As the sun goes down at the end of the day, twinkling fairy lights come alive like fireflies dotting the tree-lined quad and the lights come up on stage.
The sounds of instruments being tuned and people chatting lightly while taking their seats are both foreign and familiar, as acquaintances nod at each other from across appropriately distanced lines of seating.
Concerts are back on and the APS Summer Festival is ambitious in both its scale and its scope. The last two years have been hard on artists and the arts, with the pandemic hindering opportunities for artists to work. Putting on a festival is no mean feat to try to find the balance between mounting a successful event and maintaining a safe and stable environment.
“Our mindset had to and always has to be flexibility, because we know that at anything we are planning needs to have a plan A, B and C and possibly is also not happening,” said Annalisa Schembri, the festival’s artistic director on the changing nature of regulations and variables due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To avoid frustration and worries and to be able to also sleep at night, we had to say ‘listen, this is what we want to do, this is the vision of the festival’. But within those parameters, of course, budgets and costs are the first hurdle.”
Without the belief and backing of institutions like APS, Schembri continues, the landscape remains challenging for artists to mount large-scale events, an issue that has become more prevalent as restrictions impose reduced seating for venues.
“If it wasn’t for APS pushing us forward, I don’t think we would be able to be here today. This is not something that an independent artist or produces can actually go for because the burden is too big. Your fixed costs are the same but your seating is very limited,” she said.
“I didn’t want to compromise on the fee that we would pay to the artists so, for me, the compromise had to come from a logistics perspective, while still keeping safe not only from a pandemic point of view but from health and safety as well.”
Before getting anywhere close to a seat, festivalgoers must present their vaccine certificate and fill in their contact-tracing details. Seating is limited and spaced out widely, taking up much of the quad at the University of Malta despite only a hundred or so spaces set out.
Among art installations and seating set out for eating and drinking are also multiple hand sanitising stations and ushers are regularly patrolling the area to make sure that mask-wearing rules are being followed.
No restrictions, however, can put a damper on the crowd’s excitement to be back at a live concert, and as Etnika take the stage, the audience is clearly hungry for it. The local folk band’s unique take on traditional Maltese music is electrifying and the people are committed to coming along for the journey.
Etnika’s sound takes the audience through the highs and lows of emotion, quiet, contemplative and sombre one moment and full of fire, motion and lust the next. The seated do not miss a beat, clapping and cheering at every melodic triumph.
“I think for a number of weeks now my daily reading is the guidelines from the Department of Public Health,” Schembri said.
“I am adamant to make sure that we didn’t understand something differently or that we missed something. So, adhering with those regulations, 100 per cent, but also taking our own precautions.”
“We don’t only want to start the festival, we want to be able to continue it and to finish it, to deliver the full event.”
But this doesn’t mean that she doesn’t feel the frustration of the rules imposed on the creative industry, which have been criticised for going too far considering audiences are often seated.
“Coming from the creative sector, the frustration is there, because we see that other industries are operating in a lighter framework,” she said.
“There are regulations which make us question why we have to abide by certain regulations but as an artistic director I decided not to think of all those questions and adhere to the regulations.
“Of course, it becomes much more difficult to deliver and I understand why many people are still not willing to take the risk, take the plunge and actually put an event together. Because the restrictions are real. The situation is changing all the time. So what you’re investing in is not something tangible, but it’s something very volatile.
“Instead of letting the frustration eat us and kill us slowly, we turned it into one of our strengths.”
With 11 events planned over 12 nights, the festival boasts live music, theatre, dance performances as well as artists creating on site and art installations.
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