The Manoel Theatre is the only theatre building still extant and still regularly used in Malta that dates back to the period when Malta was ruled by the Order of St John. It was founded by the Portuguese Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena in 1732 and was used regularly by the Knights for their amateur performances of plays and even operas, and also by visiting professional companies. Although meant for “the honest entertainment of the public”, it was the young Knights who dominated it either as performers or as members of the audience. During the siege of the French occupiers during 1798-1800, the theatre was managed by the Maltese opera composer Nicolo Isouard and provided the besieged soldiers with their main entertainment.
The passing of Malta to Britain meant that the theatre, now known as Theatre Royal, remained of importance to the substantial British garrison and the many British civil servants and businessmen who spent years in Malta, but the rise of an educated Maltese middle class also meant that productions in Italian and then also in Maltese were produced by talented Maltese amateurs. A good many Maltese authors produced mainly farcical plays in Maltese or adapted foreign comedies for performance, and the end of the century saw the birth of the first important Maltese drama group, directed for many years by M.A. Borg. The Manoel, however, functioned mostly as an opera theatre, managed by entrepreneurs who imported singers and dancers to appear in operas by people like Rossini, Cimarosa, Bellini and Donizetti, and Verdi.
The building of a new opera house that opened its doors in 1866 meant that the theatre was no longer Theatre Royal and was now renamed Manoel Theatre. Except for four seasons when it temporarily assumed its old functions while the new theatre, destroyed by fire, was being rebuilt, the Manoel went through hard times until it began to present seasons of the new musical genre, operetta, and of the also new British-American musical theatre. During the 19th century the auditorium was enlarged and refurbished.
During the twentieth century the Manoel was known largely for its productions of plays in English, mostly presented by the MADC, founded in 1910 and still active today, but its private owners used it mostly as a cinema, and after World War II, when the Royal Opera House was destroyed by bombing, it presented a number of opera seasons. In the late 1950s the Labour government decided to bring the theatre back into state ownership and it opened as a state theatre in December 1960. Since then its programmes have included many classical music events, a smattering of opera, dance and much drama, including the major plays of Malta’s great dramatist, Francis Ebejer.
Maltese authors, composers and performers connected with the Manoel Theatre
In the 18th century the Maltese composer Nicolò Isouard wrote a number of operas for performance at the Manoel. A great Francophile, he was made Director of the Manoel by the French occupiers , left Malta when the siege of Valletta came to an end in 1800, and made a name for himself in Paris where he died in 1818. Other Maltese composers of opera in this century included Paolo Nani and his son Antonio, and Alessandro Curmy. The chief authors of plays in Maltese were Luigi Rosato and Carmelo Camiller, the latter being also a very popular actor in farcical comedy. M.A. Borg was a pillar of a very successful drama group, L’Indipendenza, for which he wrote and adapted several scripts for performance; he also compiled a substantial history of the Maltese theatre, never published but much utilised by later historians.
The last decades of the 20th century were dominated by the dramatist Francis Ebejer whose weighty full-scale plays roused both enthusiasm and controversy. Opera at the Manoel included new works by the Maltese composers Carmelo Pace and Charles Camilleri, and it found a larger public following the successes both in Malta and abroad of the soprano Miriam Gauci and of the tenor Joseph Calleja.