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Adrian Mourby visits Gozo, next to Malta, and finds two churches battling for supremacy - as opera houses

It's the island next to Malta with the funny name, a haven where you can still breathe fresh air, far away from the concrete sprawl that has reduced Malta itself to a network of roads, underpasses and diesel-choked marinas. Gozo, so the locals say, is how Malta used to be and the Gozitans sometimes wish they'd kept it to themselves.

It's the island next to Malta with the funny name, a haven where you can still breathe fresh air, far away from the concrete sprawl that has reduced Malta itself to a network of roads, underpasses and diesel-choked marinas. Gozo, so the locals say, is how Malta used to be and the Gozitans sometimes wish they'd kept it to themselves.

Tourists are tolerated on Gozo. The Maltese themselves are viewed with suspicion. However, the real animosity, on an island no bigger than Guernsey, is reserved for anyone from the parish next door.

Anne Montsarrat, widow of Nicholas Montsarrat, the author of The Cruel Sea, has lived for 30 baking summers on this tiny island and knows the local mentality well. "Competition is a way of life here," she said. "If one person opens a shoe shop, somebody else opens a shoe shop and so it goes on." Certainly, walking round Rabat, what might be called Gozo's capital village, there do seem to be an awful lot of shoe shops in its ancient back lanes.

But the greatest competition on Gozo exists between the parishes of St George and the Cathedral Church of Our Lady. Up in the limestone citadel, a fortified block hewn by the warrior Knights of St John, sits the cathedral with its flat-roofed transept, on the underside of which a trompe l'oeil dome has been painted. So convincing was this temporary pseudo-dome that the Gozitans, viewing it from underneath, never bothered to raise funds for the real thing. Wherever one goes on Gozo there is the cathedral, perched on its rocky outcrop with a great big nothing in the space where domes are normally to be found.

A little further down the hill and over the other side of Republic Street, no distance at all from the cheerfully shambolic Café Bellusa, sits the Basilica of Saint George, Rabat's other church, and the nearest thing to a mortal enemy that any ecclesiastical building might have. The rivalry between San Giorgio and Santa Maria goes back further than anyone can remember. These two parishes have competed over most things in their time.

In 1863, the cathedral formed a marching band, the Leone, to play on feast days, so St George's did the same, calling theirs the Stella. Then the cathedral went one better and built a dance hall for the Leone to play in; St George's built a bigger one, calling it the Astra. Not to be outdone, the cathedral rebuilt their dance hall a little further down Racecourse Street, using money left to them by a wealthy Gozitan who had won the English Grand National. Taking a double-fronted baroque townhouse, the Leone boys added another storey and furnished their new home, the Aurora, with a bar and rehearsal rooms. So St George's did the same.

Finally, the cathedral knocked through the back wall of the Aurora to build an opera house in which they gave their first performance - Madama Butterfly - in 1976. This was no opera studio, as might befit an island of 29,000 people, but a full 1,500-seater opera house, bigger than many in Britain, about the size of the new house that the Welsh National Opera wants to build for itself in Cardiff.

Within two years, supporters of St George's had completed their own opera house, added to the back of the Astra. In September 1978 they gave their first opera, Verdi's Rigoletto, in a house seating 1,200.

These operas are not insignificant events. Gozo has a population smaller than that of Lichfield, and yet each house can count on capacity audiences. At least 300 people work for nothing, making costumes, building scenery and looking after the front-of-house duties every year. The singers almost always come from Italy; businessmen loyal to each house help to raise funds annually to pay their fees, while the Maltese government, anxious not to take sides, provides the orchestra for both houses.

The audience is not entirely local: so important is Maltese support for the box office, in fact, that should the ferry crossing prove rough, performances will be delayed until everyone has disembarked and dried off.

The repertoire remains strictly Latin (Puccini, Bizet, Verdi). Carmen will be performed (yet again) at the Aurora on 25 November, and, while the Astra is keeping its plans a secret, rumour has it that it's hoping to commemorate the centenary of Verdi's death in its first production of 2001. Secrecy is an inevitable part of the rivalry on Gozo, although it did have disastrous consequences a few years ago, when both companies announced that they were staging Verdi's Aida, and neither would budge.

Visiting the Aurora and Astra is easy. Republic Street, where they stand within a few hundred yards of each other, is the only major road on the island. Both buildings look like fine double-fronted limestone townhouses, which in Britain might be rather superior banks or even local Conservative Party headquarters. The externals are deceptive, however. Walk through the open doorway of either and you come to a large 1960s-style lobby with cuttings and posters of past operatic glories on the wall. There's a bar which seems to be always open and numerous snooker tables too. In fact, there is nothing that one club provides which the other doesn't. And all this because neither the cathedral nor St George's will allow itself to be outdone. The situation would border on the comic were the rivalry not loaded with genuine antagonism. As late as the 1970s it was not unusual for the governor to be warned that one group of Catholics was going to smash up the feast day of the other group of Catholics.

These days tempers tend not to flare so violently, but each festa is a cause of wildness. Anne Montsarrat can remember when local boys and girls would sit demurely on opposite sides of Piazza Indipendenza, waiting to dance, but nowadays festas have more the atmosphere of a football match.

The sacred and profane mix noisily in Rabat. When I blundered upon St George's celebrations recently, young men in red baseball caps and football shirts were jostling their way through the crowd, their faces painted red and white with the cross of San Giorgio. Hundreds of red balloons were caught up in a net, ready to be released over the painted statues set up all the way down Republic Street, while in the packed basilica, solemn clergy in their mitred hats sat through an interminable sermon of brimstone intensity.

Later, the streets would be cordoned off and there would be dancing, drinking, and loud, angry fusillades of fireworks into the night. As for the supporters of Gozo's cathedral, the Leone marching band and the members of the Aurora opera house committee were nowhere to be seen.

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