Mario, the tip of the iceberg

The resignation of Valletta 2018 assistant artistic director Sean Buhagiar, following a clash with his infamously volatile former colleague and superior Mario Philip Azzopardi, has put into relief the V18 Foundation’s structural problems, TEODOR RELJIC finds

Mario Philip Azzopardi is not an easy person to work with, at least if reports and testimonials emerging in the media over the past couple of weeks are to be believed. Serving as both the Artistic Director of the Valletta 2018 Foundation – though with an important caveat: more on that later – as well as the executive producer of the Maltese-language theatre production company Stagun Teatru Malti (STM), Azzopardi once again made the news after his friend and loyal collaborator Sean Buhagiar resigned from two separate posts which had him working closely with Azzopardi. 

First, MaltaToday was informed that Buhagiar had stepped down as director of the most recent STM production, Habbilni Ha Nirbah, following a vitriolic row with Azzopardi over workplace conditions on set.

On February 11, sources told MaltaToday that Azzopardi – who only attended the first full rehearsal of the show on Sunday, five days before opening night – threw several tantrums while kicking the set and shouting vulgarly.

Sources also said that Azzopardi threatened to sue Buhagiar if he does not follow his orders, aggressively declaring that Buhagiar should “obey”. Buhagiar was a partner at STM – a post he also resigned from after leaving the play, which also saw the departure of set designer Adrian Mamo days prior to Buhagiar’s own resignation. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Buhagiar then also resigned from his post as the Valletta 2018 Foundation’s assistant artistic director – a post which had him working side-by-side with Azzopardi – officially citing a “breakdown” in his relationship with Azzopardi. 

In response to Buhagiar’s departure from the play, Azzopardi insisted that in the world of show business, these conflicts happen all the time. “Tension is a hazard of the job,” Azzopardi said, presumably drawing on his experience of working on television shows such as Degrassi, Stargate and Robocop during his stint in Canada and the US. 

Later, Azzopardi took a more conciliatory tone, saying he believed Buhagiar is a “very talented” person who has a “bright future” ahead of him in the arts. Azzopardi also praised Buhagiar’s work with Habbilni Ha Nirbah despite his premature departure from the production. 

For many people working within the Maltese creative sector, the news was significant. Occupying various important positions in the field – among them as Artistic Director of Notte Bianca and Science in the City, over and above his posts at V18 and STM – the young and affable Buhagiar was often seen as Azzopardi’s ‘friendly face’, leveraging his collaborator’s ‘difficult’ personality and building bridges to promote and facilitate their productions. 

So his departure opened the floodgates of public reaction, with some feeling that a sense of omerta’ surrounding Azzopardi was finally being lifted. But Azzopardi – who directed promotional material for the Labour Party’s electoral campaign before taking on the post of Valletta 2018 Artistic Director – still appears to be a touchy subject for some of his former collaborators. The few sources that eventually agreed to speak about their experience with Azzopardi, only agreed to do so anonymously. 

“Mario Philip’s problem is his atrocious temper. He gets these wild mood swings, one moment he’s the cuddly blue-eyed sweet talker, the next he’s throwing tantrums and abusing anyone in close vicinity,” one source tells us. 

“It unsettles us and it unsettles the cast. He has this habit of taking over from the director during the last week of production, humiliating him or her, shouting and swearing for no reason at all. I’ve seen this happen a dozen times at least.

“His justifications – that Malta isn’t used to that kind of language and so on – are really shallow. A producer is still bound by professional courtesy. That’s not the way to treat artists. There is no dignity in this behaviour and on their part they should also speak up. Many actors already refuse to participate in his productions, at this rate things won’t go for the better.”

Other sources described how Azzopardi proved to be incorrigible even in more official meetings, lashing out at those he deemed to be in opposition to him with nary any respect for decorum and manners.

As if to corroborate the fact that Azzopardi’s questionable behaviour is something of an open secret among local creatives, former Maltese ambassador to France and theatre studies lecturer Vicki-Ann Cremona said that “everyone knows what his character is like by now, and that he’s got a terrible temper”. 

However, Azzopardi turned down MaltaToday’s request for an interview this week, which would allow him to respond to these accusations. The reason being that, a couple of years back, a previous interview with him published by this newspaper proved to be too sarcastic in its approach for his liking. 

It appears as though Azzopardi is as fragile as he is uncompromising. But is this – doubtlessly interesting – figure really the Valletta 2018 Foundation’s biggest problem? 

Quo vadis, V18?

While she pulled no punches when commenting on Azzopardi’s character – saying that he clearly needs to “learn some manners” and “answer for his behaviour” – Vicki-Ann Cremona also underlined how we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Azzopardi forms part of an institution, an institution whose job it is to bring him to heel if necessary.

And it was perhaps prudent and logical for Valletta 2018 Chairman Jason Micallef to stress, in his first public appearance after Buhagiar’s resignation, that it was not within his remit to comment on any “personal disputes” between two creative professionals, and that he would only take action against Azzopardi if the end products of his work with the association do not end being up to scratch. 

But then, of course, there’s yet another twist in the tale. Last December, Azzopardi also confessed – in a seemingly abrupt move that must have left his V18 superiors red-faced – that he wasn’t the ‘sole’ Artistic Director for the Foundation, and that he’s only responsible for “five or six events” under the Foundation’s remit. While this presumably exonerates Azzopardi from any executive responsibility (taking care of the “character” issue outlined above), it still paints an unflattering picture of the Foundation. 

If Mario Philip Azzopardi is not the “main” artistic director for Valletta 2018, why was he appointed as such? Why wasn’t the brief that comes with such roles released to the public straight away? If the answer is that this brief was vague to begin with, then we have a bit of a problem, don’t we? 

It is precisely this vagueness – at worst, it points to a lack of transparency – that will continue to muddy the waters of the V18 Foundation before it’s addressed in a clear and satisfactory manner. 

Please, let’s get this right

By all accounts and allowing for the most optimistic predictions imaginable, the Valletta 2018 project, taken as a whole, has been beneficial for Malta. Sure, we can justifiably criticize its staggered planning, its sporadic approach to events and the unfortunate internal shake-ups that come with – ultimately – being a government-powered foundation prone to political prodding. 

But the fact remains that it has put culture on the national agenda in a way that we have probably never seen before. And I should know: having served as Culture Editor for this newspaper for some years, the shift since Valletta 2018 became a ‘thing’ has been palpable. Funding, events and international collaboration have all been given a boost, and while this may not be directly attributable to the Foundation, it would be hard to deny that the ‘Capital of Culture’ ripple effects have been felt. 

If nothing else, ‘legacy’ projects under the V18 umbrella like MUZA – facilitating the transfer of the Fine Arts Museum from South Street to a revamped venue at Auberge d’Italie – and the proposed Valletta Design Cluster would doubtlessly have a lasting positive effect on the Maltese cultural scene if they continue to operate as planned beyond 2018. 

Which is all the more reason why the drama and confusion surrounding Mario Philip Azzopardi – and the associated institutional problems therein – should be ironed out sooner rather than later.

Make your plan of action, and your appointments clearer. Hire more people if needs be. Work on your outreach on the ground. Work on whatever needs to be done. 

We’re all rooting for you, V18, but please don’t mess this up. 

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