Kenneth Zammit Tabona: ‘I have lots of pleasures, but I don’t feel guilty about any of them’

Maltese artist and illustrator Kenneth Zammit Tabona tells all in our Q&A

Photo: James Bianchi / MaltaToday
Photo: James Bianchi / MaltaToday

The eminent Maltese artist and illustrator is best known for his watercolour depictions of Maltese interiors and landscapes. Zammit Tabona’s 30-year body of work encompasses the Mediterranean climate and has long been part of important art collections, as well as being exhibited in London, Berlin, and Paris.  Kenneth Zammit Tabona is presently the artistic director of the Manoel Theatre, and the founder and artistic director of the Valletta Baroque Festival. He is the founder president of the Friends of the National Museum of Fine Arts, vice-president of Perspectiv, the European Association of Historic Theatres, and a board member of REMA, Réseau Européen de Musique Ancienne.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

I switch the radio on to ABC Classic, which is an Australian station that plays classical music all day long with minimal interruptions.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

“Everything in moderation” from my late Uncle John ZT... not sure if I ever followed to to be honest.

What do you never leave the house without?

My keys and mobile.

Pick three words that describe yourself

Volatile, impetuous, imaginative.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

The Valletta Baroque Festival.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

I have lots of pleasures, but I don’t feel guilty about any of them. One of them being eating a froga tat-tarja which is crunchy on the outside and squishy on the inside full of melted cheddar.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

Counting your real friends on only one hand.

Property and cars aside what’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought?

A watercolour by Amadeo Preziosi.

What is one thing you wish you knew when you were younger?

Nothing really... I am a pragmatist who looks forward and never backwards.

Who’s your inspiration?

For an artist Picasso, for writer Somerset Maugham, musician Glen Gould, poet Emily Dickinson, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, composer Schubert and sculptor Mitoraj.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Living is a continual challenge.... upwards and onwards towards new challenges.

If you weren’t an artist what would you be doing?   

I can’t think of myself doing anything but being an artist and being an artistic director involved in opera, music and theatre which are my passions in life. If I had a choice maybe, I’d have loved to be a practicing musician or perhaps a professional writer.

Do you believe in God?

I’d very much like to, yes.

If you could have dinner with any person, dead or alive, who would it be?

I’m not too star-struck and I’d rather have dinner with the people I love. COVID has made this even more of an important issue in life. Mind you, I’m sure it would have been very amusing to have dinner with the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein as he was a great raconteur.

What’s your worst habit?

I don’t think I have any habits... neither good nor bad.

What are you like when you’re drunk?

If I remember correctly as it’s been decades since I was drunk, I tend to be very giggly.

Who would you have play you in a film?

Ha! There’s nobody like me I’m afraid. I broke the mould.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Gossip... so destructive a habit.

What music would you have played at your funeral?

Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations, Vivaldi’s Sinfonia Al Santo Sepolcro transcribed for string quartet, and Faure’s or Lloyd Weber’s Pie Jesu or Schubert’s Standchen... I could go on forever.

What is your most treasured material possession?

I really don’t know... everything and nothing.

What is your earliest memory?

I was introduced to the transience of life very early in my life and those early memories are too painful, however I remember my very first time at the Manoel Theatre.  I was six years old in 1963 and my Nanna took me to watch the Mikado... I fell in love with the theatre back then and have not fallen out of it... ever!

When did you last cry, and why?

New Year’s Eve in Church singing the Te Deum in Latin and remembering how much my mother loved it.

Who would you most like to meet?

Sir David Attenborough, Jonas Kauffman, Meryl Streep.

What’s your favourite food?


Who’s your favourite person on social media right now?

Simon’s Cat without a shadow of a doubt.

If you could travel in time, where would you go?

I can’t really imagine myself as a Doctor Who traveling in the Tardis and meeting Daleks though I do love the episode when the Doctor takes Van Gogh, who had never sold a painting in his life, to the Metropolitan in NYC (I think it was the Met) and showing how universally loved his paintings are...  I would be wary of travelling to a period in time where toothpaste and deodorant had not yet been invented...  I would however have loved to have been Bagoas, the Persian boy, who lived in the shadow of Alexander the Great however heart-breaking that may have proved.

What book are you reading right now?

Constantinople City of the World’s Desire by Philip Mansel all about the Ottomans from the fall of Byzantium to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 to the advent of Ataturk and the end of the empire.

If you could have any superpower, what would
it be?

Jove’s (Jupiter) thunderbolt come to mind .... or perhaps Dumbledore’s wand will do nicely.

What’s one thing you want to do before you die?

Watch Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Met designed by Robert Lepage with Bryn Terfel, Deborah Voigt and Jonas Kauffman conducted by James Levine.

What music are you listening to at the moment?

Schubert impromptus.

In the shower or when you’re working out, what do you sing/listen to?

I have never sung in the shower in my life, and I doubt I ever will. As for working out... difficult to imagine.