Malta’s sister island of Gozo has a population of only 30,000. And yet its capital, Victoria, boasts not one but two opera houses, the Astra and the Aurora, located about 300 metres from each other. For generations, the two have been embroiled in a peculiar rivalry.
This afternoon, Victoria’s Independence Square is bustling with locals and tourists. Merchants vie for customers in the market square, also known by the somewhat curious Maltese name of “It-Tokk”. Fancy dress costumes flap in the wind, imitations of the garb worn by the Maltese knights who brought Christian values to Gozo in the 16th century. There are piles of rosaries and saint figurines. Diagonally across, tourists stumble up the steps to the Citadel. “It’s so high up!” a woman pants as she clutches her guide book. But the climb is worth it for the best view of the island, and a walk through the city’s narrow alleys is a breath of history. Gozo is European history – a small island in the Mediterranean on which Ottomans, pirates and the British Empire have all left their mark. Its capital, Victoria, is named after the British queen who engulfed the tiny island in her copious skirts and imposed the British way of life on it for many years.
When the various occupying forces withdrew, they traditionally left behind the wind instruments of their military bands as gifts. And so it happened that Malta and Gozo discovered their love of classical music and developed into true islands of culture. There are numerous myths and anecdotes surrounding the history of music in Malta. According to one, musicians were offended by dripping candelabras in Gozo’s concert hall in 1863 – a most grievous faux-pas. Enraged, five of them founded a new philharmonic society and started looking for a building to accommodate a second opera house.
Whatever the truth of that, Victoria really does have two opera houses that are involved in a bitter rivalry: the Aurora and the Astra. Every autumn, during the Mediterrana Festival in October, the two stages compete for the most beautiful performance and the best stars. The opera war is financed by the citizens themselves; Malta’s Parliamentary Secretary for Culture is nothing more than an observer. Housewives, priests and pub owners all sacrifice their income to ensure that money continues to flow and that even stars from the New York Met find it difficult to turn down leading parts. The directors of renowned opera houses would positively swoon at the artists’ fees that are paid. The two opera houses have hundreds of volunteers who make sure that each year’s single, all-important production goes smoothly. In fact, the entire island is involved in the performance: police officers, fishermen, and solicitors stay up late at night after their day jobs to work on the next performance. These amateur choir members, stage designers, and lighting technicians all share a burning passion for opera. Of course each volunteer is strictly affiliated to one of the two opera houses. The deciding factor is faith: each of the two opera houses is linked to a different church. The Aurora is part of the Cathedral of the Assumption, the Astra is connected with St George’s Basilica. Added to the mix are the two philharmonic societies Leone and La Stella, which set up the opera houses to begin with and have presented their musical offerings to their respective churches since 1843.