job. The eternal question, “How long did it take you to complete that painting?” indicates that ‘work’ is still measured in time, and not by content or results! Paying for art is hence tied with bargaining as if one was the Monti. It’s humiliating. 

This is especially true where visual art is concerned. For while we have made huge strides in other disciplines, artists in Malta are unclassified and they get no help or support.

This is especially upsetting when we artists are bombarded with requests to donate paintings to charities as the charities know that they can obtain a hefty price and yet it never occurs to the people asking for the work that this is precisely why Maltese artists can never be full time or professional.

I think that this is something that has to be tackled, however trends are dictated by the market and the lack of professional galleries in Malta does not help. Galleries must invest in artists and not be mere exhibition spaces up for hire. Gallerists should cultivate their clientele as to what is good art. The investment value is also not to be discounted. Everyone knows how values of paintings shoot up when the artist kicks it!

While there is a modicum of governmental support of the contemporary art scene, it does not extend to all that much in the end. I am now waiting for MUŻA to open to see what kind of innovations it will put forward. We have a great big gaping hole in our museum – namely 19th and 20th century art. While we could count on the residue of collections amassed by the scions of European aristocracy for out 17th and 18th century sections, in the 19th century the finest works were by the vedutisti. No -isms ever came our way: Cubism, Impressionism, Fauvism and so on, were an unknown quantity in the colonial backwater that was Malta and we are still suffering from this syndrome. Malta is still experiencing the ‘Great Leap Forward’ with variable success.

There was a great enthusiasm for collectors in the 90s to buy Melitensia art, but that seems to have dried up with the onset of a minimalism that verges on iconoclasm.

Trends today will support young emerging artists and lionise them but forget all about the ‘established’ ones; either because the pundits think that these are self sufficient or even worse that they are passé! The rest of the artistic scene is a reflection of this.

By and large, writers, poets, composers, conductors, singers, instrumentalists, are regarded in much the same way. Temperamental, capricious and unfairly gifted. The uninformed think that we float through life like Werther languidly producing effortless verse or like Picasso demanding a fortune for an – admittedly divine – squiggle on a napkin! What they don’t realize is that it took endless study and experimentation not to mention blood sweat and tears to produce that perfect verse and that poignant squiggle.

It’s a question of education in the long run. The Humanities are largely neglected in secondary education and therefore one cannot blame people for this completely. As Artistic Director with a lifetime of reviewing theatre and music in its many forms I am acutely aware of the pitfalls of public perception.

It is difficult to be focused when one’s responsibility is to compile a comprehensive programme every season in a location that is ostensibly an early 18th century theatre a l’Italienne with some – fortunate – 19th century interpolation.

One of the most distressing cultural lacunae is opera. Since the bombing of the Royal Opera House in 1942, opera has, in Malta, sunk to sadly abysmal levels where in the rest of the civilized world it is still a popular and successful art form. To paraphrase Voltaire, if the two Gozitan opera houses had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent them, as for four decades they gave kept the operatic flame going while the national theatre resorted to cheap imported productions with indifferent singers.

This is what I have been battling to turn around in the sole annual productions that we have money for. Clemenza, Elisir, Orphee and now Nozze have set a benchmark for artistic excellence. However to revive interest, understanding and above all enthusiasm for opera one cannot be expected to do that with one operatic production a year.

On the Manoel Theatre: it's not about being 'high brow'. But does one serve beer in a champagne glass? No, one simply does not

I have projects involving all the theatre’s entities and resources, plus collaborations which will increase the number of annual productions of operas that suit the size and ambience of the Manoel. Operas like Isouard’s Cendrillon or Menotti’s Amal and the Night Visitors plus the eventual production of the three celestial Monteverdi operas, l’Orphee, il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria and l, Incoronazione di Poppea. Pleasures yet to come are Rossini Otello and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress or Britten’s Turn of the Screw or Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. All are doable with the confines of a 7x11 metre stage and a 7x3 orchestra pit.

The beauty of this is that I can realise these operas using a good proportion of professional and up and coming Maltese singers and musicians. However, as far as working with in the confines of the Manoel is concerned, forget the Verdis and Puccinis as unless they’re as tiny as Joachim Kaendler’s monkey orchestra the required amount of musicians will never fit in the golfo mistico!

Therefore, I am more than happy making the best of the resources available while holding master classes for specific projects.

I wish however I could say the same thing about drama. One of the greatest drawbacks is the fact that most actors in Malta have been lured into the local telenovela world and that starring in some great role like John Proctor, Maggie or even a Richard III is unimaginable as the professionalism is not there. So while I can cast a Donna Elvira or an Eurydice or a Nemorino with a Maltese opera singer I cannot do that with a major acting role.

I hope that this situation will be addressed by Teatru Malta, but it’s going to take a long time.

Moving the clock forward a tiny bit, what would you say have been some of the most notable events or developments in this sphere over the past year in particular?

We are in fact on a roll as far as appreciation of the arts is concerned – most notably by the foreign community making it possible for events to be sponsored. The downside is that Maltese industry and business have not yet grasped what could be called ‘The Politics of Art’. When ten years ago the government of the time saw fit to commission one of the world’s greatest architects to build a parliament while leaving the site of the bombed opera house in a shambles, this set the trend. Renzo Piano has designed auditoria, museums and libraries but parliaments? So we are prepared to leave a fully developed symphony orchestra without a home to build this parliament.

Whatever...  moving swiftly on. There is now more order and method and yes, we have had a glorious explosion of festivals which have created beacons of excellence throughout the year.

As the Artistic Director of the Manoel Theatre, you oversee what is both an important reminder of our historical heritage, as well as being an important venue for a particular genre of events – perhaps it remains the ‘high brow’ venue of the Maltese performance arts? What is the role of the Manoel Theatre, in your opinion, and how do you think it should evolve in the very near future, if at all?

Besides being artistic director of the Teatru Manoel and the Valletta International Baroque Festival, I happen to be President of PERSPECTIV, which is the European Association of Historic Theatres. I will state here and now that we tend to take this glorious architectural gem for granted and have no compunction to abuse it.

It is imperative that all events that take place in this theatre are artistically commensurate with this unique gem. Possibly “high brow” wouldn’t be accurate, however does one serve beer in a crystal champagne glass? No, one simply does nor.

Again, as an architectural and cultural treasure and irreplaceable part of our heritage, we have a very grave responsibility to safeguard not only the building itself but its historical and artistic integrity too. The problem is that there are hardly any alternatives, which is why I tend to compromise.

Given the chance, what would you change about the local arts and culture scene – both in terms of what’s produced and presented, and even – perhaps – the mentality that underpins the whole scene?

It’s a question of education. Children should be exposed to the arts at a very early age, and taught how to appreciate them and respect them. It is only in this way that the arts can be given the same status as being an accountant or a lawyer. Are there any artists in our parliament? Not as far as I know. [Former Polish Prime Minister] Ignacy Jan Paderewski was a great pianist, as so was former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Even Vladimir Putin felt that it was important to show us all that he can plonk out a tune on a piano after Emmanuel Macron’s s surprising show of virtuosity! Winston Churchill was a very competent painter.

So yes, art and politics do mix and yes, would we remember Louis XIV if we didn’t have Versailles to remind us of him? Art is what surrounds us, and yet for many the beauty of our churches and vernacular architecture is not even understood. We are sadly oblivious to the rich iconography in our museums and public places, and this ignorance is classless. If it were not for the incredibly rich heritage left to us by a geographical fluke that brought the Knights of St John to a dry and barren island in 1530, I hate to think what we would have been. We have no idea how immensely lucky we are to have a January Baroque Festival which, because of its amazing settings, has in five short years been placed among the top ten of its genre in the world!

It’s all about knowledge and education... And appreciating where we came from to determine where we should be going.