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The Latvian National Opera LNO
A history of the LNO
Article added on June 1, 2006
Latvia has a rich musical heritage. Not only folk music with its songs or deinas flourish here, but the country also has a rich tradition in opera dating back to the 18th century, when the first musical theater performances were staged in the Duchy of Kurzeme. In 1760, traveling opera troupes began performing regularly in Riga, the Baltic region's music center at the time. The first resident theatre was established in 1772, performing drama, opera and ballet. Companies from Russia, Poland and Italy gave guest performances there.

In 1782, the City Theatre (Stadttheater) or German Theatre (Deutsches Theater) opened in Old Riga. It was the first venue where, in addition to theatre performances, regular opera and ballet performances started. From 1837 to 1839, Richard Wagner was the German Theater's Kapellmeister. In one season, the famous German composer conducted 15 operas, including works by Cherubini, Rossini and Bellini. Incidentally, Wagner's departure from Riga inspired him to compose "The Flying Dutchman". In 1883, after Wagner's death, Hans Makart painted scenes illustrating the composer's cycle "Ring der Nibelungen" (The Death of Sigmund, Fight between Lapiths and Centaurs, Siegmund and Sieglinde in the Hunting Lodge), which are on display in the Museum of Foreign Art in Riga (article in German).

In 1863, the German Theatre moved to what is today commonly known as the "White House". This First City Theatre was built by architect Ludwig Bonstedt (1822-1885) and seated 1,240 people. 1883 saw the first performance in Latvian, 1893 the premiere of the very first opera by a Latvian composer, Jekabs Ozol's (1863-1902) one-act "The Ghostly Hour" (Spoku stunda). The theatre's most famous principal conductor was the German Bruno Walter, who worked in Riga from 1898 to 1900 and again in 1913.

In 1912, under the guidance of conductor Pavuls Jurjans (1866-1948), the first true Latvian company was born: the Latvian Opera (Latviesu opera). During the First World War, the company evacuated to Russia, but returned to Riga in 1918, led by the founder and rector of the Latvian Academy of Music Jazeps Vitols. For a brief period, the company had been renamed "The Latvian Opera".

Initially, the Latvian Opera troupe's home was the former Russian or Second City Theatre, now the Latvian National Theater. Following a decree by Andrejs Upits, after the Latvian State had declared its independence in 1918, the newly formed Latvian National Opera (LNO) gave its inaugural performance in the "White House" or German Theatre, with a production of Richard Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" (Der fliegende Holländer) on January 23, 1919, which marked the official founding day of the LNO.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the opera troupe consisted primarily of singers who had been trained and had begun their careers before the First World War. Some of them had been part of the original German Theatre and Pavuls Jurjan's Latvian Opera troupe as well as of the Liepaja Opera company. From 1920 to 1940, the Latvian National Opera was the center of Riga's musical activity, with at least eight new productions each year. In 1923, in addition to the staging of operas, ballet performances, symphonic and chamber music concerts began. The company boasted its own professional chorus, the only orchestra in Latvia and a cast of outstanding vocalists. It was a key force to the development of compositions by Latvian composers.

Among the famous conductors working in Riga in this period were Emil Kuper (1925-1929), famous for his interpretations of works by Wagner as well as Russian composers (1925-1929), Georg Schnefoght (1929-1931), known for his symphonic conducting of works of the turn of the century, and Leo Blech (1937-1941), who came from the Berlin State Opera, was forced into exile by the Nazis, and substantially enhanced the Latvian National Opera's artistic level. Among the Latvian National Opera's talented directors was ex-Maryinsky Theatre director Peter Melnikov (1923-1929). Many outstanding guest directors came to Riga, including Max Reinhardt and Michail Chekhov. The opera was famous for its excellent productions designed by the Latvian artist Ludolfs Liberts (1928-1938), who staged many opera performance himself.

The Soviet invasion of Latvia in 1940 and the following German occupation from 1941 to 1944 (check the article Latvia under Soviet and Nazi occupations) brought irreversible changes to the opera company. In 1940, it was renamed the "Latvian SSR State Opera and Ballet Theatre" by the Soviets, in 1941 the "Riga Opera Theatre", in accordance with Wehrmacht directives. Many company members were arrested or deported. Even more ended in Western exile, never to return.

Wit the end of the Second World War, Latvia found itself against under Soviet rule. Conductor Leonids Vigners (1944-1949) had to restart "Latvian SSR State Opera and Ballet Theatre" with almost nothing and a handful of soloists. He had to restore the repertory. By the mid-1950s, in spite of ideological manipulation, the company had managed to regain artistic credibility as well as its audience at pre-war levels with well-known classics as the foundation.

The National Opera was the first opera company in the Soviet Union to revive Wagner's operas: "Tannhäuser" in 1956, "Lohengrin" in 1958 and "Die Walküre" in 1963. Conductor Edgars Tons (1954-1967) enhanced the company's reputation and artistic level by successfully staging 20th century masterpieces such as Prokoviev's "War and Peace" in 1961 and "Love For Three Oranges" in 1964, Shostakovich's "Catherine Ismailov" in 1963 and Britten's "Peter Grimes" in 1964.

From 1954 to 1975, the opera company was headed by conductor Rihards Glazups, whose achievements lay in productions of Puccini and Verdi classics. Contemporary operas were the forte of conductor Jazeps Lindbergs. Among the most prolific directors of the post-war era were Karlis Liepa, Nikolajs Vasiljevs and Janis Zarins. The main set designers were Arturs Lapins, Karlis Miezitis and Edgars Vardaunis.

From 1975 to 1996, Alexander Vilumanis held the position of the LNO Principal Conductor. In addition to the classical repertoire, he also nurtured young voices from Latvia, regardless of any particular genre. "Notre Dame de Paris" and "Rose and Blood" by Zigmars Liepins are two compositions, which have gone into the annals of the LNO, under the guidance of Vilumanis, who allowed new artists including Inga Kalna and Rudite Rusko to blossom.

After the Republic of Latvia regained its independence in 1991, the opera house was closed for reconstruction and reopened in September 1995. The Latvian National Opera reopened after reconstruction, with the auditorium authentically restored as a pristine opera interior of circa 1882, and a stage with state of the art technology.  The main stage seats 946 people. In 2001, the New Stage of the LNO opened, which, in addition to chamber works, is intended to be a space for contemporary and experimental art, including music, drama, film and multimedia. It seats 250 to 300 people.

Both the building as well as the opera company try to maintain a balance between traditional and new. The LNO staff includes some 614 people, including artists of the Latvian National Ballet, the opera chorus, the orchestra and soloists as well as administrative and technical staff. The LNO is the only opera and ballet company in Latvia.

From 1996 to 2003, Gintaras Rinkevicus was the LNO Principal Conductor. He opened his tenure with Verdi's "Nabucco". Rinkevicus emphasized the traditional opera (Italian, Russian and German). He trusted major roles, even at premieres, to young singers, e.g. Kristine Zadovska, whose mezzo-soprano was seriously tested in "Nabucco" or Angela Krise (now Goba), whose dramatic soprano has been described as the revelation of the 1999 season.

The LNO's current director, Andrejs Zagars, was appointed in August 1996. His dynamic tenure has turned the Latvian National Opera into a remarkable opera houses, recognized at home and increasingly also abroad.

In 2003, the LNO, a state owned and funded institution, took a major risk by appointing the then twenty-five year old Andris Nelsons as the Latvian National Orchestra's Principal Conductor. B
orn in Riga in 1978 into a family of musicians, Nelsons began his career as a trumpeter in the Latvian National Opera Orchestra and also won many prizes for his singing. He studied the trumpet at Emils Darzins’ Music College, where he had his first taste of orchestral conducting, and then went on to the Latvian Academy of Music. Andris Nelsons was a winner of the prestigious Latvian Grand Music Award for outstanding achievement in music in 2001. After graduating in the same year, he went to St. Petersburg to study conducting with Professor Alexander Titov. During this time, Andris Nelsons attended master classes with Neeme Järvi and Jorma Panula, and has been studying privately with Mariss Jansons since 2002.

The orchestra's former outstanding trumpeter first made his dream come true and mounted the podium as a conductor at the annual Aldaris Award Ceremony. His first success came in 2001 with Rossini's "Barber of Seville". 2003/04 was his first season as Principal Conductor at the Latvian National Opera. In spring 2004, his conducting of Tosca received international critical acclaim. The magazine Opernglas wrote: "The outstandingly well-prepared Orchestra of the Latvian National Opera was truly convincing….The orchestra played with consistent intensity and yet, even in fortissimo passages, the balance between the orchestra and the voices was very well maintained.  (….) here is an orchestra that, with a young, committed conductor, will be able to make their mark". In my opinion, based on three live performances, Andris Nelsons is already more than a talent to watch. His conducting is sure, engaging, expressive, but precise with no show of vanity. Unfortunately, so far, no recording by Nelsons is available. [correction June 4, 2006: The LNO has produced two opera DVDs: the 2005 production of Queen of Spades with Andris Nelsons as conductor and the Riga premiere of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk recorded on January 27, 2006 with Gintaras Rinkevicius conducting. Both are available at the Latvian National Opera].

n addition to his work at the LNO, Andris Nelsons appears regularly with the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra. In the 2006 season, guest engagements will include appearances at the Interlaken Festival and Savolinna Opera Festival as well as concerts with the Nordwest Deutsche Philharmonie, Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester, the Tapiola Sinfonietta, the Opera House in Graz and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin.

Back to the opera company: The LNO season is nine months long, from October to June. In this period, some 180 opera and ballet performances are staged. On an average, this includes five new productions - three operas and two ballets, one of them being a revival. Since 1998, the LNO presents the Riga Opera Festival each year in June. In two weeks, it showcases the performances of the previous season. The active touring schedule led the LNO so far to visit many EU countries, Russia, Israel, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The LNO has also performed at festivals, including Dalhalla, Savonlinna and Wiesbaden.

Andrejs Zagars, general director. Photo © Latvian National Opera.

The façade. Photo © Latvian National Opera.

Detail of the interior. Photo © Latvian National Opera.

The opera interior. Photo © Latvian National Opera.

LNO Principal Conductor Andris Nelsons. Photo © Latvian National Opera.