Hope appears for Rīga's derelict Wagner Hall

Wagner, Berlioz, Liszt, and Clara Schumann are figures the Rīga City Theater, also known as Wagner Hall, saw in its heyday. Closed for ten years now, it needs renovation. Funds have been repeatedly sought with little success, and the Culture Ministry now hopes the historic hall could be resurrected with help from local entrepreneurs, reported Latvian Radio's Māra Rozenberga Friday.

Working right in the heart of Old Rīga, Latvian Radio's correspondent sometimes sees confused-looking German tourists looking into the grand, dusty windows and hoping to catch a glimpse of the former workplace of the great composer Richard Wagner.

At first it seemed to her that the story will only be about why the Wagner Hall hasn't been reborn, however upon closer inspection it appears the ice has started moving--not due to any state or municipal initiative though.

The public company "State Real Estate" (VNĪ) has been taking care of the Wagner Hall for ten years--however it only keeps it from crumbling and manages the heating, alarm system, and emergency repairs, occasionally opening it for a rare event.

Together with Jolanta Grāmatniece, a representative of the managing company, Latvian Radio went to see how the place looks like today.

"The hall has an aura of history, doesn't it?" Grāmatniece muses. "It doesn't feel like the building has been abandoned. Just a little push, it seems, and everything would start going again," she says.

The air is a bit stale. A ticket booth is on the left from the entrance, with an old tape player, a box of chocolates, and a wooden plate for storing coins is behind the booth window. A halfway turned chair leads one to think the ticket seller was only planning to leave for a little while.

The draped curtains have shed their white to a more homely gray. Water has disfigured the ceiling, and cracks on the walls give away the sad state of the building. A bust of Wagner looks upon the visitors at the end of the stairs.

"When the hall was handed to us, to VNĪ, there was a deal with the Culture Ministry that the hall and its historic value should be further used in culture events. But now the building is empty, nothing's happening there. We are looking for a course of action with the Culture Ministry, but up until now no solution has come up.

To put it simply, the building has been conserved so that its condition doesn't deteriorate," Jolanta Grāmatniece said.

The seemingly inconspicuous hall is actually a 48 thousand square-feet building in three stories stretching from the eponymous Vāgnera street to Vaļņu street. It was built in 1782 based on the project of Christoph Haberland. It was owned by baron, theater and arts patron Otto Hermann von Vietinghoff, becoming the first permanent theater building in Rīga. Directors came and went quickly and worked like the producers of today.

"It's actually miraculous - despite that the theater had been on the verge of bankruptcy many times, Rīgans always found additional funds to cover the debts. The theater has always been operational, and very necessary in Rīga," says composer Ilona Breģe, who started researching the history of the Wagner Hall in the late 80s, working as a pianist in the hall.

Her interest grew to a doctor's thesis and later a book about the drama world in Rīga, in which the City Theater occupies a central role. Late 18th-century booklets and posters testify that the theater closely followed musical trends, showing the newest operas only a few years after premieres in European metropoleis.

"For example, Mozart's 'The Abduction from the Seraglio' [was premiered] in Vienna in 1782 and already in 1785 in Rīga. So the theater was very, very progressive," Breģe said.

The "Musse" society was active in the hall as well--so active that it was nicknamed the Musse house. The third floor where many have heard chamber music performed the last few years, is actually the former Musse ball room.

"You can feel safe in the building, and this beautiful hall has been rented for various events as well," said Jolanta Grāmatniece.

Few are conscious, however, that the third floor ball room reflects the former glory of the theater only partially. Formerly from the basement up to the second floor there was a real opera and theater hall with an orchestra pit and seats arranged in the style of an amphitheater. It was scrapped in the late 19th century when the theater moved to its new premises, the Latvian National Opera.

In its heyday the City Theater saw performances by virtuoso performers like Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, Clara Schumann, and others. The eponymous Richard Wagner performed here from 1837 to 1839. He arrived at the age of 24 and within two years staged five operas, lead 20 stagings, directed orchestra performances and started writing "Rienzi", his first big hit.

Musicologist Arnolds Klotiņš reveals another less-known detail about how the stay in Rīga influenced Wagner's further career: "Wagner took three elements from the hall of this theater for his private Bayreuth Festival Theater when he projected and built it. It was the layout of the hall in the form of an amphitheater, the placement of the orchestra in the roof-covered pit, and the darkening during the play. All of those things were new back then, but they were there in Rīga before. I have an interview at home where he himself said it."

It's said the hall in Rīga theater was darkened during plays to save money. Back then it was customary to light the hall up so that viewers could look not only at the play but also one another's clothes. Wagner thought it turns people away from the music so he retained the tradition in Bayreuth.

Even though Wagner's stay was a short and, according to some, an overglorified episode in the rich history of the Rīga City Theater, the hall is famous because of Wagner and the new initiatives for the rebirth of the theater are related to the great German composer.

Two years ago the Richard Wagner Opera Theater Renovation Fund was established, featuring art historian Ojārs Spārītis, composer Ilona Breģe, head of the Rīga Latvians' Association Guntis Gailītis, and architect Zaiga Gaile. The idea about the fund belongs to musicologist Arnolds Klotiņš, who has been fighting to restore the Wagner hall for the last five years.

"It would be a wonderful culture tourism object! Even now German tourists that come here in summer are going around the hall, perplexed as to why they aren't allowed to step inside. Everything related to Wagner attracts a lot of attention," said Arnolds Klotiņš. 

A representative of the Culture Ministry said the lack of state support for restoring the Wagner Hall could be explained by the state having more urgent priorities--like finishing the National Library--and the tantalizing idea that the restoration could be paid for by another country.

As Wagner's 200th birthday was approaching five years ago, there was hope that the hall could be renovated with support from Germany, however all the requests sent to them ended in a cul de sac, said Arnolds Klotiņš.

During the making of the story, Latvian Radio discovered that a former Prime Minister and current entrepreneur has joined the cause of restoring the hall. The meeting with Māris Gailis took place at the Žanis Lipke memorial in Ķīpsala, which was Gailis' last big project.

"The idea of developing the Wagner Hall was brought up by my wife, who in turn was approached by Arnolds Klotiņš. Zaiga [his wife] said that if practical people don't take part, nothing will come out of it. And as she thinks me a practical person, she had to talk me into it. I had finished the [Lipke Museum] and thought, perhaps I really should start something new. And so I lit up gradually and looked for associates - former colleagues from politics - as this is quite a difficult case to be honest," said Māris Gailis. 

Gailis proposes to renovate the Wagner Hall as a public-private partnership project where the hall would remain a state property while the private partner would attract funding for restoration and cater culture content, which would be sponsored by the state.

"[The funding could come from] different places - European, funds from other states, private donors, and of course loans. It's all talk at the moment. We have to get to something tangible. I myself invested the first money that was necessary," he said. 

He estimates that restoring the former glory of the building would need some €13m, with the deteriorated foundation to eat up a lot of the sum.

Finance Ministry support is required for the public-private partnership to go ahead. The ministry declines comment at the moment, however they do plan meeting with VNĪ to discuss the fate of the Wagner Hall.

In order to keep the restoration idea alive and to attract international support, Gailis and his companions in thought have established the Rīga Richard Wagner association, a part of the international network of Wagner associations. 

"We have arranged the functions: Māris Gailis is working on the funding, Zaiga Gaile is working on the idea of the reconstruction, while Mikus Čeže and other connoisseurs of Wagner's music are in touch with the International Wagner Association.

And I, with my 17 years of experience in heading the [Latvian National] Opera, would like to come up with an artistic concept for the hall, as well as its future program," former head of the opera said. Under him, the Latvian National Opera celebrated Wagner's 200-year anniversary. He has approached the composer's grand-granddaughter Eva Wagner over the renovation project.

As Mārīte Putniņa, Rīga director of the State Inspection for Heritage Protection, said that the Haberland-projected hall is a monument of statewide importance.

"The VNĪ provides the minimal maintenance that the building needs in these conditions, and there are no complaints about that. Another thing entirely is that it needs to be put to use. Then you can take on the technical problems the building has with the basement, the restoration matter, and so on," says Putniņa.

She adds that Rīga is a surprisingly rich city, and we cannot really know what we're passing by each day.

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