On April 9, 1942, around 350 people were settled into their pews in the Church of St. Mary in Mosta, on the island of Malta.
The island occupied a strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, just south of Sicily, in what was a key access point to the African front of the war that had engulfed the world.
This position was coveted by the Axis powers, who had launched a relentless aerial bombardment hoping to capture the island for their own use.
So one can imagine that the tone in the church that day was somber and pleading as the islanders prayed for the survival of their home and their communities.
Then, at 4:40 p.m., in the middle of their religious observance, a giant bomb suddenly broke through the famed dome of the church (it was known as the third largest dome in the world) and fell to the ground. The explosive ricocheted across the marble floor and through the length of the building.
But it was a dud. The bomb never exploded and the worshipers all remained safe. This event became known as the Miracle of Mosta Dome.
It was an incredible event, and one that was also incredibly rare. Two days earlier and across the island in the small capital city of Valletta, the Royal Opera House was just one of the many landmarks that had not been so lucky.
The World War II bombing wasn’t the first time the grand neo-Baroque structure had suffered tragedy. But it was the last. When the Royal Opera House was struck on April 7, it was reduced to rubble.
For decades, while debate raged as to what to do with the site, only a few columns and the grand terrace were left standing as a reminder of the majestic structure that had once lived.
The history of the Maltese Royal Opera House all started in the mid-1800s.
At the time, Malta was a British colony that had seen its fair share of violence and upheaval.
It had become a European stronghold in the 16th century when the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem took refuge on the island after fleeing a Turkish invasion of their former home in what is now Greece.
At the end of the 1700s, Napoleon invaded the island in an attempt to gain a strategic advantage in the Mediterranean.
After whipping locals into a fighting fervor with his new rules and regulations, the British took over, quelled the uprising, and, after a few more twists and turns in the story of empire building, settled into the island.
Malta would finally gain independence as a member of the commonwealth in 1965, and would become its own republic a decade later.
Against this backdrop of upheaval in the 18th century, opera was becoming more popular and more accessible to the ordinary citizens of Malta. Previously, only the nobility had been able to enjoy such pleasures. But as new forms of entertainment were democratized, the Maltese embraced the soaring arias of the art form pioneered by their Italian neighbors to the north.
In 1732, the Manoel Theatre opened in Valletta and it became the center of the artistic movement for over a century. But by the mid-1800s, it became clear that a bigger space was needed to accommodate the growing number of opera obsessives.
Meanwhile, in the home of their colonial overlords, a young architect named Edward Middleton Barry was just beginning to spread his wings.
Barry was born into the profession of architecture, and many contemporaneous news sources take a rather uncharitable view of his ability and achievements. By all accounts, his father was the architectural genius, and Barry just rode the paterfamilias coattails.
In a speech given after Barry’s death, a person whose name has been lost but whom we can only assume was not a dear friend said, “He was an architect mainly because he was born an architect…He grew up, with the bustle of architecture increasing around him, as his father widened his connection and impressed his talent, which was much more considerable than that of Edward Barry, upon an admiring public.”
But that doesn’t mean the young Barry wasn’t without his own successes. In 1857, he was hired to construct the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden on a site that had suffered not one, but two devastating fires that had destroyed the previous theaters. The result was applauded and its popularity helped win Barry the contract to build a brand new opera house for the people of Malta.
The piece of land chosen for this cultural addition was smack dab in the middle of the Valletta peninsula near the city gates. it would be a grand building that would welcome visitors to the capital city and give them a little taste of the high culture they would find inside.
Barry submitted his designs at the end of 1860, and they were approved. His plan followed the neo-Baroque tradition of grand buildings adorned with classical colonnades and terraces and it was similar to his work in his home country (thus not disproving the detractors who questioned his creativity). While his planned building might have been majestic, the reality of constructing it was less so.
From the beginning, the project was beset by problems. Some were not his fault (although one can argue a little more oversight by the architect would have been welcome).
According to government reports from the time, sub-par contractors were responsible for shoddy work, inferior materials, and even some unwelcome additions of their own, like building a cellar where none had been planned.
But Barry was also responsible for some of the hiccups. His biggest mistake was not taking into account the slope of the land on which the Royal Opera House was going to be built.
In order to fix this problem, a podium had to be added to one side of the building that, by all accounts, made it look grander despite the fact that it was not in the original designs.
The exterior may have been impressive, but the interior was all magnificent opulence. “The auditory will contain ninety private boxes, in four tiers, accommodating, with pit, stalls, and gallery, upwards of 1,200 persons…special arrangements have been devised to withstand the heat of the climate, and fresh air will be conducted to all parts of the house.
"The saloon, or crush-room, is placed over the entrance-hall, and has five windows, with balconies overlooking the terrace. The painting room and the necessary workshops are in the roof, which has been designed to admit of thorough ventilation,” The Builder reported on May 2, 1863.
In addition to the incredible features of the interiors, they were to be decorated in all white and gold with only the latest in lighting systems that could be found in Parisian theaters.
The iron and woodwork that would decorate the stage and interior decor would be supplied by the best carpenters and ironworkers in England.
Between the construction mishaps and the sumptuous interior garnishes, the price tag on the Royal Opera House was staggering.
But on October 9, 1866, the new theater officially opened. The first opera on the program was the final one that Vincenzo Bellini ever wrote before his early death at the age of 33, I Puritani. Locals of the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country flocked to their new opera house to see a show about English Puritans.
The new cultural institution was an instant success. In its first season alone, 16 operas were performed on the brand new stage, and over the next decade, some of the best shows and performers would make their way to the Mediterranean island.
Then, a tragedy worthy of its own opera beset the theater.
On May 25, 1873, a group of actors were rehearsing a new show when some of the scenery caught fire. Before anyone could intervene, the Royal Opera House was ablaze. While the exterior of the structure was largely unscathed, the luxurious interior had been gutted after less than a decade of opening.
But the citizens of Malta did not grieve for long. They quickly enacted a plan to refurbish their beloved theater, and it enjoyed its second grand opening on October 11, 1877.
Malta may have been on the outskirts of Europe, but it played a centralized role in the development of opera over the next several decades. According to Francis Zammit Dimech writing for the Times of Malta, “For many foreign agents, Malta's Royal Opera House was considered ‘una piazza importante’ and a launching pad for many singers who later on became world famous.” It also didn’t hurt that it was considered one of the most beautiful opera houses in Europe.
Then World War II started and Malta quickly became a target.
First it was the Italians who turned their guns on the island. Then, the leader of the Axis powers, the Germans, stepped in to continue the relentless barrage.
The Germans prerogative was threefold—they wanted to disrupt the European supply route to Africa, open up a clear path for their own troops and supplies, and provoke the Europeans to use up artillery defending Malta and launching counterattacks against the Germans.
According to Dennis Angelo Castillo in his book The Maltese Cross, between January and May of 1942, there was an average of 8.6 air raids a day launched on the island.
In April, 6,700 tons of bombs were dropped. The bombardment was so persistent that Goebbels wrote in his diary that the German leadership needed to make an effort to justify it to their own citizens.
“The comment was prompted by the fact that the German people used to joke about the sentence in the military communiques that recurred daily: ‘Malta was attacked from the air.’ No explanation was offered of why this little island should be absorbing so much of the Luftwaffe’s attention,” Castillo writes.
On April 7, 1942, the Royal Opera House fell under the explosive weight of this bombardment.
It was a devastating loss, although by no means the only one. “The skyline of Valletta has been changed, as many church spires and belfries are missing and jagged edges and gaps among the buildings are visible everywhere,” a piece in the New York Times reported on April 28, 1942.
A year later, the paper noted that among the many churches and cultural buildings in Valletta, “Few have escaped damage in varying degree and none are left unscarred.”
But the destruction of the Royal Opera House was unique in one respect. While the rest of the city was cleaned up and rebuilt, the site of the former theater remained in ruins.
The dangerous rubble was cleared away, but some columns and the terrace were left standing as a reminder, while the country debated what to do next.
Finding the funding proved difficult, and then there was the question of what to do with the site. Do you rebuild it exactly as it once stood? Do you build a brand new theater or even a different building altogether in its place? Or do you leave it as it is as a living reminder of the devastation that occurred?
The decision was finally made in 2008. On August 8, 2013, the Pjazzu Teatru Rjal was officially opened. The magnificent Royal Opera House that once welcomed some of the best voices in the world was officially gone. But its spirit lived on in the open-air theater that rose from its ruins.