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Andrejs Zagars
Biography and photos of the General Director of the Latvian National Opera LNO in Riga

Article added on August 1, 2006

Biography based on an interview of Andrejs Zagars in Riga on May 18, 2006
The biography of Andrejs Zagars, the general director of the Latvian National Opera (LNO) in Riga, is the kind of story that can only be written in revolutionary times.

He was born in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk in 1958, where his Latvian parents had been deported to twice by the Soviet Communists, in 1940 and again in 1949. At the age of one, his family returned to Latvia, where he grew up in Cesis, located in the northern part of the Vidzeme upland.

Before the Singing Revolution in the Baltic states at the end of the 1980s, Andrejs Zagars could not travel to the West. Around 1989/90 he took his chance and went abroad, to Sweden and the United States. With Latvia regaining its independence, he returned to his homeland, where he distinguished himself as a dynamic entrepreneur.

From 1992 to 2002, he run up to five restaurants (French, Italian Greek), a bar, a wine boutique and a jazz club (Osiris, Symposium, the Greek Restaurant, Deco Bar, Zagara jaunais restaurant, Dizzi). He also worked as a theatre and film actor from 1982 to 1993, playing roles from Shakespeare to Stoppard as well as Latvian classic heroes for the State Arts Theatre (Dailes Teatris). In August 1996, this dynamic and flamboyant personality was appointed General Director of the Latvian National Opera by the Prime Minister of the time, Andris Skele.

In the 1990s, the LNO underwent a series of crisis. The opera house was closed from 1989 to 1995; there was only one production per year, remembers Zagars, and the best dancers and singers went abroad. Two directors had been fired before Zagars was appointed. The entrepreneur evidently did not chose his new job for financial reasons - at the beginning his salary was about 300 Euros - but he rather looked for a new challenge. Immediately, he had to fight for reforms and was confronted with a substantial deficit. Therefore, he opted for spectacular productions in his first three years, which led to important struggles in 1999.

Although the interior of the opera house had been beautifully restored in a 19th century style, Andrejs Zagars was confronted with an opera house with no computers and an outdated stage technology, which he had to adapt to contemporary standards.

The 2006 budget of the LNO is four million Lats (some six million Euros), relatively small compared to the Zurich Opera House, but impressive given the Latvian price level and especially the Latvian GDP per capita.

The orchestra of the Latvian National Opera has some 110 musicians. According to Zagars, talent is more important than gender and, therefore, women have a slight majority in the orchestra, something unheard of in the still male-dominated leading orchestra's of the West.

The LNO's current biggest project is Wagner's complete Ring, in cooperation with the Bergen Opera House. The complete Ring has not been shown in Riga since 1902, a shame for the city where the composer spent two years as a conductor from 1837 to 1839. Zagars intends to change that.

I witnessed a performance of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman in Riga on November 6, 2005 under the direction of Martins Ozolins. Incidentally, departing from Riga to London, Wagner was inspired to compose The Flying Dutchman. Judging from that performance alone with a somewhat blurred sound, not the singers, but the orchestra and the conductor have some progress to make regarding Wagner. That was also the weakest of over half a dozen otherwise good and even excellent performances I have witnessed so far in Riga. It is Zagars' firm intention to make Wagner again a cornerstone of the opera repertoire in Riga, alongside other German, Russian, Italian and French composers.

Asked about reasons for the impressive number of talented conductors, musicians and singers in Latvia, Zagars referred to the over 100 music schools and the long folk music tradition in a country of only some 2.3 million people.

Asked about directors he admires, Andrejs Zagars replied that he does not intend to imitate other directors, but that top of his list is the Swiss Christoph Marthaler, followed by the Germans Thomas Langhoff and Frank Castorf and the American Robert Wilson, to name just a few. His favorite opera house and music theatre is the De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, which takes risks, not necessarily with big names.

From 1978 to 1982, Andrejs Zagars studied drama at the Conservatoire (now The Latvian Academy of Music) and the Film Actors' Studio and obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree. From 1999 to 2000, he completed the Advanced Human Resources Management at Stockholm School of Economics in Riga and, from 1999 to 2001, the Arts Management Development in Latvia, a management training initiative for Latvian theatre managers devised by the MATRA Scheme of the Netherlands Government in a series of seven seminars.

In 2002, Andrejs Zagars realized that the creative side of his personality needed to express itself. Working as a manager alone could not satisfy his soul anymore. Therefore, he started to work as a stage director in the LNO. Initially this came about by chance, since in 2002 at the Dalhalla Opera festival in Sweden, nobody wanted to take the risk to produce The Flying Dutchman within ten days. Zagars took the chance and succeeded with a minimalist platform. The concept had changed for the staging I had seen in Riga in 2005.

Regarding Andrejs Zagars' staging, one can point out to the fact that, when this is possible, he likes to transpose the opera to the present day, e.g. in The Queen of Spades, but also successfully in Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Under the guidance of General Director of the Latvian National Opera, the LNO has increased its average attendances from 65% to 85%. The LNO offers six new productions annually and has become a project of prestige in Latvia, with the backing of the Latvian government and, last but not least, President Vike-Freiberga. Under the guidance of Andrejs Zagars, state subsidies have more than doubled and the level of sponsorship revenue has increased over 80%. The Riga Opera Festival has been established in 1998 and, in addition, guest performances of contemporary dance and opera introduce Latvian audiences to unfamiliar territory.

Andrejs Zagars has managed to establish the leading opera house in the Baltic states. He has brought the LNO international recognition, taken productions abroad, revitalized the opera, music, ballet and dance scene in Latvia.

Check also the related articles about the LNO's principal conductor Andris Nelsons and the history of the The Latvian National Opera LNO

Andrejs Zagars, General Director of the LNO. Photo © Latvian National Opera, Riga.

The splendidly restored interior of the LNO. Photo © Latvian National Opera, Riga.

A scene from Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, successfully staged by Andrejs Zagars. It was The production of the season 2005/2006. Photo © Latvian National Opera, Riga. Sheet music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.