Saturday night gave the viewing public the great pleasure of seeing Joseph Calleja, the Maltese tenor, perform at the Last Night of the Proms. Joseph Calleja has a good claim to be the best young tenor around; but his claim to be the greatest Maltese tenor of all time is undisputed; indeed, he is probably right now the most famous Maltese in the world.
This is of course a matter of huge pleasure for anyone associated with Malta. Malta is a place that loves music, and loves Italian opera. Its once grand opera house, designed by the same architect who built the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, was destroyed by enemy action in World War Two. After decades of being an ugly hole at the beginning of Valletta’s main street, it is now being adapted to be a space for entertainment once more, by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, a project that has attracted much controversy. But Valetta also boasts the oldest theatre in the British Commonwealth, the Manoel Theatre, which was happily spared the bombing. It is also perhaps the most beautiful in the Commonwealth, being a perfect 18th-century court theatre, built by Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena. Here are some pictures.
Indeed this perfect baroque theatre, in the setting of a baroque walled city, has given people the bright idea of staging a baroque festival in Valletta, details of which can be found here.
But to return to the Albert Hall. For the first time I saw several Maltese flags being waved in the audience, no doubt by devoted fans of Joseph Calleja. The Maltese flag, as vexillologists will know, claims to be the oldest in the world.
In the year 1090, Count Roger the Norman landed in Malta, which was then under Arab domination, and – though the historical sources for this are sketchy – reclaimed the island for the Kingdom of Sicily and the Christian faith. His standard was a red and white chequerboard, and he detached two squares of it which he gave to his Maltese followers, which from then on constituted the flag of Malta. At independence the George Cross was incorporated into the flag.
Count Roger is still a great hero in Malta. You can visit the narrow gap in the cliffs at a place called Migra l-Ferha where he landed and trace the path he must have taken up the valley to Mdina, Malta’s ancient capital. The valley is called Wied il-Rum, the valley of the Romans, or the valley of the Christians, and this is the supposed place where the Maltese first encountered their hero who was to help them shake off the Arabs.
Count Roger was not in Malta very long, but long enough to order the repair of the Cathedral and his coat of arms is on the Cathedral apse to this day. It is just about visible in the first of these pictures here. The Cathedral was founded by St Paul, and is dedicated to him, but Count Roger can justly claim to be its second founder.
Joseph Calleja, like so many great singers, started his career in a church choir. Count Roger and St Paul must both be proud of him!