A Brief History of The Latvian Opera

Opera traditions in Latvia date back to the 18th century when the first musical theatre performances were staged in the Duchy of OperaKurzeme.  As of 1760, traveling opera troupes began performing regularly in Riga, the music center of the Baltic region at the time. In 1782, the city’s German Theatre opened its doors as a legitimate theatre, although opera and ballet performances were also presented. The repertory closely follows substantial artistic trends of the 18th century.

Mozart’s opera “The abduction from the Seraglio” was staged in Riga in 1785, “The Magic Flute” in 1797, just a few years following their premieres in Vienna.

The German Theatre’s musical director from 1837 to 1839 is composer Richard Wagner, who in one season conducts 15 operas by such masters as Auber, Cherubinni and Rossini as well as the critically acclaimed “Norma” by Bellini. (Reproduction of “Norma” poster). Designed by architect Ludwig Bonstedt (1822-1885), a new German theatre, the First City Theatre, with 1,240 seats, opens in 1863.

The new theatre (currently the Latvian National Opera) was the home of the famed conductor Bruno Walter (pictured) from 1898 to 1900. , 1913). Bruno WalterClemens Klauss began working as the second conductor in 1913. The theatre boasted a wide opera repertory, including almost every opera by Wagner.(with the exception of the then-banned “Parsifal”)

The first opera in the Latvian language in Riga was presented in 1883, but ten years later saw the premiere of the very first opera by a Latvian composer: Jekabs Ozols’ (1863-1902) one-act “The Ghostly Hour” (Spoku stunda).

In 1912, under the guidance of conductor Pavuls Jurjans (1866 – 1848), the first true Latvian opera company is born – the Latvian Opera (Latviesu opera).

During the First World War, the company evacuates to Russia but returns to Riga in 1918, led by founder and rector of the Latvian Academy of Music Jazeps Vitols. Initially, the Latvian Opera troupe’s home was the former Russian or Second City Theatre (now the Latvian National Theatre). Following a decree by Andrejs Upits, the company returns to its original home, the First City Theatre.

Renamed the “Soviet Latvian Opera” for a brief period, the company presents Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” on January 23, 1919. As the “Latvian National Opera”, the company also stages Wagner’s “Tannhauser”, prepared during the Soviet period. Great masters, multinational personalities and generations of talent have molded the Latvian National Opera’s history – preserved their craft and traditions of diligent work, raised artistic standards to new heights and cultivated the opera audience. They are the conductors, directors, set designers and, of course, the soloists. In the 1920s and the 1930s, the company consisted primarily of singers who began their careers before World War I. They were a part of the original German Theatre and Pavuls Jurjans’ Latvian Opera troupe. The artists from the Liepaja Opera company have made a successful transition to the National Opera stage.

The many soloists included Malvine-Vignere-Grinberga, Ada Benefelde, Milda Brehmane-Stengele, Herta Luse, Amanda Liberte-Rebane, Helena Cinka-Berzinska, Alida Vane, Janis Niedra, Pauls Sakss, Rudolfs Berzins, Janis Karklins, Nikolajs Vasiljevs, Eduards Mikelsons, Mariss Vetra (pictured), Arturs Priednieks-Kavara, Viktors Stots and others. From 1920 to 1940, the Latvian National Opera is the center of Riga’s musical activity. Each year brought at least eight new productions; ballet performances began in 1923, as well as symphonic and chamber music concerts. Over 300 performances in a 20 year period, attended each year by over 220,000 people. No 19th German, Italian, French or Russian opera is left unproduced. The 20th century was represented by Strauss, Albert, Schilling, Ksenek, Reinberger, Wolf-Ferrari, Cilea and Janacek. Original Latvian opera and ballet productions by Janis Medins, Jazeps Medins and Janis Kalnins graced the repertory.

The most renowned conductors of the day were Emil Kuper, known for his superb interpretation of Wagner and Russian classics (1925-1929), Georg Schnefoght, known for his symphonic conducting at the turn of the century (1929-1931) and Leo Blech, who, fleeing Nazi servitude at the Berlin State Opera, considerably enhanced the Latvian company’s artistic level (1937-1941).

The Latvian National Opera company has also had its share of talented directors, staring with ex-Maryinsky Theatre director Peter Melnikov (1923-1929), Janis Zarins (1933-1944) and such famous guest directors as Max Reinhardt and Michail Chekhov.

Besides permanent company set designers Eduards Vitols and Janis Kuga, 35 superlative productions were designed by the noted Latvian artist Ludolfs Liberts (1928-1938). Many productions he also staged himself.

Other well-known Latvian artists-painters like Oto Skulme, Niklavs Strunke and Sigismunds Vidbergs also designed productions at the opera. The Soviet invasion of Latvia in 1940, followed by the German occupation from 1941-1944 brought irreversible changes to the National Opera company. In 1940, the opera became the “Latvian SSR State Opera and Ballet Theatre”. In 1941 it was renamed the “Riga Opera Theatre”, in accordance with Vermacht directives. Many company members were arrested, deported and an even larger number become refugees in a westward trek never to return.

With the end of the war, the “Latvian SSR State Opera and Ballet Theatre” must virtually start with almost nothing. This is the time of conductor Leonids Vigners (1944-1949). His task was extremely difficult – establish a new company with a handful of soloists and restore the repertory. Such stars as Milda Brehmane-Stengele, Alida Vane (pictured), Gustavs Neimanis, Aleksandrs Vilumanis, Aleksandrs Kortans, Anna Ludina, Elfrida Pakule and Aleksandrs Daskovs all continued under dire circumstances. In spite of ideological manipulation, the opera company managed to attain artistic excellence and a loving audience by the middle of the 1950s. Audience numbers reached pre-war levels with well-known classics as the foundation. The National Opera was the first opera company in the entire Soviet Union to revive Wagner’s operas: “Tannhauser” (1956), “Loengrin” (1958) and “Die Walkure” (1963). Under the baton of Edgars Tons (1954-1967), the company reached new heights. Such 20th century masterpieces as Prokoviev’s “War and Peace” (1961), “Love For Three Oranges” (1964), Shostakovich’s “Catherine Ismailov” (1963) and Britten’s “Peter Grimes” (1964) are staged.

Along with the seasoned veterans Peteris Gravelis, Zermena Heine-Vagnere, Regina Frinberga, Edgars Pluksna, Arturs Frinbergs, Vera Davidone, Arta Pile, Arnolds Skars, Gustavs Neimanis, Arturs Lepe, Osips Petrovskis, Erna Travina, Auguste Klinka, Arturs Vanags and Elza Zvirgzdina, a whole new generation of stars joined their ranks: Karlis Zarins, Maigurs Andermanis, Laima Andersone-Silare, Rita Zelmane, Austra Taurina, Janis Zabers, Gurija Antipovs and others. From 1954 to 1975 the company is headed by conductor Rihards Glazups – whose greatest achievements are productions of Puccini and Verdi classics. Contemporary operas are the forte of conductor Jazeps Lindbergs. The most prolific directors in the post-war period are Karlis Liepa, Nikolajs Vasiljevs and Janis Zarins. The main set designers – Arturs Lapins, Karlis Miezitis and Edgars Vardaunis.