Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 14 December 2008

Epitaph on a concert pianist

Once, I had a great aunt named “Adelaide”. Or did I? It seems strange to me now, but as a child I was unaware that that was actually her name. In all likelihood I heard it used for the first time only after she passed away in 1985; and even then, only because all official documentation relating to her existence – birth, marriage and ultimately death certificates – unreasonably insisted on the name by which she was originally baptised, but never actually known.
Be that as it may, as far as friends and family were concerned my great-aunt’s name was “Gini”; and to us, the grandchildren of her plentiful sisters (Gini was the eldest of 16 children, mostly girls) she was “Auntie Gini”: a collection of phonemes which to this day I still find pleasing to the ear, and which – for reasons I will probably never be able to articulate – happened to suit her like no other name I can imagine.
“Auntie Gini” is after all a name that seems to spring directly from the pages of a collection of fairy tales: right up there with Uncle Remus, Mother Hubbard and Friar Tuck. And like a Genie of the Lamp, my great-aunt would also appear unannounced (but not exactly unexpected) on the doorstep at tea-time practically every single day: her handbag overflowing with Rowntrees’ Fruit Pastilles, Wine Gums, Skittles and Catch bars... to name but a few of the reasons why several of my teeth have since failed to accompany me intact into adulthood.
But apart from unwittingly securing a future clientele for several local dentists, Auntie Gini also helped to fire my childhood imagination with her endless reminiscences of the Second Great War.
Looking back, she was a masterful storyteller in her own right; and what made her anecdotes so compelling was that (unlike so many of her more morose contemporaries) her own wartime memories were not just an endless litany of doom, gloom and underground starvation.
It so happens that my great aunt was married to the assistant Police Commissioner, and spent most of the war years holed up at the Police Headquarters. So apart from hunger and misery, she also remembered – among countless other details – the sight of German prisoners of war (“kolla bjondi u sbieh”) being escorted, terrified, into their basement cells.
But as usual, I digress. There was an altogether different reason to invoke my Auntie Gini’s ghost on this fine Sunday... what was it again? Ah yes, now I remember.
Apart from all of the above – and plenty more beside –“Adelaide” was in her day also a concert pianist; and for this reason many of her anecdotes involved the Theatre Royal on Kingsway in the years before the war.
For instance, she often talked about the day she “brought the house down” with a performance of Liszt, by far her favourite composer; and as a child I took her quite literally, growing up to believe it was her own performance in the mid-1920s – and not some Luftwaffe pilot in 1942 – that reduced the entire building to rubble.
It seems that my great aunt, who must have been in her early 20s at the time, developed a terrible case of stage fright before the performance. She convinced herself on the night that she would not be able to play the piece ex tempore, and even threatened not to perform at all unless she was given a musical score to play by (apparently a big ‘No No’ for a concert pianist at the time)... until her father, who was also her stage-manager, had no option but to literally seize her by the shoulders, and thrust her bodily out onto the stage.
I admit at this point I might be re-inventing her memories for her, but years later she would claim to have no recollection of actually playing the piece at all. It was as though the Liszt concerto played itself out alone, and all she did was sit on stage at the grand piano and usher it gently along with her fingers.
But she certainly remembered the applause afterwards – that roaring explosion, after a tiny but awful moment of silence as the piece finally came to an end – and years later she would talk about the standing ovation almost as though it lasted for weeks on end.
With hindsight, I now understand why I’ve always been fond of that particular story... which I admit might appear bland and pointless, at least to those who didn’t know my great-aunt in person.
For apart from reliving her eternal moment of glory – the day she brought the house down, no less – she also managed to spectacularly evoke the sensation of “being there”, in a place which simply no longer exists.
Thanks to my great aunt’s reminiscences, the Theatre Royal in Valletta has always been a very real building to me. Never mind that it was unceremoniously dismantled 30 years before I was born. Never mind also that the operatic tradition it once housed is now little more than a distant memory; and that from this perspective, it is almost right and fitting that the same site would degenerate into nothing more glamorous than a shabby little car park.
To my mind it remains very much a real theatre, complete with a very real backstage, in which very real people – actors, musicians, maestros, sopranos – would torture themselves into a frenzy of apprehension, before performing on a real stage in front of a real audience... which likely as not would include real critics writing in real newspapers; hence the underpinning reality of their own terror, and the justified elation at the end of their ordeal.
And like all real theatres, it seems Barry’s Theatre Royal had its fair share of very real flaws, too. My great aunt always insisted that to get the best possible auditory experience out of the Royal Opera House, it was advisable to stand at a point roughly halfway down Zachary Street: an observation which has since been corroborated by others who remember the theatre... if not first hand, than at least (like myself) through inherited memory.
Coming back to the present, and to be perfectly honest I have no idea what my Aunt Gini would make of the current Prime Minister’s apparent obsession to redevelop the same site as a House of Parliament.
If she were alive today, I somehow suspect that she would be so besotted by Dr Lawrence Gonzi himself – who might not be “blond and beautiful” as a German POW in 1942, but is nonetheless young(ish), male, and above all nephew to no less than the Mighty Mikiel in person – that she would probably give him her wholehearted blessing, even if he proposed turning the site into a cesspit.
But as for myself, I have to admit I find the idea demeaning and depressing in the extreme. It may be unreasonable on my part – prejudiced, even – but I can’t shake off the impression that we are somehow trading high culture for something far lower and less worthy; an impression that can only be reinforced by the shameless way that institution’s members have consistently apportioned the country’s assets to be distributed exclusively among themselves.
How often have we seen the traditionally warring tribes of Government and Opposition come together to vote in unanimous harmony, for the noble purpose of incrementing their own salaries and furnishing themselves with full pensions?
We have also seen them compensating each other for the loss of ministries and parliamentary secretariats, at a time when lesser mortals are urged to make sacrifices in the light of the global financial crisis; and all the while, we seem to consciously overlook the fact that this is also a Parliament of part-timers... that they all have other jobs, to which very often attend as a certain public notary in the Office of the Prime Minister famously used to do – using the tools and instruments of government.
Besides, it remains a fact, no matter how well concealed, that the “House of Representatives” is simply no longer representative of anything other than the two parties themselves – if indeed it ever was.
We have had this drummed into us through repeated Constitutional amendments, aimed only at strengthening the existing dichotomy’s stranglehold on power, to the exclusion of all minority views. For instance, I am still awaiting an explanation as to how the Constitution can award four seats to the PN (representing no one in particular) to account for a difference of 1,500 votes over Labour... whereas AD received 3,500 votes in the same election, but not a single seat.
How very unsurprising, then, that rather than rebuild an Opera House that would mean a very great deal to a great many people – and perhaps rekindle what was once a very real “centre for excellence”, instead of just dreaming up new ones without ever truly delivering – the opportunity should be immediately seized upon to add to the long list of benefits already accrued through decades of abuse of power.
Yes indeed: a whole new building, designed by one of the world’s best-known architects, so that our glorious members of parliament can carry on gorging themselves on the nation’s assets in the maximum comfort imaginable. And to be complete in four years’ time, too. Not three, not five, not eight, not 10... but four years’ time, so that the new House of Representatives can be officially opened just months before the next General Election.
So go ahead, Dr Gonzi. Go build yourself your monument, so that you will be remembered for generations after our erstwhile traditions have vanished from the face of the earth. After all we have already seen the Presidency turned into a retirement home for former Nationalist ministers; and with Mater Dei Hospital, even our national health system has been reduced to a permanent PR stunt for the party in government.
Just don’t expect the entire country to burst into applause, that’s all.

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